George Best – His first season
The scene: London in May 1963 and Manchester United are celebrating victory over Leicester City in the FA Cup final with a post-match banquet.
George Best’s father, Dickie, takes Matt Busby into a quiet corner of the hotel ballroom for a word. Although the ink dried on his son’s first professional contract only a few days earlier, Best senior is still concerned he might never become a footballer. He tells the United manager: “If George isn’t going to make it, I’d be grateful if you’d let me know within six months because I have a position held open for him back home in the printing trade.”
Busby reassures Dickie that George has a big future in the game and four months later, on 14 September 1963, he’s as good as his word: Best makes his United debut against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. It was the moment the manager had been preparing a shy, skinny kid for since the summer of 1961.
“Don’t tinker with the boy’s style,” was Busby’s strict instruction to his youth coaches. “Let him develop his own way, naturally. He’s something special.”
On that September morning, Best had no inkling he was about to make his debut in place of the injured Ian Moir. Still only 17, his goal at the start of the season had been to earn a regular reserve spot. But after a pre-match meal with the rest of the squad, he was approached by Busby on the coach to Old Trafford and told, ‘You’re playing today, son’.
“The boss let me eat lunch without knowing I was going to play, which was clever,” recalled Best. “If he’d told me beforehand I wouldn’t have been able to eat anything.”
Sir Matt later commented, “The atmosphere in the dressing room was a bit edgy but the boy Best sat in a corner reading the match programme! He was completely unconcerned! The match began and almost immediately the little whipper-snapper had taken it by the scruff of the neck and was cheekily beating his man as if he’d been in the First Division for years. From the moment he started to play in the first team, George Best had pulses racing.”
‘His man’ on the day, the opposing defender he had to overcome, was West Brom’s Graham Williams. The uncompromising full-back introduced the new boy to the big time with a couple of hefty challenges and the Welshman later admitted: “I wanted to intimidate George and give him a tough time. I like to think I kept him quiet. But I could tell he was going to be one of the greats. That summer I bumped into him on holiday in Majorca. He said: ‘I’ve still got the marks from those tackles,’ and I told him it was nice to see his face, because after that first game all I ever saw was the back of his head disappearing up the field!”
In the second half, Best was moved to the opposite wing to escape Williams and finally got the chance to show his talent, even if it meant refusing to pass to any of his team-mates. “The way I played wasn’t appreciated by the likes of Bobby Charlton,” admitted Best.
“I was the new kid who was supposed to show a bit of deference and give him the ball, but every time I got it I wanted to beat a couple of players. The team would be screaming for the ball, but I was a greedy little urchin.”
United eventually won 1-0 with a goal from David Sadler, but Best was disappointed with his debut: “I felt a little bit deflated because I knew I could have done better.”
Busby had been impressed with his prodigy, but not enough to keep him in the first team, and Best was sent back to the reserve and youth teams. The move left him “a little bit worried… but I was sure I was good enough, so I continued to work hard.”
In the next three months, United suffered an appalling run of form and lost eight league games, including consecutive Christmas hidings – 4-0 to Everton and 6-1 at Burnley. Best had not been expected to play any part over the festive period so Busby had allowed him to return home to Belfast. But after the Reds’ Turf Moor humiliation, that decision was hastily reversed by telegram.
Best’s second start arrived on 28 December 1963 as Burnley came to Old Trafford and he scored his first goal as United avenged the defeat of two days earlier with a 5-1 win.
“Burnley’s left-back Alex Elder was a good player, but George destroyed him that day,” said Paddy Crerand. “I actually felt sorry for Alex. It was total annihilation. George was magnificent – from then on, United couldn’t leave him out.”
In April 1964, Best was recalled to the youth team and inspired them to beat Swindon Town in the FA Youth Cup final, drawing 1-1 at the County Ground, before winning 4-1 in front of over 25,000 fans at Old Trafford.
By the end of his debut season, 1963/64, George had established himself as a first-team regular, he had made his international debut for Northern Ireland and he had won the FA Youth Cup: more than enough to convince his dad to finally forget that printing job.