Dave Hadfield: The night a genius destroyed a local hero

In an era of short back and sides, Bolton reserves were not ready for a long-haired upstart who delighted in taking the mick. Dave Hadfield was there - and it changed his life
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The Independent Football

I must have been 12 when I first saw George Best, playing one of his very few reserve games for Manchester United, at Burnden Park. Word had wafted up from the big city about this young player at Old Trafford who was unlike anything we had seen before. My schoolmate and his mum were sufficiently obsessive Bolton Wanderers supporters that they went to midweek reserve matches, so I tagged along to see what the fuss was about.

It was like a collision - or, in most cases, an attempted collision - of two cultures.

Bolton's right-back that night was one of the more intimidating characters in the game at the time - Roy "Chopper" Hartle, who was also making one of his rare appearances in the reserves, presumably on his way back from injury or suspension.

Hartle was a master of knocking the pretensions out of fancy-dan wingmen. He was renowned as a crunching tackler - he carried that "Chopper" nickname long before Ron Harris - and he was deceptively quick, especially when it came to clearing off out of the way after decking an opponent. He must have looked at the spindly, still relatively unknown 17-year-old and licked his lips in anticipation of the lesson in the realities of the game that he was going to give him.

Time might have played a few tricks with my precise recollections, but what I remember is something akin to a Tom and Jerry cartoon as Best took delight in beating his man time and time again.

He would skip past one scything lunge and come back and do it again. He would nutmeg him, bring the ball back and repeat the process, gliding away from anyone trying to come to Hartle's aid.

It would be nice to be able to report that the few hundred who were there that night recognised genius when they saw it, but that was not quite the way it worked.

This is where the clash of cultures comes in. Hartle and Bolton Wanderers were from the world of short back and sides and hard toecaps. In that world, there was something offensive about the very way Best looked.

Incredibly, for a player of his bravery, not to mention his scoring record in the bedroom, a lot of older fans were, and remained, convinced of his effeminacy, in the same way that they would assume that Mick Jagger must be gay.

And that was before he started to do anything with the ball. In the eyes of Bolton fans that night, Best was committing a moral outrage in the way he was taking the mick mercilessly out of a local hero.

Burnden Park was a ground where full-backs were considered to have a right, even a duty, to deposit visiting wingers on to the red shale track around the pitch. It was the ground where, legend has it, even if it is not quite statistically true, that Stanley Matthews would avoid every year playing against Tommy Banks. And now here was this young, long-haired upstart taking the piss out of a proper footballer. There might have been one or two sitting, like me, in wonderment, but the general mood was caught better by my mate's mum who was coming out with the sort of language you didn't hear in those days from middle-aged women from Farnworth.

For me, the damage was done. From that day, until he started his long decline, I would be at home games at Old Trafford, not so much to watch United as to watch George Best.

There were certain points in the paddock where you could almost guarantee being at exactly the correct angle to watch him weave past a series of tackles and score an unforgettable goal. Those were the places to be.

One of our neighbours on that terrace was a Scouse lorry-driver who had forsaken his lifelong affiliation to Liverpool - not exactly a bad team at the time - to drive over to Manchester every other Saturday, leave his wagon on Trafford Park as though he was delivering something and watch George. Show me a player who could achieve that now.

On trips to Old Trafford, older and more worldly travelling companions would sometimes point out a particular pub as being "where George Best drinks". Others would argue, insisting it was that one, across Chapel Street, or that one, further up the road. What I did not appreciate at the time was that they were all right.

So I shall be raising a glass - it seems the only appropriate thing to do, really - to his memory this weekend. Most of all, I'd like to thank him for making me a rugby league devotee.

The two games were fighting it out for my soul at the time, but I knew that, after George, I would never see anything on a football field that would compare.

Maradona to Rooney, they have all looked lumpen and clumsy to me alongside that scraggy youth taking his life in his hands on a wet Wednesday night at Burnden Park.