Manchester United scout Bob Bishop was rightly stoked the day he sent a telegram to club manager Matt Busby, exclaiming, “I think I’ve found you a genius.” It’s doubtful, however, he realized just how prophetic he was.
The 17-year-old Irish lad Bishop spoke so highly of would go on to be recognized as one of the top footballers of all-time. Indeed, the brilliant Brazilian star Pele deemed George Best to be “the greatest.”
In the late 1980s, on the heels of his decorated career, Best came to Richmond to participate in a coaching clinic that coincided with the launch of a new local union called Club Ireland. For George Roberts, it was a chance to meet his football hero.
“I had always been his No. 1 fan, and got to coach with him for a couple weeks at a clinic arranged by (then Club Ireland coach) Danny Burns,” remembers Roberts, a longtime Richmond resident and member of the annual Nations Cup soccer tournament committee.
Both Roberts and Burns were part of the group that founded Club Ireland. Eric Ross was also at the forefront of the clinic, hosted by Club Ireland. The former Newcastle United player was an international for Northern Ireland prior to Best playing for the side, and was instrumental in getting Best to come to Richmond.
“What we were trying to do at the time was get a name for Club Ireland,” Roberts said. “We were growing fast and it was a great way of (promoting the club).”
Best agreed to play several games with a number of juniors, which was a “great thrill for the young lads.” “He’d switch sides each half, and before he left (Richmond) also played against an all-star team at Hugh Boyd Park.”
Always an engaging and outgoing personality, though he was reportedly a very shy youngster, Best was full of energy during his Richmond visit and “spent a lot of time talking with people,” said Roberts. “He was a fine young man.”
Born in Belfast on May 22, 1946, Best was the eldest of five children. Growing up in nearby Cregagh, he was academically gifted but also showed his athletic prowess though initially in rugby. Football-wise, his family supported Wolverhampton.
Best was 15 when he was “discovered” in Belfast by Manchester United scout Bishop. Ironically, his local club Glentoran had previously rejected him for being “too small and light.”
Initially given a “trial” by United, Best became homesick after only two days and was soon back home. He later returned to Manchester and spent two years as an amateur before making his First Division debut, at age 17, in September 1963 against West Bromwich.
Best’s natural talent and emerging popularity would soon catapult him to superstardom. The Portuguese press bestowed him with the nickname “O Quinto Beatle” (the fifth Beatle) after the-then 19-year-old scored twice in a European Cup quarter-final against Benfica at the Estadio da Luz in 1966.
He was just 22 in 1968 when he reached the height of his athletic career, winning three major honours as a member of league and European Cup champion Manchester United. Besides the team awards, Best was also named European Player of the Year.
All told, Best made 470 appearances for Manchester United between 1963 and 1974, scoring 179 goals. Then, over the next decade, he played for several teams around the globe including three teams in the old North American Soccer League.
A highly-skilled winger, who was a renowned dribbler, his pace and skill that made him a deft goal scorer also made him a fan favourite.
Present at London’s Wembley Stadium for Manchester’s overtime victory against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final, Roberts remembers a very controlled Best “winning the match for United.”
“He was kept under close control by Benfica, but Besty basically took over the game,” Roberts said, who also has fond memories of watching Best score what he considers “one of the greatest goals ever” as a member of the Los Angeles Aztecs.
Best, who suffered from alcoholism much of his adult life, died in 2005. He was just 59.
Tributes pored in from around the world, with many of the game’s other legends paying him the ultimate compliments.
Put simply, George was the Best.