There have been many incumbents of the most iconic shirt in Manchester United’s history. Perhaps with the rather checkered final few years, the number 7 shirt’s lustre may have been briefly dampened from the days when it was worn by illustrious magicians such as Ronaldo, Cantona and Beckham. The Manchester United Number 7 shirt has historically been worn by the best player at the club, the genius who has orchestrated and elevated his colleagues with his guile, wizardry and immeasurable skill. Perhaps the man who most epitomizes the dichotomy which the shirt has encompassed is the original number 7, who at times was simply unplayable in both senses, but whose enduring legacy is one of an astounding football talent that illuminated the world.
George Best was the original celebrity who paved the way for the others, who followed, a footballer who transcended the typical boundaries which separated footballers from celebrities. His looks and immense, peerless skill propelled him into a limelight that was unprecedented. A stardom that proved to be too effulgent to control for the young man who possessed a natural talent that rendered his playing opponents his puppets but who possessed other demons that proved impossible to prevail over.
When you watch the footage of George Best it is impossible not to be struck by the sheer balletic grace of him. The skill and dribbling capability were unrivalled because he seemed able to contort his body into unnatural stances to avoid the despairing lunges of opponents, before moving away again. Whilst it is unfair to compare players of different eras with one another, primarily due to the contrasting fitness standards, when you watch the players around Best, they seem mesmerised by his dazzling footwork. It’s as though Best has full ownership of the ball and has the anticipation to avoid the feeble pitfalls that his opponents seek to utilise against him. Spectators and critics alike were mesmerised by his plethora of talent:
“In terms of ability he was the world’s best footballer of all time. He could do almost anything – technically, speed, complete mastery of not only the ball but his own body. You could saw his legs away and he still wouldn’t fall because his balance was uncanny, almost supernatural. Heading ability, passing ability, I mean it goes without saying the dribbling – he could beat anybody in any way he chose. For fun he’d play a one-two off the opponent’s shins.” — Patrick Barclay, football journalist
Best came from Dublin to United at the age of only fifteen and showed the competitiveness necessary to survive the culling which crushed so many young boys’ futures in order to secure a professional football career with the Red Devils. He made his debut at the age of only 17 for United in 1963, against West Bromwich Albion in 1-0 win. He would go on to finish the 63-64 season with 6 goals in 26 appearances. However, it was his exploits with the Youth Team that really sets this year apart when he won the 1964 FA Youth Cup. This was particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the trophy had been won since the Munich Air Disaster. Already there were the first glimmers of hope that the rebirth and renewed success of Manchester United were underway.
Best was particularly lucky that he benefited from having Sir Matt Busby as his manager during this initial period, as the legendary manager ensured that the physical intimidation which could have thwarted Best with the regular rough and unscrupulous tackling became a minor irritant, through rigorous training regimes. Indeed, Best often seemed to relish these challenges and would invite them so that he could dance away from their clumsy provocations with the simplest, most beautiful of consummate ease.
In the following season, Best became more of a first team regular and would provide assistance in securing the league title, this time chipping in with 14 goals in 59 competitive fixtures. However, it was only the following year after scoring a brace in the European Quarter Final against Benfica that Best was propelled into the limelight as the next superstar. Best became a sensation and was dubbed “El Beatle”, his image and story had migrated to front page news which was relatively unheard of for the day. His team mates had already begun to recognise that Best had a talent that was simply outstanding, as Sir Bobby Charlton extols:
“He was such an unbelievably gifted player. He had quality and control that was unparalleled, really.”
In 1966-67, United claimed the league title and Best had proven himself an integral part of the United team by this juncture. This time he scored 10 goals in 45 games. However, it was the subsequent season of 67-68 where Best’s levels were raised to a phenomenal standard. All three of our European Cup triumphs have a striking similarity where our number 7 (Best ‘68, Beckham ‘99 and Ronaldo ‘08) elevate themselves to such an exceptional level that it drags the entire team to the greatest trophy in club football. Best was the First Division’s top scorer and was the youngest ever recipient of the FWA’s Footballer of the Year Award and scored and assisted at key points during the historic European Cup campaign. With the European Cup Final locked at one all, Best went on a trademark mazy dribble which ended with him selling the Benfica goalkeeper an audacious dummy and rolling the ball into the empty net. Strikes from Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton added further gloss on an emphatic 4-1 win.
Best received the Ballon D’Or in 68 recognising his unrivalled influence and ability at the height of his powers. At the age of 22, he had achieved prizes beyond his years; it seemed that the sky would be the limit for a player who ostensibly had so many years of playing career left to enjoy at the peak of his physical health. However, it proved to be the pinnacle of Best’s career, due to the fact that a lot of the older, better team mates were coming toward the end of their careers and their replacements would not be of commensurate quality. In the 68-69 season, United slipped to 11th in the league and Best had begun to feel like the rest of the team relied too heavily upon him, although his personal goal tally of 22 goals in 55 games was excellent, the team was not a healthy one.
In 69-70, United only managed to achieve an eighth placed finish with Best scoring 23 goals, however, the most notable match was when Best scored 6 goals in an 8-2 demolition of Northampton Town in the FA Cup. It was a record breaking feat which stands as one of the greatest individual performances from any footballer in a professional match.
Denis Law, himself an incredible goal scorer, best summed up Best’s goal scoring prowess through his career, which had been captured so perfectly that day:
“A beautiful player. He could score from whatever angle, right side, left side, centre. He was just a marvellous player.”
Although Busby returned in the next season, it also ended without any silverware and Best’s dalliances with various women had begun to affect his commitment to United, picking up yellow cards for misconduct in addition.
In the 71-72 season, United again finished eighth and despite off the pitch indiscretions Best’s performances were still incredible, with 27 goals in 54 games and finishing the club’s top scorer for the 6th and last consecutive season. The following year and a half before Best left the club was marred with Best raging against the dying of the light, both of the club and himself, threatening retirement before finally leaving in 1974. His final statistics reflect his incredible contribution to the club, with 179 goals in 470 appearances in all competitions for Manchester United.
When Best quit United at the age of 27, it was mainly due to his inability to cope with all of the pressures which he was under. The enjoyment which he had sworn he would always have for football had been diminished by the other unnecessary vices and the situation with United had become untenable. The subsequent nomadic way in which Best drifted through the remaining clubs of his career listlessly spoke volumes of how far his legendary status and star had fallen. However, as Best said in interviews himself, the lure of Italy and other countries didn’t appeal to him, there was only 1 top club he ever wanted to play for, which was Manchester United. A fitting statement then of loyalty from the most talented member of the United Trinity and the man who paved the way for today’s superstars and the iconic, magical status that the United Number 7 shirt now embodies.
Best will always be venerated at United as part of the Trinity of attacking players who facilitated the premier European Cup in 1968. For Sir Matt Busby and Best, it presented the realisation of the Holy Grail, the trophy which they had become obsessed by but that prompted the dawning predicament of what next accomplishment could be achieved. For Busby, understandably, given the events of Munich, he had reached the Promised Land and stepped down, but much as the current United have struggled since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, it created an unavoidable drop in standards which impacted the young Northern Irishman as deeply as any.
Another feasible reason for Best’s downfall was the constant, relentless pressure which he felt to perform to the highest levels. As fans, sometimes, when we analyse sportspeople we treat them as machines or gods. We don’t appreciate their human frailties which a lack of proper respite and recuperative periods can illuminate and debilitate. As many of Best’s teammates attest, Best’s levels were so beyond compare that the temptation to rely upon him heavily was unavoidable. This sort of reliance would have put great strain on the talismanic figure that had been top goal scorer for so many consecutive seasons, and had been relied upon to provide the piece of visionary skill or technique to decide so many crucial matches.
“There are rare players, touched by God and the Devil in equal measure, you cannot judge by mere honours nor statistics. Sometimes when you were with him it was easy to forget that you were in the company of an immortal.” — Jimmy Greaves
Although George’s fondness for alcohol and women are well documented his frustrations on the pitch seemed justified given that United had fallen far short of the expected standards that their premier European Triumph had set. Best allowed his resentments to boil over with officials, getting involved in incidents which had previously been analogous to his character. Often this fierce desire to succeed is much admired but in Best’s case it smacked of the throes of a man whose unhappiness with his fortunes, professional and personal, had consumed him.
Best often spoke of how he wished to be remembered, what is clear is the revere and respect that his football prowess garnered him is undeniable. It was a talent which places him firmly in the legendary status at our club, not just through his personal achievements but also the trophies he won for Manchester United during his term with us. He is an undoubted legend of the club, someone whose playing ability was up there with the greatest to have ever played the game. The shame was that the maelstrom of pressure which proved too ferocious for the young man to handle with none of the protections that modern day footballers are now afforded. In many ways, Best was a trendsetter for the modern footballer with his business acumen in trying to enhance his earning power through advertising revenue but he was a footballer, first and foremost. Best said that he wished to be remembered for this ability above all others citing Pele’s praise of him as a crowning glory. Therefore, in homage and respect to Best, I leave you with the eulogy of Pele, the footballer widely regarded as the greatest of all time:
“The great football critics said that because of his technical skill, he was like a Brazilian athlete who danced the samba with the ball at his feet. George Best, until today is a footballer without comparison and his technical skills will never be forgotten.” — Pele