John Roberts: 'George Best was reliable only when there was a football at his feet'

John Roberts, who was George Best's ghost-writer at the height of his career, chronicles the remarkable footballing story of the 'skinny kid from Belfast'
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The Independent Football

On a July evening in 1961 a skinny, football-daft 15-year-old from the Cregagh estate in Belfast packed his first pair of long trousers and boarded the Ulster Prince en route to Manchester United.

Portentiously, George Best's journey to greatness did not run smoothly. Shortly after arriving at Old Trafford, he became homesick and fled back to Northern Ireland with Eric McMordie, another callow recruit with cold feet.

Matt Busby wrote to Dick Best, George's father, a shipyard worker, to say that if the boy changed his mind he would love to have him back. Best returned, along with McMordie, who later made his name at Middlesbrough.

Busby's reputation as a footballer manager was built in three stages. First came the post-Second World War team of skilled, experienced craftsmen, augmented by the veteran winger Jimmy Delaney. Then came the "Busby Babes", a triumph in scouting for talented young players encapsulated by the signing of the incomparable Duncan Edwards, from Dudley.

Edwards, one of eight United players who died as a result of the Munich Air disaster in 1958, was such an impressive specimen of strength and ability that Busby and Jimmy Murphy, his assistant, quickly gave up searching for flaws in his game.

While Busby and Murphy were in the process of moulding a third great team, one that in 1968 would become the first from England to win the European Cup, Best's trickery with a ball was catching the eye in Belfast.

Edwards was built to dictate the course of matches from midfield. Best was a sprite blessed with attacking genius.

Before there was even a hint that their son would graduate as a professional footballer, Dick and Ann Best arranged for him to be transferred from a grammar school - where he was unhappy because rugby, and not football, was played - to a secondary school that had a football team.

But not everybody was impressed with the young Best. He used to kick a ball near the home of an official of Glentoran, the Irish League club for whom Danny Blanchflower once played. The official paid Best no attention, because he was "too wee".

Hugh "Bud" McFarlane, who ran the Cregagh Boys Club team, remembered Best being so keen that he sometimes played in two matches on the same Saturday morning. Bob Bishop, a riveter in the Belfast shipyards and a part-time football scout, recommended Best to United, though with certain misgivings.

"He was 5ft 3in and 7st 7lb when he was well soaked," Bishop recalled. "In fact, he was no Goliath. I said to myself, 'I'll get the sack if I send this fellow over'. But, anyway, when I had seen him on the field he was bursting with ability."

After his false start at United, Best returned to Manchester and lodged with Mrs Mary Fullaway in Chorlton, a short drive from Old Trafford. He gradually worked his way into a team that already boasted the magnificent Bobby Charlton, a Munich survivor, and the dynamic Denis Law, who had been bought from Torino.

Busby marvelled at Best's pace, balance and bravery, qualities he displayed in his League debut at 17 against West Bromwich Albion on 14 September 1963 and that would soon entrance Europe.

Less than a year after winning his first major medal as a member of United's 1965 League Championship-winning team, Best was hailed as "El Beatle" by the Portuguese press after an outstanding performance for United in a 5-1 European Cup win against Benfica in Lisbon.

When United won the League title again in 1967, the team had probably reached its peak in terms of performance, if not achievement. That came in 1968, when Busby's quest for the European Cup, which had become a symbol with which to honour the memory of the players who died at Munich, was satisfied.

In the semi-finals, United went to play Real Madrid in the Bernabeu holding a 1-0 lead from the first leg. By half-time Real were 3-1 ahead. David Sadler scored to level the aggregate and Paddy Crerand sent Best away with a throw-in.

The United defender Bill Foulkes, a Munich survivor, recounted: "I just kept jogging upfield. George took his man on, beat him and was moving towards the line, shaping to cross the ball. I could see that their defence had the near post well covered so that a conventional cross would have been cut out. Fortunately, George saw it, too, and cut the ball back to where I was. I sort of passed the ball in the direction of the target, striking it firmly with the inside of my right boot. It went into the net beautifully - the best sidefoot pass I ever made!"

In the final against Benfica at Wembley, United were unable to hold on to a goal headed by Charlton. Approaching the end of 90 minutes, with the score 1-1, Eusebio broke clear, only to be denied by United's goalkeeper, Alex Stepney. Best scored a solo goal in extra-time, and Charlton and Brian Kidd completed a 4-1 win.

After Busby retired in 1969 as Sir Matt, United began to drift. Wilf McGuiness's promotion from the coaching staff as Busby's successor was brief, and Frank O'Farrell inherited a team that was breaking up.

I undertook the role of Best's ghost-writer for the Daily Express in the early 1970s, during his alarming transition from being the best thing since sliced bread to becoming sliced bread dunked in vodka. Later, I ghosted a newspaper column for Kevin Keegan, a player who maximised his commercial potential as surely as Best had wasted his. George was reliable only when there was a ball at his feet.

Both were admirable, Best for his sublime skills, Keegan for working unstintingly to take his talent to a level beyond even Bill Shankly's expectations. Once, in a light-hearted attempt to express the gulf between them in terms of natural ability, I wrote that Keegan was not fit to lace Best's drinks. Few players were.

When George was named European Footballer of the Year in 1968, I helped to organise a civic reception for him in Belfast.

Northern Ireland were unable to rely on him for international matches as often as they wished because of injuries. One of the jokes circulating at the time suggested that Busby would trip up Best in the United dressing-room.

Jack Milligan, the Daily Mirror's Northern Ireland sports writer, once said: "When George travels with us we are somebody."

An abiding memory is of Best's mesmerising display against Scotland at Windsor Park in 1967. Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland's manager, instructed Best to keep Tommy Gemmill, the Celtic full-back with a knack for scoring goals, deep in defence. He undermined Gemmill's confidence within minutes and spent the rest of the match orchestrating play, one moment co-ordinating the defence, the next bolstering the midfield before springing on to the attack. Best appeared in every position except goal.

Dave Clements scored the only goal of the match, securing an Irish victory, but it was close to being a one-man show. In the dressing-room afterwards, Best was the only calm person in a scene of ecstatic celebration. It was clear that he was fulfilled by what he had achieved during the match.

Working as Best's ghost-writer was fascinating. No player before had captured the public's imagination off the pitch as well as on it. Working with George could also be a curse. He sent me the wrong way more often than he dummied defenders.

In February 1972, over a steak at The Grapes, one of his watering holes in Manchester, he revealed to me that he wanted to leave United.

"I'm sick of it," he confided. "Right now I'd go anywhere I thought there could be success. I've got nothing against the management. It's the team. It's just not good enough. It's just not going anywhere. I could go right through the team and find things wrong. People knock me when I'm not doing it, but when I'm not doing it, who is? Brought along the right way, Sammy McIlroy could be a great player in five years. But I can't wait five years for Sammy to become a great player."

What a story! But there was a sting in the tale. "I'm not going through all the aggravation it will cause for nothing," he said. "Ask [the Daily Express] to make me an offer." The Express declined to pay extra for the story, and I was told to remind George that he was under contract to the newspaper.

The subject lay dormant, although Best approached United about a new deal. "I've asked for £1,000 a week," he said, "and I also want the club to buy my house off me. I haven't been able to settle there at all."

Built to Best's specifications (a white-tiled exterior was not to everybody's taste) the house in Bramhall, 12 miles south of Manchester, was named "Que Sera" after a Doris Day song popular when Best spent a childhood holiday with his maternal grandfather, George Withers. "Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be."

Best's friends - "The Chaps" - used to gather at "Que Sera" on Sundays and relax, discussing subjects ranging from politics and religion to how they rated the guests on the Michael Parkinson show.

"The Chaps" comprised various characters, including Malcolm Wagner, who had a hairdressing shop adjacent to Best's boutique, Edwardia. He used to cut Parkinson's hair in the days when the presenter worked at Granada Television. Malcolm Mooney managed Best's boutique and later opened a restaurant. He was killed in a car crash. Eddie Hindle had been a friend of Best's since meeting him at the Brown Bull in Salford in the 1960s.

Best's gardener and handyman was Fred Cook, a former United groundsman. Fred's duties extended to having to tell one of Best's girlfriends, as gently as possible, that she had been "kicked into touch". Fred, who once played against Billy Meredith, one of George's precursors in wing wizardry, had a nursery garden in Cheadle Hulme, complete with a lawn made up of tufts of grass Bobby Charlton had brought him from football grounds around the world.

Best's Huddersfield-based agent, Ken Stanley, used to be a table tennis player. One of his early clients was Denis Law, and he also acted on behalf of the England World Cup squad. Ken saw English football as a triangle. "The base," he would say, "is local parks football and schoolboys football. One sides of the triangle is League football. The other side is the England World Cup squad. And George is the apex."

Best kicked the top off Ken's triangle by absconding to Marbella two days before his 26th birthday, in May 1972, and announcing that he was retiring from football. He confessed to drinking a bottle of spirits per day. Twelve days later Best changed his mind and returned to Old Trafford. He was driven by Malcolm Wagner to meet United's manager, Frank O'Farrell. When Best emerged from the meeting, Wagner asked him how it had gone. "He talked about wolves," Best told him. "Wolves?" Wagner responded incredulously. "Yes," Best said, "about the boy who cried wolf."

Best sold his house and returned to the home of his former landlady, Mary Fullaway. It was not long, however, before his career with United was over. Whenever I hear the words "wasted talent" in reference to Best, I remember the number of times his sinuous, sensuous movements lifted the spirits.

In almost 10 years, he played 361 matches for United and scored 136 goals before meandering off to play for Dunstable, Stockport, Cork Celtic, Fulham, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale, Hibernian, San Jose, Bournemouth and Brisbane.

I once asked him if he had any regrets. "No," he said, "because I've always made up my own mind. If you make up your own mind, you can only blame yourself."

Que sera, sera.

The best of Best: James Lawton selects five games which showed the genius of George

* MANCHESTER UTD 4 BENFICA 1 (May 1968, Wembley) Best provided the climactic moment in Matt Busby's epic effort to win the European Cup, scoring the breakthrough goal in extra-time (above) after Benfica had equalised and Alex Stepney had produced a late reflex save from Eusebio. Best scored with trademarked panache, cutting through the Benfica defence, rounding the goalkeeper and sending the ball into the net with a matador's flourish. He was promptly voted European Footballer of the Year, at 22 the youngest ever.

* MANCHESTER UTD 1 WEST BROMWICH ALBION 0 (Sept 1963, Old Trafford)

Best's debut against West Bromwich at the age of 17 was unforgettable for a moment of budding genius. He didn't score the goal in United's workaday 1-0 win but he showed in one blinding moment the scale of his extraordinary talent. He won the ball in his own penalty area, took it around his immediate marker and then looked up. In the distance, lurking at halfway in typical fashion, was Denis Law. Best picked out Law and flighted a perfect pass to his feet. For a moment there was stunned silence. Then, thunderous applause.

* CHELSEA 0 MANCHESTER UTD 2 (Sept 1964, Stamford Bridge)

Chelsea had opened the season with 10 unbeaten games and the London press glowed with the belief that they would carry off the title. But Best broke that spell and created one of his own. Before being cut down by serious injury, Chelsea's right back Ken Shellito was considered a frontrunner to claim a place in the England World Cup team being shaped by Sir Alf Ramsey, but he was humiliated by the 18-year-old Best, who also made a fool of the formidable Ron 'Chopper' Harris when he lunged at the weaving Irishman. Best was unplayable. He scored one and made one in the 2-0 victory. It was a downpayment on legend.

* BENFICA 1 MANCHESTER UTD 5

(March 1966, Lisbon) United manager Matt Busby urged caution on his team when they faced the great Benfica team in their own Estadio da Luz stadium in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. Busby pointed out that apart from superb players like Eusebio, Simoes and Coluna, Benfica were twice winners of the European Cup and had never been beaten at home in the competition. "Be very careful for the first 20 minutes, feel your way into the game," said Busby. In 20 minutes Benfica were a smoking ruin, Best had scored twice and made a series of breathtaking runs. United veteran Bill Foulkes turned to a team-mate and said: "It was a good job the kid was listening to the old man." United won 5-1 and the Portuguese press christened Best the fifth Beatle. He returned to England a household name, his life utterly changed.

* MANCHESTER UTD 2 SHEFFIELD UTD 0 (Oct 1972, Old Trafford)

At 26, and slowed by an accelerating drink problem, Best was unfurling the last of his greatness. There would be spurts and echoes, but now the genius was winding down. Against Sheffield United he scored a goal of - in the circumstances - heartbreaking brilliance and beauty. He cut into the middle, scything through the Sheffield defenders, and then shot on the turn, witheringly, unanswerably. BBC's Match of the Day made the goal part of its introduction to the programme. It was the ultimate football hors d'oeuvre. And poignancy, soon enough. Within a year Best had taken himself into exile in Marbella and was telling a media pack that he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day.

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