George Best was my hero when I was growing up and kicking football on the streets of the Short Strand in East Belfast during the late 1960s and early 1970s, not too far from where George was born.
Close to my home in Harper Street, stood the mighty Samson & Goliath, two huge towering yellow cranes that almost reached the sky at the famous Harland & Wolff Shipyard where my Dad worked, and the birthplace of RMS Titanic.
The Fifth Beatle, although I will always refer to him as The Belfast Boy, passed away on this day 17 years ago - November 25, 2005.
I truly idolised Georgie Best, I still do, and I can never thank him enough for helping me through the dark days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland by helping to distract my young mind from the many shootings and bombings that were taking place all around me on a daily basis and the senseless loss of more than 3,500 lives that occurred during this dark period.
For me, one game, “One Moment In Time,” stands out which will help explain why George Best, my fellow Belfast Boy, was, and remains, the greatest footballer the world has ever seen.
- THE NIGHT GEORGE BEST LIT UP THE STADIUM OF LIGHT
- SL BENFICA 1-5 MANCHESTER UNITED
- EUROPEAN CUP, QUARTER-FINALS, SECOND LEG
- ESTADIO DA LUZ, LISBON, PORTUGAL
- 9 MARCH 1966
- ATTENDANCE - 75,000
On 9 March 1966, United visited Lisbon, Portugal to play Benfica in the quarter-finals of the European Cup.
During the 1965-66 season a few niggling injuries meant George Best missed 11 League games but he still managed to find the net 9 times in the other 31 and laid on many of the 45 goals scored by Bobby Charlton, David Herd and Denis Law. George also missed the 1-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Everton at Burnden Park, Bolton but one game he made sure he did not miss regardless of what his body was telling him was United’s two tussles versus Benfica in the quarter-finals of the 1965-66 European Cup.
The Portuguese Champions, European Cup runners-up to Inter Milan in 1964-65, and Champions of Europe in 1960-61 and 1961-62, arrived in Manchester on 2 February 1966 for the first leg in confident mood. Benfica had beaten Barcelona 3-2 in the 1961 European Cup final to prevent a Spanish club from lifting the first six editions of this relatively new trophy.
The all-conquering Real Madrid won the inaugural European Cup final in 1956 and then successful defended it four times in a row. In season 1960-61, the five times winners surprisingly exited the competition in the First Round going down 4-3 to their Spanish contemporaries after drawing 2-2 at their Estadio Santiago Bernabéu home in the first leg and losing 2-1 at Camp Nou in the away leg.
At the time only the winners of their domestic League Championship gained entry to the following season’s European Cup but the tournament’s organisers permitted the winners to defend their crown regardless of where they finished in their League campaign.
Los Blancos, Real Madrid’s nickname, took full advantage of this European “Get Out of Jail Free” card in season 1959-60 when they defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park, Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960 final. Incidentally, it was the first time a German Club, East or West, had reached the final.
The aristocrats of Spanish football finished second in the Spanish League in season 1958-59, La Liga, to FC Barcelona. The 1960 European Cup final is generally accepted by football connoisseurs to be the greatest ever European Cup final.
Mind you, many Manchester United fans would direct that particular barometer to the 1999 final, not for the goals scored, but for the Hollywood movie finale to the game.
But for the European Cup script writers, a new Chapter in this 11-year football odyssey of Europe’s premier competition was about to be written in a game which would rival the exploits of Real Madrid’s demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt.
In the previous two rounds of the 1964-65 competition Benfica won three of their ties and drew the other scoring 23 goals in the process (Stade Dudelange 18-0 & Levski Sofia 5-4).
United’s path to the Last 8 saw them defeat Finland’s HJK Helsinki 9-2 over two legs and a trip behind the Iron Curtain to East Berlin where they beat Vorwarts Berlin 2-0 followed by a 3-1 win in the return leg at Old Trafford in Round 2.
United drew first blood against SL Benfica winning the first leg 3-2 in front of a packed audience of 64,035 at Old Trafford on 2 February 1966 with goals from David Herd, Denis Law and an unlikely goal scorer, centre-half Bill Foulkes.
It was a slender lead to take to the capital city of Portugal on 9 March 1966 with the Portuguese giants just needing to win 1-0 at their famous Estadio Da Luz (Stadium of Light) home to progress to the semi-finals.
When United arrived in Lisbon for the game very few sports commentators gave them a chance of making it through to the semi-finals whilst the Portuguese press gleefully reminded United of the last time they had visited the city and went home with their tails between their legs on the end of a 5-0 hammering at the feet of Sporting Lisbon in the quarter-finals of the 1963-64 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
To make the task for United all the more difficult Benfica, like United, had never lost a European Cup tie at home but this was a different United team than had been trounced by Sporting.
Not only were Manchester United now the reigning English League Champions, but in George Best they possessed a player who could win a game on his own if he was in the mood. The Belfast Boy had more moves than a Chess Grandmaster.
Prior to kick-off the stadium announcer whipped the home crowd up into frenzy and the sound was deafening when their star player, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, was invited out on to the pitch to be presented with the 1965 European Footballer of the Year Award (Ballon d'Or).
Standing watching Eusebio was Denis Law who had won the coveted award the previous season and Bobby Charlton who would succeed Eusebio as Europe’s No.1 player when he won the award for season 1965-66.
As for Best, he was itching for the game to get underway and his coronation as Europe’s best player was still two years in the making.
Eusébio was a prolific striker, one of the most feared front men in European football, a player who had finished top scorer in the Portuguese League in the previous two seasons. United knew only too well that if they were to hold out for the 0-0 result which would see them reach the semi-finals of Europe’s top club football competition for the third consecutive time from the three times they participated in it, then Eusébio had to have a stinker on the night or be kept quiet by the United back-line.
How could United handle the unenviable task of stopping the newly crowned King of European football from adding to his tally of seven goals which he bagged in the first two rounds?
The Manchester United team was: Harry Gregg, Shay Brennan, Tony Dunne, Bill Foulkes, Paddy Crerand, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton, John Connelly, George Best, David Herd, Denis Law
Busby sent his team out and gave them strict orders to be cautious and hold the home side for as long as they could in the hope that United could wear them down and either grab a vital away goal or hang in there for a scoreless draw.
Best must have been in the toilet at the time or else he was tuned into a different frequency to that of his manager because he clearly either did not hear what his manager had to say or else he just decided to ignore it. For George, this was moment that the Lisbon public saw the real Manchester United and the real George Best.
The young Irishman swooped all over the defence of the Águias and within 13 minutes United were in the driving seat in the tie having scored two magnificent goals. In the 6th minute George soared high into the air above the SL Benfica defence to head a free-kick past Costa Pereira in the Portuguese goal.
Less than seven minutes later he collected a flick on from Herd just inside the Benfica half, the teenage Irishman looked up and surveyed the path ahead to goal with six white shirts in front of him blocking his way.
George could have laid the pass off to a team-mate and found space higher up the pitch for a return pass closer to the opposition’s net, he sometimes did, but not on this occasion.
This night was his chance of payback, an opportunity to announce himself on the European stage. For some people their future is defined by a certain moment in time, their chance to show what they can do, and this was most definitely George’s moment. With the ball at his feet he took off and headed straight for the goal.
For those watching inside the Stadium of Light or on TV at home, it must have looked like time stood still for everyone on the pitch except George. It was if George was in a Ferrari and the Benfica players were trying to catch him in a tank as he raced through the Portuguese defence to fire into the net and put United 2-0 up on the night and 5-2 ahead on aggregate.
Best cut through their rear-guard like a hot knife cutting through butter.
The home side now needed four goals to win the tie on aggregate and the heads of the Benfica players slumped into their chests. The crowd quickly realised the enormity of the task before their team and their nervousness seemed to spill down from the huge stands on to the pitch.
Within minutes United were 3-0 up when Connelly hammered a pass from Best beyond a well beaten Pereira. Suddenly the game resembled a match being played behind closed doors as 75,000 voices fell silent, dumbstruck by what was unfolding on the pitch before their very eyes as Best toyed with the Benfica players like a matador teasing a bull before he moved in for the kill.
Best possessed the ability to make the ordinary look extraordinary.
Half-time could not have come too soon for the home side who left the field to a chorus of incessant boos. However, for the small pocket of United fans so stuck high up in the corner of one of the huge stands, things could not have been better as United were on the verge of the European Cup semi-finals yet again.
When a Manchester United player scored the fourth goal of this pulsating tie no more than a feint whimper could be heard from the home fans as Brennan had put through his own goal, scoring against George’s Northern Ireland international teammate, Gregg but Best and United had not finished with their hosts yet and added two more goals in the 78th minute (Crerand) and 89th minute (Charlton) to clip the wings of the famous Eagles of Lisbon with an 8-3 aggregate victory.
When the final whistle sounded the home fans who had bothered to stay and watch their team humiliated for the full 90 minutes, hurled cushions down on their crestfallen players as they trudged off the pitch totally demoralised. However, there was no doubting the fact that Manchester United’s demolition of the Portuguese Champions is one of the greatest ever attacking displays by a team away from home in European competition and it was the dazzling skills of the Belfast Boy, and not Eusébio, who looked the best player in Europe on the night.
And for George and his United teammates the agony and despair experienced by them in the Portuguese capital two years earlier had well and truly been exorcised.
After the game a fan ran on to the pitch with a knife and made his way towards George. Thankfully, he was brought to the ground before he could get anywhere near United’s two goal hero and afterwards it was discovered that he had intended to claim a lock of George's hair.
When Matt Busby was interviewed after his side’s 5-1 win he was asked what his plans had been going into the game trying to protect their slender one goal advantage and said: "Our plan was to be cautious, but thankfully somebody must have stuffed cotton wool in George's ears."
Eusébio had scored 48 goals in the previous season including 9 in 9 European Cup games, and this was supposed to be his big night but he was too well marshalled by the United back four, his performance a mere flicker compared to George who illuminated the Stadium of Light in flashing streaks of red lightning.
This was Best’s night, 90 minutes of rampage during which he taught the Benfica players a “lição,” the Portuguese word for lesson.
The ghosts of two years before for United in Lisbon had well and truly been eradicated on what proved to be a Night of Horrors for the home side. Nobody saw this result coming including the Portuguese press. It caused shockwaves throughout the country which was only mirrored by Portugal’s quarter-final game against North Korea in the 1966 World Cup finals hosted by England.
Having won Group 3 at a canter, hardly breaking sweat after defeating Hungary 3-1 at Old Trafford, Bulgaria 3-0 at the same venue and rounding off their Group games with a 3-1 victory over reigning World Cup winners from the previous two editions of this global tournament, Brazil.
Eusébio scored twice against the South American champions and in the quarter-finals Portugal were drawn against the surprise outfit of the competition, North Korea, who had finished runners-up in Group 4 to the Soviet Union who won all three of their matches.
North Korea’s 1-0 win over Italy, two times Jules Rimet winners (1934, 1938), at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough sent a shockwave to the other nations competing as if a tsunami had just arrived on English shores but no one gave them a prayer against Eusebio and Portugal.
On 23 July 1966, Portugal met North Korea at Goodison Park. The outcome seemed a mere formality, an annihilation of their Asian opposition by a European powerhouse, or maybe not.
North Korea were World Cup final stages virgins and no other team from Asia had ever progressed beyond the Group Stages in the competition since the inaugural World Cup held in Uruguay in 1930.
But after twenty-five minutes of the game the Koreans had raced into a 3-0 lead. It was at this point that the “Black Panther” revealed his claws and scored four goals (including two penalties) in his side’s 5-3 victory.
But their hopes of being crowned World Champions were ended by England and one man in particular, Bobby Charlton who scored both goals in a 2-1 semi-final win at Wembley Stadium.
Portugal beat the Soviet Union 2-1 in the Third-Place play-off at Wembley Stadium, Eusebio scored yet another penalty, his third in the tournament, whilst England defeated West Germany 4-2 after extra time at the same venue, the otherwise known as Empire Stadium.
With 9 goals, Eusebio won the Golden Boot as the top goal scorer.
As the Manchester United team home touched down in Manchester Airport the next day, the sea of press waiting for them were only interested in speaking to and photographing one player - George Best.
The 19-year old who was born in east Belfast stepped off the plane and looked like a movie star. He was wearing a black leather jacket, dark sunglasses and a souvenir sombrero covered his long black hair.
The Portuguese media quickly dubbed him “El Beatle” a monicker which the English press instantly adopted naming George as the “Fifth Beatle” - the world was now literally at his feet.
There is absolutely no doubt that George Best was football’s first superstar. Diego Maradona named George Best as his all-time favourite player and the legendary Brazilian striker, Pelé said that George Best was the best player in the world.
Who would dispute Pelé’s endorsement of George?
After all he won the World Cup three times with Brazil (1958, 1962, 1970) and scored a staggering 1,281 goals in 1,363 games during his glittering career including 77 for Brazil in 92 international appearances.
Many years later, when George looked back on the game, he realised that it was perhaps the watershed moment of his career which would shape the rest of his life on and off the pitch.
“On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods. It was surreal stuff,” said George.
Little did George know it but whilst he may have been halfway to heaven, he was just a half mile from hell.
But as the saying goes...the rest is history, and George’s name is forever embedded in the history of not only Manchester United, but in the world of football.
And how fitting the opening chorus to “One Moment In Time,” sung so majestically by Whitney Houston, is when I was dreaming of becoming the next George Best:
Each day I live
I want to be a day to give the best of me
I'm only one, but not alone
My finest day is yet unknown
las, I never possessed the talent of George Best.
George, I still miss you so very much but I know you are up there in heaven above me doing what you do so best, playing football with a smile on your face and scoring the odd hat-trick or more.
I will never forget you.
Did You Know That?
When George Best was dazzling the Portuguese public in their own backyard, back home in the UK Nancy Sinatra was No.1 in the UK Singles Chart with the song “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”
Nancy was the eldest daughter of the legendary crooner Frank Sinatra and she spent four weeks at the Top of the Charts (17 February 1966 to 17 March 1966).
Her boots may well have been made for walking but George’s boots were most definitely made for scoring goals. Coincidentally, when United beat SL Benfica 3-2 in the first leg, the UK No.1 single was “Michelle” sung by the Overlanders, a song taken from The Beatles’ album “Rubber Soul.”
About the Author
John White is the founder member and Branch Secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club, 1991, the second largest official Manchester United Supporters’ Club in the world.
This article is taken from John’s new book about Manchester United, his 18 th about the team he fell in love thanks to George Best.
The book is entitled: Manchester United: The Making of a Football Dynasty: 100 Great Matches - 1878-2021 and is available from Empire Publications, Manchester and from Amazon
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