Secrecy and delight: remembering George Best's first-team debut (1963)
No defender wants to be made a monkey of. Especially a tough-as-teak seasoned pro, battle-scarred and internationally decorated, up against a 17-year-old urchin he’s never heard of.
That’s why West Brom’s Graham Williams has just booted a wispy scamp named George Best up in the air, minutes into his first ever game. The skinny kid is playing opposite Williams on United’s right flank, and the Welsh left-back has welcomed him to Division One football in time-honoured fashion. No prisoners at this level, son. And don’t be trying any of that fancy stuff on me again.
Yet on this warm autumn afternoon at Old Trafford – Saturday 14 September, 1963 – Williams would discover that this upstart wasn't about to be knocked out of his stride. He had guts to keep coming back at Williams, taking the kicks that came with it. And what’s more, he had fancy stuff enough to beat the experienced full-back with alarming ease and regularity.
He wouldn’t have known it at the time, but as Williams robustly went about his business that day he was eyewitness to history – as were the 50,453 fans watching from the stands. For this was the debut of perhaps the greatest footballer ever to kick a ball. These light-footed movements over the Old Trafford turf were the first steps that would lead George Best down a road to football legend, icon status and global fame… and the rest.
But more of that later. Let’s first rewind to the outset of the 1963/64 season. Everton, under Harry Catterick, are champions of England having won the 1962/63 Division One title by six points from Bill Nicholson’s exciting Tottenham outfit, who themselves made history by winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup that season.
Manchester United, meanwhile, are a work in progress. Manager Matt Busby (still some years from a knighthood) is in the process of rebuilding, having seen his team of prodigious ‘Babes’ wiped out in 1958’s Munich air disaster just as they seemed on the cusp of true and sustained greatness. For five painstaking years he had first patched his team up, then set about turning it into a genuine force in English football, worthy of succeeding their tragic forebears lost on a snowy German runway.
There was scant evidence of progress in United’s final league position in 1962/63, however: 19th in the league table, perilously close to the relegation trap-door. However, Busby’s efforts did bear significant fruit in the form of the FA Cup, won 3-1 against Leicester. Winning the FA Cup meant more in those days than it does now. A genuine climax to the season, it was highly significant as a confidence-booster for the club and players, who after tasting Cup glory felt that they now had a platform to push on and win more.
Moreover, Busby had slowly been shuffling around his pieces on the pitch, and his jigsaw was close to completion. Bobby Charlton (another with a knighthood in his tea leaves) had been in situ as the team’s fulcrum for a number of years, and to his talents Busby had added two very significant players during 1962/63: Denis Law, signed from Torino in August (for a club record fee at the time) and Pat Crerand, bought from Celtic in February.
So with the 1963/64 campaign coming into view, Busby had the foundations of the team he had envisioned. Allied to defensive cornerstone Bill Foulkes and midfield enforcer and ball-player Crerand, Bubsy had his two aces further upfield in Charlton and Law. The latter pair would later become known as two-thirds of the famous ‘United Trinity’.
The third element? He was at that time apparently a long way off the radar, playing for United’s A and B teams. But Busby knew all about him: a waif from Belfast called George Best. And 1963/64 would be the season Busby would let his young genie out of the bottle.
Belfast boy’s break
Not that young Best knew anything about that. He’d originally come to United’s attention after their legendary Irish scout Bob Bishop had sent an equally-legendary telegram to Busby reading: “I think I’ve found you a genius.” Bishop had spotted Best playing for Cregagh Boys, his local youth club side in Belfast, running rings around everyone despite his apparently feeble frame.
When Best had first gone to Old Trafford for a trial as a 15-year-old, though, he’d been a fish out of water. He’d never even left Belfast before, and having to find his own way over the Irish Sea to the alien city of Manchester, reporting to training with people who all seemed bigger, stronger and more confident than him – hampered by a thick Northern Irish accent no one seemed able to understand – was too much for him. Just 24 hours after arriving, homesick George decided he’d seen enough and high-tailed back on the ferry to Belfast, with fellow Irish youngster Eric McMordie who’d also been invited to the trial and got cold feet.
Fortunately, through a combination of United’s eagerness to have their “genius” back, George’s father’s quiet encouragement and the boy’s own determination to take the chance he was potentially blowing, Best returned to Old Trafford as an apprentice. Busby had told his staff not to coach the magic out of his prodigy. “Don’t tinker with the boy’s style,” he’d ordered. “Let him develop his own way, naturally. He’s something special.”
That development didn’t appear to have pushed Best anywhere near the first team by the outset of 1963/64, however – or so it seemed to him, even if he had by now been given his first professional contract.
Yes, Busby had thrown in a 17-year-old for his debut in the first game of the season. But it wasn’t Best. In fact it was his mate, David Sadler, an altogether bigger and stronger young man who got the striker’s jersey in United’s season opener at Sheffield Wednesday. Best, meanwhile, “green with envy”, was playing his football much further down the pecking order, generally for the youth, A or B teams, with the occasional promotion to the reserves. Busby, though – ever the champion of youth – had plans for his talented tyro.
Into the matchday squad
Three weeks into the season, apparently out of the blue, Best was suddenly plucked from the junior ranks and elevated to the senior squad. There was his name, clear as day, listed as ‘reserve’ for the first-team match against West Brom on 14 September 1963.
Best’s delight at this surprise selection was tempered, however, with suspicions that he was only tagging along with the big boys to help shoulder the bags, brew the tea and slice the half-time oranges. He was down as 12th man, but substitutes as we know them were still three seasons away from being introduced into English league football.
As far as Best was concerned, he had no chance of appearing on the pitch. So much so, in fact, that when on the morning of the match – while George was making his way with his senior colleagues for a pre-match steak – Paddy Crerand blabbed that he would be in the team that day, the young man didn’t believe him.
What Crerand knew, though, was that Busby – such a savvy operator – had every intention of playing Best the moment from the moment he had pencilled him in as a reserve. He just didn’t want the youngster to be weighed down by that knowledge, so he’d simply picked Ian Moir – who had a groin injury – at No.7.
It was only after lunch, on the way to Old Trafford, that Busby casually informed Best that he’d be playing. There was no time for Best to get nervous... which was Busby’s plan all along.
Turned out there was never any chance of that anyway. The way the youngster acted in the dressing room, you’d think he was making his 500th appearance for Manchester United, not his first. While those around him displayed pre-match nerves in their own ways – Sadler in and out of the toilet, Nobby Stiles obsessively checking and re-checking his kit, Charlton having a nip of whisky – George just sat and read the programme… before disappearing out for a cup of tea until just before kick-off.
That was how it would be for Best throughout his career – he was nerveless. The prospect of running out in front of 50,000 people to play football caused him not one jot of consternation, first time or not. Emerging from the tunnel into the view of the teeming masses, in fact, was a major rush for George – it emboldened and excited him, rather than overwhelming him.
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