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

In less than half a decade, George Best went from wet-eared wunderkind to Golden Boot-wearing champion of Europe. Ten years on from his death, Gary Parkinson looks at a footballing fairytale – and, while he's at it, admires the changing architecture of England's top-flight stadiums... 

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1. Making his mark

15 Feb 1964: George Best turns the ball in to score Manchester United's fourth goal, completing an FA Cup Fifth Round rout of Barnsley at Oakwell. After making his first-team debut in the previous September's home win over West Brom, Best had returned to the reserves and youth sides until a 6-1 Boxing Day beating at Burnley convinced manager Matt Busby to recall the 17-year-old – literally: he was back in Belfast having a family Christmas until summoned by telegram. 

Best starred in United's 5-1 win in the return game with Burnley (at the time, teams faced each other twice over Christmas) and became a first-team fixture, making 26 appearances and scoring six goals. United finished second in the league and reached the FA Cup semi-finals and European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finals; Best also helped United win the FA Youth Cup for the first time since the developing Busby Babes won it every year since 1953 and 1957.

2. Internationalist

14 Nov 1964: Best scores his first goal for Northern Ireland, an equaliser in a World Cup qualifier in Switzerland. Best played in all six qualifiers for the 1966 World Cup, to be hosted in England, but Bertie Peacock's team finished a point behind the Swiss. They had beaten the Swiss 1-0 at Windsor Park but couldn't hold on to the parity Best had given them in Lausanne, losing 2-1. 

Indeed, their away form would cost them qualification from the four-team group: they won all three at home but a disappointing draw in Albania - the hosts' only point of the campaign - denied them the chance to finish level with Switzerland and force a play-off.  

It was the closest Best got to a World Cup - Northern Ireland finished two points behind the Soviet Union in the race to Mexico '70, while they were five points off Bulgaria's pace for Germany '74 and six points behind the Dutch for Argentina '78… although being in the Oranje's group did give Best the chance to seek out and nutmeg Johan Cruyff. 

3. Settling in well

28 Nov 1964: Best warms up prior to kick-off at Highbury: note the North Bank in the background, with the Mayfield Laundry chimney in the background (it would close two years later, saving Sixties Gooners from being enveloped in clouds of steam before Saturday afternoon games).  

By now, Best had been a regular for 11 months and was becoming accustomed to rough treatment from uncompromising opponents. It rarely fazed him - in fact, it often amused him. He was helped by Busby being perfectly happy for United's sessions at The Cliff training ground to have an edge of menace: Best later described them as "fierce, almost brutal".   

It stood him in good stead. In 1964/65, his first full season, Best made 59 appearances in all senior competitions, scoring 14 goals. He would have more prolific seasons - including being the club's top league scorer for five successive seasons to 1972 - but he would never again play as many games for United in a single campaign. 

4. Meet the kids

13 Apr 1965: United players meet schoolboys involved in shooting a film, with Paddy Crerand and Denis Law centre stage. Best is at the left, next to David Herd, United's 'other' Scottish forward who would be their top scorer the following season. 

Perhaps unjustly unrecognised outside Old Trafford, Herd scored 145 goals in 265 games for United – only a dozen men have scored more for the club – including a hat-trick past three different goalkeepers in a 5-0 hammering of Sunderland. Already in his thirties by the time this picture was taken, Herd broke his leg in March 1967; he battled back to fitness in time for the 1968 European Cup final, but Matt Busby instead opted to pick Brian Kidd on his 19th birthday.  

The United players might have appreciated the diversion of the kids appearing at Old Trafford: they had just suffered an FA Cup semi-final replay defeat to their rivals Leeds United, freshly promoted to the top flight and seeking a first-ever league title under thrusting young manager Don Revie. Busby's team would instead focus their efforts on a three-way title race with Leeds and Chelsea. 

5. Things are looking good

26 Apr 1965: Goalscorer Best with his girlfriend after beating Arsenal 3-1 at Old Trafford to all but secure Manchester United the league title.

Since losing the FA Cup semi-final to Leeds, Busby's team had won six consecutive games to go clear of Don Revie's Leeds and Tommy Docherty's Chelsea; the vanquished opponents included Leeds themselves and outgoing champions Liverpool, who would console themselves with the FA Cup.   

Under the goal average system, it had been calculated that they would have to lose 19-0 in their final game at Aston Villa to not win the title. In the end, they lost 2-1 and were champions of England for the first time since the Munich disaster. Best had played in all but one of the league games and contributed 10 goals.