The birth of El Beatle
Manchester United's return to Benfica's Stadium of Light tonight could hardly be more poignantly timed: it was there in 1966 that George Best became a superstar. Nick Harris recreates an unforgettable night
Wednesday 07 December 2005
Manchester United play at Benfica's Stadium of Light tonight for the first time since 9 March 1966, when they met in the second leg of the European Cup quarter-final. At the time, Benfica were giants of the European game: winners of the European Cup in 1961 and 1962, and runners-up in 1963 and 1965. United held a precarious 3-2 lead from the first leg in Manchester, but Benfica had never lost a European game at their Stadium of Light and their stars included Eusebio, who collected his 1965 European Footballer of the Year award before kick-off. Yet United, inspired by a 19-year-old George Best, who scored twice in the opening minutes, produced one of the great European performances of all time, thrashing their hosts 5-1 for an 8-3 aggregate victory. The game catapulted Best, the rising star of English football, from the back pages to the front pages, and almost as memorable as the game itself was the team's return to England, when Best was photographed in his new sombrero. "El Beatle" was born...
HOW THE MAN HIMSELF REMEMBERED THAT NIGHT
As I walked up the tunnel and heard the noise, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. But I didn't feel any fear. I wasn't in awe but I did know that I was ready. That, whatever the outcome of the game, this was the sort of stage I was meant to play on. It was perfect theatre.
We followed Matt's instructions to keep it tight, for the first six minutes anyway. Bobby Charlton was brought down and it was a good opportunity for Tony Dunne to deliver the ball. I took up a position on the edge of the box and as I went up for the ball, two defenders jumped with me. I sensed the goalkeeper starting to come out but I found extra spring and got to the ball first.
As I headed it, I knew I'd made good contact, but it was only as I hit the deck and twisted round that I saw it hit the back of the net. It was a fantastic feeling knowing that I'd scored in front of a crowd like that. It gave us some breathing space in the tie. We were now in with a real chance.
Six minutes later, when I received the ball just inside their half, I saw no reason to be negative. I dipped a shoulder and swerved inside a defender - I knew from that point I was going to score. A second defender came at me but I knocked it past him. I looked up to see the keeper coming towards me and normally, in a situation like that, I liked to wait until he gave me an indication of which way he was going before making my own move. But I caught the look of uncertainty in his eye and instead of waiting, I knocked it past him before he could make his mind up. Given the situation and the circumstances and enormity of the match, it has to be one of my favourite ever goals.
On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods... It was surreal stuff. I've seen other great teams play like that but to be a part of such an experience was unreal. Strangely, although I can replay almost the whole 90 minutes of that match in my head, I can't remember a single thing after the final whistle.
Extracted from 'George Best - Blessed', published by Ebury Press
BENFICA LEFT WINGER IN THE 1960S AND 1970S, PLAYED THAT NIGHT. LATER MANAGED BEST AT SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
A hurricane passed through the Luz that night, and his name was George Best. It was a terrible evening for us, and an inspirational night for him. I can still see him arriving for his first goal, a header, to deflate our hopes. We'd scored two goals away in the first leg, not bad, and with our crowded house at home, we were enthusiastic about winning. But I still remember the headlines we faced afterwards, in our own press: "Disaster at the Luz" and "Benfica uninspired".
But we couldn't argue, we'd been beaten 5-1, not 2-1, and it was Best's perfect night. He expressed United's talent and art, he was the force who intimidated us with two early goals. We were not afraid, but that was before the game. Then we saw Best's genius, so unrestrained it was almost irresponsible. And it won them the game.
Later I coached George in America, in 1980-81. In training he would breeze past his colleagues, then fall on the grass and laugh. He had a handsome laugh, because he was a handsome guy. The rest I don't want to mention.
UNITED CENTRE-HALF, PLAYED 679 GAMES FOR THE CLUB BETWEEN 1952-1970. PLAYED IN THE 1966 QUARTER-FINAL AT BENFICA, AND LATER WON THE 1968 EUROPEAN CUP
It was like George either hadn't heard or completely ignored Matt Busby's instruction to keep it tight. We were in this packed stadium, but with no sense of United supporters, because of all the home fans. And George just went out and did his own thing.
He was still only a youngster, 19, but he was on top form. It was like he was playing them on his own.
I didn't go over the half-way line much, just stayed back to defend. Like everyone else that night, I just watched in wonder at the things George did.
At half-time I said to George: "Didn't you hear the plan, then?" The whole evening was quite unreal. It was a performance I'll never forget.
MANCHESTER UNITED FAN. AGED 21, HE WAS PROBABLY THE YOUNGEST UNITED SUPPORTER AT THE MATCH, AMONG A GROUP OF AROUND 50 WHO WERE ABLE SECURE PLACES ON THE FANS' TRIP. HE HAS TRAVELLED BACK TO PORTUGAL FOR TONIGHT'S MATCH
I'd never been abroad before. It was a lot of money back then, £23 for your flight, two nights in the International Hotel, and your ticket. It was more than a week's wages, and I was paying it back at 17 shillings and sixpence a week for six months. It was worth it.
We went on a prop plane, only about 50 people, and I was the youngest by a mile. We went on the Tuesday, the game on the Wednesday, back on the Thursday in time to see the highlights, which had to be flown back on a reel.
George scored his two early goals to our left. Benfica had never lost at home and we were two up so quickly, 3-0 by half-time.
When they got to 3-1 just after half-time, we were thinking "Now we're in trouble". But no. We got two more. It was like being in a dream. We had a drink back at the hotel, but I can't remember singing on the plane back. Those were the days when you only clapped the pilot for landing.
UNITED'S RESERVE-TEAM COACH AT THE TIME, LATER MANAGER (1969-70)
In those days you didn't take too many people to away games, a squad of 16, Matt, a couple of directors, trainer Jack Crompton. That was it. I didn't travel. I was the reserves coach, there was work to do. The game wasn't on the television, even the highlights were in black and white. But I listened on the radio. What a night. Matt's tactics were to keep it tight for 20 minutes, but that was the tactical approach for any coach away in Europe.
The difference was the players with pace, Charlton, Law and Best, and Paddy Crerand's passing. We ripped Benfica apart. We all know what George was capable of, he'd been doing it for years. The difference was he did it against one of the very best sides, away in Europe, in a major tournament.
The sombrero was George all over, the flamboyance, the style. There was a lot of back-slapping, hand-shaking and hugging when they came back. He was a good lad, George, very special. That game will live on.
MATADOR, FROM SALFORD, WHO FOUND FAME IN SPAIN AS THE BULLFIGHTER, "EL INGLES". FRIEND AND FORMER BUSINESS PARTNER OF BEST
I was living in Spain. I'd been there since '64, and '66 was the year I got my bullfighter's licence. I wasn't at the game but George's performance made headlines around the world, certainly in Spain, where he was instantly "El Beatle".
He'd been sensational on the pitch, everyone was acknowledging that, but the El Beatle thing, it was just because his hair was that bit longer than your average footballer's short, back and sides. One game, and it all went to a different dimension.
I was there when it was going the other way too. I actually delivered George's first resignation letter to United by hand, in '74. George had handwritten it, and my dad knocked it up on a typewriter before delivery. That was an interesting period. Doug Ellis was in the travel agency business, as were George and I, and he wanted George for Aston Villa, and Alfredo Di Stefano wanted George at Valencia, who were offering something like £250,000 tax free. We had meetings, not that it came to anything. I don't think George was ever totally aware of the high regard in which he was held. And I guess it really took off with one headline from that night.
FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT OF THE 'MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS', 1958-1995
George is the most magical footballer I have seen in my life as a football writer, and his tour de force in 1966 remains the highlight of my 37 years covering Manchester United. I think of the shy, insecure boy I met when he first came to Manchester. I remember his peculiar behaviour at times, such as walking out of a dinner party without saying a word to leave the rest of us wondering what had gone wrong.
Clearly he was a complex man but one who inspired great love despite the flaws. So my lasting memory of George is of the great outpouring of emotion at his passing.
People have been paying him their respects for the magical moments he gave them on the pitch, but there is forgiveness too. They know that the one he hurt the most in the end was himself - and for that they are ready to love him in all his guises.
Even in death, George Best was inspirational. A fresh twist on the endlessly parodied cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was hard to imagine. But thanks to the internet, the super-imposed image of the first psychedelic footballer joining the Fab Four on the world's only sacred zebra crossing has flashed around the planet.
The idea of Manchester United's finest as a "fifth Beatle" was more than just glib labelling. They blazed through the 1960s like twin meteorites, and if the Lisbon extravaganza was the Belfast boy in his prime, his musical equivalents were about to hit their creative peak, too.
The week United blitzed Benfica, Manchester was fighting back against Merseyside in the "hit parade". The Mindbenders, whom Best had seen backing Wayne Fontana, were No 2, the Hollies at 7. City fans turned the No 5 song, "Sha La La La Lee" into "Sha la la la Summerbee", provoking a red echo from the Stretford End: "Who the f****n' hell is he?"
Yet like the 19-year-old who had fused football with sex and pop, the Beatles were preparing for a quantum leap. Live, they were still going through the mop-top motions on "She Loves You". Less than a month after Best eclipsed Eusebio, however, they began recording Revolver. Despite the inclusion of "Yellow Submarine" (instantly adapted by the terrace choirs), it remains their most critically acclaimed album.
Best had made his debut in '63, the year of the Beatles' first British No 1, but the end of the decade found them in parallel decline. The retirement of his manager, Sir Matt Busby, and the death of theirs, Brian Epstein, fed the disenchantment. Alcohol began to sap Best's energies, as it later ravaged Ringo Starr (long after he and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison had experimented with hallucinogenic drugs).
The Beatles were not football fans. "There are three teams in Liverpool," George quipped, "and I support the other one." As working-class heroes, however, they could scarcely avoid the game's influence. McCartney was from an Evertonian family - he watched them win the FA Cup at Wembley in '66 - and made boyhood trips to Goodison Park with two uncles.
Joining the iconic faces on Peter Blake's sleeve for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was Albert Stubbins, the first post-war Kop idol. Beatle sources have claimed he was featured "because John liked his name". Did Lennon also like Best's United? On "Dig It", from Let It Be, one of the names he shouts is "Matt Busby!"
There are no known meetings between Best and the Beatles, but the former often reminisced about when Paul and his late wife, Linda, spotted him at the bar in London's Tramp club. "As they were leaving," said Best, "Linda came up to me and whispered: 'You know we love you, don't you?' "
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