George Best

Full Name: George Best
Date of Birth: 22/5/1946

Although his off-field antics somewhat dominated tabloid headlines, George Best was primarily a footballing icon and one of the finest players in the history of the game. The genius of George Best was unquestionable; he was a prolific goal scorer and was almost untouchable for defenders due to his lightening pace and two-footedness. With Manchester United, he celebrated a truly golden period between 1963-74 and led them to the European Cup title.

Best also gained a massive celebrity profile, largely owing to his unhindered party lifestyle during the late 1960s and early 70s. He was in fact dubbed “the fifth Beatle” by the British press because of his long hair, good looks and rock n’ roll lifestyle. In 1965, he appeared on Top of the Pops, such was the level of his pop culture status.

Professional Career

Best began his professional career at the age of 15 when he was signed to Manchester United by then manager Matt Busby. Busby was sent a telegram by scout Bob Bishop who had seen Best play for a local boys team in his native Northern Ireland. The telegram simply read: “I think I’ve found you a genius”.

He made his debut appearance for Manchester United against West Bromwich Albion on September 14th 1963 at the tender age of 17. He subsequently scored his first goal two weeks later against Burnley and went on to rack up 6 goals for the club by the end of his first season. The following season Best and United claimed the title.

Best really began to get media recognition for his footballing genius when scoring twice in the 1966 European Cup quarter final tie against Benfica. “El Beatle” resounded all across the tabloid press the following day. The following season 1967-68, Manchester United returned to the competition and met Benfica again, this time in the final. United walked away with the European cup, winning 4-1, and Best walked away with European Player of the Year. In the same year, he was awarded the Football Writer’s Association Player of the Year.

Manchester United hit the peak of their success in the seasons between 1965-68, but things began to decline soon after, both for the club and for George Best – he would finally depart in 1974 at just 27 years old. During his time with United, Best nevertheless managed an incredible 178 goals in 466 appearances in all competitions between 1963-74. He was the club’s top scorer for six consecutive seasons, and was the First Division’s top scorer in the 1967-68 season. He famously scored 6 goals in one game against fourth division Northampton town.

For his country, Northern Ireland, he earnt 37 caps and scored 9 goals between 1964-78. Best scored one of the most infamous “goals” in football for Northern Ireland against England when Gordon Banks tried to kick the ball downfield, Best liberated the ball from his hands and kicked it over his head. The pair scrambled for the ball but Best beat Banks with his pace, nodding the ball into the net. The goal was disallowed on grounds of ungentlemanly conduct by a referee who had his back to the ball, much to the dismay of Northern Ireland players and fans.

Following the golden years of his football career with Manchester United, Best spent a brief time on loan to Stockport County in 1975, before moving to Cork Celtic for the 1975-6 season. He then had a brief resurgence for Fulham in 1976-77, before spells at the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Francisco Earthquakes in the US League, and Brisbane Lions in Australia. The period of his career after 1974, however, was largely marked by a rapid decline in his presence on the field and overshadowed by his extravagant off the pitch activities.

Post-retirement

After Best’s official retirement from the game in 1984, a career in which he made 621 professional appearances and scored 220 goals, he largely remained in the public eye for the wrong reasons. In 1998, however, he became a Sky Sports TV football pundit and in 2004 expressed a desire to return to direct involvement in football by agreeing to join Portsmouth FC as a youth coach.

Fame off the pitch

George Best was famous for his talent on the football field, but he quickly became a real media favourite, with reporters closely following his rather lavish life in the party scene. Best’s celebrity status swelled in the booming sixties Manchester scene. In fact, such was his love for drink and the party, that by the late 1960s he already owned two Manchester nightclubs, alongside numerous fashion boutique outlets. George Best was perhaps the first “playboy footballer”. He would go out drinking with women to all hours and then be weaving around defenders on the football field the following day. Best led a lifestyle that was perhaps initially controllable, but later cut short his football career and eventually led to his death.

Towards the end of his career, from the early 1980s onwards, it was increasingly obvious the extent to which alcoholism was affecting his career and general life. In 1984 he hit an all time low, serving a 3 month jail sentence for drink driving, assaulting a police officer and failing to answer bail, spending Christmas of that year behind bars.

In September 1990, Best appeared on Terry Wogan’s chat show, in which was clearly drunk, confessing to Wogan that he “liked screwing”. Later he made a public apology, attributing his behaviour to one of the worst phases of his alcoholism. Media focus on Best maintained intensity between 2002-05, beginning with his liver transplant at King’s College Hospital in 2002, followed by tabloid pictures published of him drinking alcohol again in 2003.

George Best died on 25th November 2005. He had spent almost 2 months battling against a kidney infection provoked by immuno-suppressive drugs used to prevent the rejection of his liver transplant and in the end succumbed to a liver infection and multiple organ failure.

A minute silence was to be held for all Premier League games over the weekend of his death, but many clubs turned this on its head by holding a minute clapping to celebrate the life of the great footballer. Tributes were made at Old Trafford by Sir Bobby Charlton, his son Calum and former team mates at the first game after his death, coincidentally against West Bromwich Albion, as of his debut 42 years previously.

100,000 people attended his funeral in Stormont, Belfast in spite of the rainy weather. The service was relayed live on BBC One, UTV, RTÉ, ITV News, BBC News 24, Sky News, Sky Sports News, EuroNews and MUTV. As a tribute, Belfast airport was renamed George Best Belfast City Airport on 22nd May 2006, the day that would have been his 60th birthday. Such tributes testified to his monumental and lasting influence on the sport and its fans worldwide.

Individual Honours

  • European Footballer of the Year: 1968
  • Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year: 1968
  • Professional Footballers’ Association ALL STAR Award Winner: 1977
  • Professional Footballers’ Association Special Merit Award for Services to Football: 2006

Player Statistics

Senior Club and National Team Statistics
Period Team Appearances (Goals)
1963–1974 Manchester United 361 (138)
1974 → Dunstable Town (on loan) 3 (0)
1975 Stockport County 3 (2)
1975–1976 Cork Celtic 61 (29)
1976 Los Angeles Aztecs 23 (15)
1976–1977 Fulham 33 (7)
1977–1978 Los Angeles Aztecs 32 (12)
1978–1979 Fort Lauderdale Strikers 26 (6)
1979–1980 Hibernian 22 (3)
1980–1981 San Jose Earthquakes 56 (28)
1983 Bournemouth 4 (0)
1983 Brisbane Lions 1 (0)
1984 Tobermore United 1 (0)
1964–1977 Northern Ireland 37 (9)