Those in attendance at Old Trafford on 14 September 1963 will always be able to say they were there for George Best’s United debut.
Two men with an even better story, however, are the players who marked him on that day: West Bromwich Albion full-backs Graham Williams and Campbell Crawford. They spoke to the club’s official magazine, Inside United (on sale Wednesday 11 September), about that momentous occasion…
The Baggies’ left-back was charged with marking Best on the day, which he duly did – in more ways than one!
“We’d heard a bit about George already – he’d played against us in the Reserves and, if a 17-year-old makes a debut, there’s always a bit of extra interest – but I wasn’t worried about playing against him as he was just a kid!
“When the game started, he only stayed on my side for about 15 minutes. He didn’t get a kick… except from me! After that, he just played where he wanted, got involved with the game – and that was where you got a glimpse of how good he might be.
“Over the years it became a standing joke when we met that I’d say, ‘George, nice to see you from the front for a change!’ He’d reply with, ‘Graham, I’ve still got your autograph down the back of my leg!’
“George was a thoroughbred – he would skim the surface, run on the top of the ground, while the rest of us were ploughing through mud in midwinter.
“He had incredible balance, so you just could not knock him off the ball. And, with the ball at his feet, he could make it do anything that he wanted.
“George just wanted to play, he was in love with the game. We ended up on holiday in the same resort in Minorca one year. I was with my family, he was with some friends, and he liked nothing more than getting on the beach, getting a ball out and playing. He would play all day if you let him. He babysat my kids – he played with them on the beach, so my mother-in-law loved him! She treated him like a son.
“He always played with a smile. In matches, he’d go past you and, when the move was over, he’d be walking back and he’d smile at you as he went past – and that hurt more than him beating you! He was a lovely guy off the pitch, very shy. A lovely, gentle fella.
“People talk about great players from different eras and whether they would be as good today. George would be better in the modern game. He wouldn’t be getting clattered from behind, he would get more protection from referees and he’d be playing on truer surfaces, not the awful grounds we used to play on.”
Another teenage debutant on the day, the young West Brom defender went head-to-head with Best when he switched wings.
“We had an injury, which meant Don Howe, the England full-back, went to wing-half and I came in at right-back for my debut at 19.
“It was a big game to play in, the crowd at Old Trafford was very intimidating, 50,000 people there. I think they held the kick-off up to get everybody in.
“I’d seen George play a week or two before because he played in the Reserves against us, but we didn’t have any sense that he was going to be the big danger. I don’t remember Jimmy Hagan, the manager, talking about George before the game because he was just a young lad making his debut.
“My job was marking Bobby Charlton, so that was enough for me to worry about before the game! I was a couple of years older than George and I knew how nervous I was before the match, so I assumed he’d be the same.
“After about 20 minutes, George came over to my side after Graham [Williams] had chipped him into the crowd! He didn’t just stay on the left wing after that, he wandered about a bit. We had a good contest and I thought I did okay – he didn’t make headlines, so I must have kept him reasonably quiet. However, he was such a tricky player, sharp, good acceleration. He loved to take you on, beat you with his close control, the ball was glued to him. He would do the unusual, things nobody expected, he had a great imagination.
“It was a more physical game then and I think his greatest asset was bravery, he had real courage. He took such a battering from defenders, but he would never give up – he kept coming back at you. If you got the ball off him, he’d be straight back at you, trying to get it back, and then he’d be taking you on again.”