Secrecy and delight: remembering George Best's first-team debut (1963)

George Best
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Into battle

With United and Albion both having made fast starts to the season, the game was a top-vs-second clash. Best was to be up against Graham Williams, a square-shouldered left-back often now described as the Stuart Pearce of his day. George’s team-mates had been telling him all about his opposite number in the build-up, painting a fearsome picture. 

In one of his numerous autobiographies, Best of Both Worlds, George recalls: “Out on the pitch I scanned the opposition for a glimpse of this character Williams, the man they said carried a club in either foot. I was also looking for fangs and a hairy face. But when I saw him I was amazed. He seemed so small for a full-back and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Georgie boy, you’ve got nothing to worry about’.”

As soon as the match was under way, Best got plenty of opportunity to check for those fangs up close, with the Albion man wasting no time in applying some hefty tackles. The rough treatment kept coming but so did Best, even when one challenge left him with an ankle knock. He took to moving between right and left wing, and everywhere in between. 

“Young Best came in from some stern treatment by that splendid back Williams,” read one contemporary newspaper match report, while another praised his courage, saying he “took a tremendous hammering from West Brom full-back Graham Williams, but never gave up despite an injury”.

United won the match 1-0, and Best had a part in setting up the goal for his mate Sadler via Stiles, shortly after the hour mark.

Reaction to the debutant

So how did the 17-year-old new boy really do? He remembered seeing a fair bit of the ball, taking on his man… and probably hogging it somewhat. “I recovered [from Williams’ early strong challenge] and gave him a bit of a run round. I was a right little so-and-so,” he recalled in Blessed, another of his autobiographies. 

“Once I got [the ball], I didn’t want to give it to anybody else because I was so used to almost owning it in the youth team. So while my team-mates were screaming for it I was trying to beat three or four opponents and doing all the tricks I was used to performing for my B-team pals.”

The newspaper reporters in attendance were in general agreement. One notes that “Best’s football was occasionally of a high quality but he also showed his immaturity”; another says he “showed that, with a little more experience, he has the footballing ability to challenge strongly for a permanent position in the United senior squad”; while a third suggests he shouldn’t be “upset at getting no change out of superb Albion left-back Graham Williams”.

The consensus, then, points to flashes of brilliance from the youngster, bags of courage and appetite for the physical battle (this was the early 1960s, remember, when men were men, tackling was ferocious and shinpads were for sissies), if an understandable greenness and lack of experience.

Williams himself recalled events. “We’d heard a bit about George already – he’d played against us in the reserves and if a 17-year-old makes a debut, there’s always a bit of extra interest. But I wasn’t worried, he was just a kid,” he says. “When the game started, he only stayed on my side for about 15 minutes. He didn’t get a kick… except from me! After that, he just played where he wanted, got involved with the game – and that was where you got a glimpse of how good he might be.”

Rest, recovery… and return

By 5pm, young Best was back in the dressing room having his hair ruffled avuncularly by the senior pros, getting a “Well done” here and a “Good lad” there. Though he felt he could have played better – because, frighteningly, he had found it quite easy – he was chuffed to have made his senior debut. 

He quietly hoped he might be in the team for the match at Blackpool two days later. He wasn’t. Moir had recovered from his injury and Best was back among his A and B team pals as quickly as he’d been promoted.

In fact, he’d stay at that level for another three months without getting another sniff of first-team football. But when his next chance came, he snatched it for good. There would be no going back. After his second match (and first goal), against Burnley at Christmas, George Best became practically undroppable for a decade.

The call for the Burnley match was as much of a surprise to George as his first selection had been. With Busby sticking to a fairly settled side, Best was out of the picture. But when United lost 6-1 at Burnley on Boxing Day 1963, following a 4-0 hiding at Everton, an exasperated Busby rang the changes. And uppermost in his mind was returning the Belfast boy to his XI. 

A telegram was despatched to Northern Ireland, where Best was enjoying Christmas with his family. It requested he report back to Manchester without delay. United had a return match with Burnley at Old Trafford on 28 December. There was to be no charade this time, no hugger-mugger over team selection: Best was in. No question.

And this time it was not a story of flashes of brilliance, glimpses of genius. This time Best brought the full package. On the right wing again, George was up against an international full-back once more, just as he had been on debut. This time it was his fellow Northern Irishman Alex Elder – but George bestowed no favours on his compatriot. Best gave Elder a torrid time, roasting him time and again.

Paddy Crerand, typically, pulls no punches in his description of Best’s performance. 

“[Elder] was a good player but George destroyed him. Absolutely murdered him - so much so that I actually felt sorry for Alex,” recalls Crerand. “George ran him silly for the whole game. It wasn’t just the odd occasion, like it had been with Graham Williams. This was total annihilation. George was magnificent, and from then on they couldn’t leave him out.”

The cherry on the top for Best was a debut goal, slotted home from a cross in the 38th minute to put a rampant United 3-0 up in a match the Reds won 5-1, gaining revenge within 48 hours for that Boxing Day thumping. And George was back home in Belfast that night (he’d negotiated his way to being flown back directly after the game), as incredulous as his pals on the Cregagh estate the next day that there was a picture of him in the Belfast Telegraph actually scoring a goal for Manchester United.

In the team for good

Best became a first-team fixture thereafter. Of the 26 games that remained in the 1963/64 season, he played 24, scoring another five goals along the way. The campaign eventually finished in frustration for Busby and his men – despite the heroics of Denis Law, who scored a phenomenal 46 goals in 42 games – to this day a Manchester United club record. 

The Red Devils finished runners-up in the league to Liverpool, were knocked out of the FA Cup in the semi-finals by West Ham (after a draining quarter-final against Sunderland that required two replays) and crashed ignominiously out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in the quarter-finals, losing 5-0 at Sporting CP despite taking a 4-1 lead to Portugal from the first leg (to Busby’s fury).

But with the emergence of Best, Busby’s jigsaw was complete. The Holy Trinity were in place. The good times were ready to return. The next four seasons were the most successful the club had yet seen, yielding two league titles (1964/65, 1966/67) and, most poignantly of all, a European Cup won in May 1968 at Wembley, a decade on from the sorrow and loss of Munich.

At the heart of all this success was Best, dazzling the world with his ball skills and sheer imagination, doing things on the pitch (and, increasingly, off it) that had never been seen before. So much was to follow – so very, very much. But it all started on that autumn day 55 years ago, when the name ‘Best’ appeared on the Manchester United team sheet for the very first time.

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