As Man United take disciplinary action against Jadon Sancho, how would they have handled George Best? CHRIS WHEELER reflects on the legendary winger’s debut at Old Trafford, 60 years on
- At just 17, the legendary winger celebrated with his landlady’s egg and chips
- Best remains one of the most colourful characters in footballing lore
- Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast ‘It’s All Kicking Off!’
As Manchester United took disciplinary action against Jadon Sancho on Thursday, it was fascinating to think how the club would have handled their most errant and gifted right winger of all.
United’s decision to exclude Sancho from first-team training came on the 60th anniversary of George Best’s debut for United on September 14, 1963. It was the start of a legendary career made famous by Best’s outrageous skill, superstar lifestyle and tragic addiction to alcohol.
Football often asks itself if the modern-day game could have saved mavericks like Best from themselves. We’ll never know.
But at a time when Sancho and another United right winger, Antony, are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, you have to say that no-one created headlines quite like Best.
The rather scrawny 17-year-old Northern Irish kid who lined up against West Bromwich Albion that balmy autumn day at Old Trafford was still some way from becoming the most colourful player of his – or any – generation.
60 years ago, George Best made his Manchester United debut against West Bromwich Albion
The winger was just 17 when he had his start under Matt Busby during the 1963/64 season
The England international remains one of the most colourful players in footballing lore (pictured in 1971)
In fact, Best might never have played for United at all had he not been coaxed back to Manchester two years earlier.
The boy from the Cregagh estate in Belfast had jumped straight back on the ferry with another homesick young triallist, Eric McMordie, just 48 hours after docking in Liverpool.
His father Dickie smoothed things over with Matt Busby and persuaded George to return to training with United’s youngsters while working as an errand boy on the Manchester Ship Canal.
By the time he made his senior debut for the club a couple of years later, he had enjoyed an unremarkable career playing largely for United’s fourth-string B team, with just two appearances in the FA Youth Cup and four for the reserves.
Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy had seen something, though, and decided that Best was ready for the first-team.
Wary not to panic the teenager, Busby named Best as 12th man, in the days before substitutes, and put Ian Moir at No.7 even though he knew the Scot would miss the game due to injury.
Best didn’t even believe teammate Paddy Crerand when he told the youngster that he would be playing. However, he is said to have sat calmly reading the match programme, which didn’t even mention his name, before kick-off.
He did well to mask the pre-match nerves. Maybe it was the daunting prospect of making his debut in front of 50,453 fans inside Old Trafford in a game between the two teams occupying first and second place in the First Division.
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Best later became famous for besting defenders with ease (pictured in 1971) but had a tougher time against West Brom hard man Graham Williams
Or maybe it was the thought of going up against West Brom left-back Graham Williams, a notorious hard man who thought nothing about kicking a teenager up in the air.
Best later recalled: ‘I felt like a gladiator coming into the arena. Even later in my career, playing at Liverpool or Benfica, or in front of 130,000 at Real Madrid, nothing quite compared with that first time – it will be there until I die.
‘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”.’
It would be wrong to say Best destroyed Williams that day, in the same way he did to so many defenders during his career. In fact, he was switched to the left wing after taking some punishing treatment from the defender ‘to get me away from this mad Welshman’.
‘He only stayed on my side for about 15 minutes,’ said Williams. ‘He didn’t get a kick – except from me!’
However, Best demonstrated the character to come back for more, and some of the dazzling skills that would one day make him famous as he had a hand in David Sadler’s second-half goal that gave United a 1-0 win.
The winger was an iconic presence for the side throughout the 1960s and 70s (pictured)
George Best ended his career at United having made 470 appearances for the storied club
That night, he is said to have written home to his parents after his landlady, Mrs Fullaway, cooked him egg and chips at his digs in Chorlton. For several years later, the schoolchildren would continue to knock on Best’s door at Aycliffe Avenue and ask him to play football with them in the street.
That was the first of his 470 appearances for United. It was another three months before Best made his second against Burnley, but he never looked back after that.
The following April, he made his Northern Ireland debut against Wales in Swansea, once again coming up against Williams. This time, George won their duel hands down.
‘He gave me another couple of whacks in that game,’ said Best, who died in 2005 at the age of 59. ‘I saw him later at a dinner and I said, “this is what I look like from the front!”.’
IT’S ALL KICKING OFF!
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