Wonderkid to world-beater: George Best's first five seasons in photographs

6. European adventures

6 Jun 1965: Ferencvaros' Florian Albert and Dezso Novak face all 11 Manchester United players at a free-kick in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup semi-final. The Fairs Cup, a forerunner of the UEFA Cup, was gaining in popularity even if it wasn't yet under the auspices of Europe's governing body, or indeed qualified for via league position. Matt Busby had long believed in European competition, and United would give it their best shot. 

They tore past Djurgardens and Borussia Dortmund before edging out 1963 league winners Everton. When the competition restarted in May they demolished Strasbourg to face Hungarian side Ferencvaros in the semi-finals. A 3-2 win at Old Trafford was cancelled out by a 1-0 loss in Budapest; with nobody having yet invented the away goals rule, United got another go ten days later, but lost again in Hungary. European success would have to wait. 

The United players are, left to right: John Connelly, Shay Brennan, Nobby Stiles, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Pat Crerand, David Herd, George Best, goalkeeper Pat Dunne (hidden) and Tony Dunne.

7. Bandy-legged and beaten

16 Oct 1965: An ungainly pose on an unfortunate afternoon for United, as the champions are crushed 5-1 at White Hart Lane.

Alan Mullery - the Tottenham right-half here seen closing Best down - noted that "Our play reached the highest peak in team-work". Indeed, there was a goal for each member of Spurs' five-man front-line (this was still an era dominated by 2-3-5, with Alf Ramsey's alternative ideas yet to conquer the world), the pick of the bunch being Jimmy Greaves' casual waltz through United's defence.

It was a shocking result for the champions, but it was not in isolation: after scraping an opening-day win over Sheffield Wednesday, United had won just one in seven, suffering 4-2 defeats at Nottingham Forest and Arsenal and a 3-0 loss at Burnley. The White Hart Lane walloping left them in 13th place.

8. Style guru

18 Dec 1965: Best stands outside Old Trafford. By now Best was becoming something of a style icon off the pitch, although it's debatable how well the suede waistcoat and Rupert-check trousers - with double-width belt-loops and cross-pattern front pockets - have stood the test of time.

United had also got themselves into gear since the White Hart Lane walloping, winning seven of their next nine league games - climaxing with a satisfying 5-1 revenge beating of Spurs. Best scored six during that run as United rose to third in the table, but sadly for Busby something was stirring at the other end of the Manchester Ship Canal. 

Bill Shankly's Liverpool, having won the FA Cup in 1965, were determined to regain the league title they had won the season before; in one 18-game run they won 14 and lost just one, hitting top spot in November and never looking like giving it up. Busby's thoughts turned instead toward the European Cup. 

9. Bagging at Benfica

9 Mar 1966: Best celebrates opening the scoring at Benfica.

United's first campaign in the European Cup since 1958 had started by easing past HJK Helsinki and Vorwarts Berlin, but things really got interesting with the quarter-final against Benfica, back under the aegis of the legendary Bela Guttman. United won an engagingly close game at Old Trafford 3-2, and Matt Busby informed his team to adopt a defensive strategy for the first 15 minutes. 

Instead, in that time Best inspired them to a 3-0 lead. First he headed home a sixth-minute free-kick, then he doubled United's lead, then John Connelly made it three on the night - and 6-2 overall. As Busby said to Best at half time, "Obviously you weren't listening." 

Any hope Benfica held after Shay Brennan's second-half own-goal was snuffed out by replies from Pat Crerand and Bobby Charlton. United had romped through to the semi-finals, 8-3 on aggregate against one of Europe's best teams, and the belief was growing that they could mark the memory of Munich by winning the European Cup at the first attempt since 1958.

10. Shooting into stardom

11 Mar 1966: Like many a tourist returning from Iberia to the British Isles in the 1960s, Best sports a sombrero as United land at Heathrow (freshly renamed from the rather more prosaic London Airport). 

Best's display at Benfica took him to another level of media interest across Europe; think of Gareth Bale's explosive hat-trick at Inter Milan, multiplied by the sort of frenzy that occurred in days when football wasn't available as 24-hour TV wallpaper. The Portuguese press, showing their own taste for an easy cultural reference, christened Best 'El Beatle', and he was certainly now becoming famous enough to be screamed at in the street.

United were the eighth British team in 11 years to reach the European Cup semi-final: Liverpool had been beaten by Inter the previous year, Dundee by Milan in 1963, Spurs by Benfica in 1962, Rangers by Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960, a post-Munich United by Milan in 1958, the Busby Babes to Real Madrid in 1957 and Hibs to Stade Reims in 1956. Sadly, they were to fall at the same hurdle. 

The draw pitted them against Partizan Belgrade, meaning an emotional return to the last place the Busby Babes had played before the Munich disaster. A 2-0 defeat gave them too much to do in the home leg, with Nobby Stiles' goal not enough to keep them in Europe. 


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