When George Best played for Second Division Fulham during a short spell in the mid 1970s, he undoubtedly cut a conflicting figure to the slight, jinking winger English fans had known during his enthralling 13 years at Manchester United. His body was thicker, his skin sun-kissed, both by-products of the comfortable California life afforded by a season spent playing for Los Angeles Aztecs, his fifth club in two years since leaving Old Trafford.
His cascading locks were in contrast to the bob that inspired the ‘El Beatle’ nickname; his short-sleeved, snow-white shirt could never be draped over a single hand held aloft to salute a goal like his long red jersey had done. His appearance betrayed hints of the archetype of the playboy footballer he had helped to mould.
But although it was easy to place your finger on his physical changes, something deeper had altered in the boy from Cregagh. Something was different in his demeanour; something burned brighter behind those blue eyes, dormant since he ceased to be a Busby Babe.
Few could argue that Best turned his back on top-level football when he played his last game for Manchester United in 1974 at the age of 27. His stints at each club immediately after, from South Africa to Ireland, attracted throngs of spectators but were equally tumultuous and ephemeral.
When poor discipline hampered his stay in the League of Ireland with Cork Celtic, Best crossed the Atlantic to join the razzmatazz of the North American Soccer League, which had already cajoled Pelé, and signed for LA Aztecs, co-owned by the flamboyant Elton John, in 1976.
Best wasn’t a big name on the West Coast. The Star-Spangled Banner provided a blanket of anonymity and he found solace in finally escaping the shackles of fame first locked upon him in M16. But he was a success on the field, playing 24 times and scoring 15 goals. The new accentuation of luxury and absence of public pressure seemed to suit Best, but the outdoor NASL season ran only until the end of August.
In the summer of that year, unctuous Fulham chairman Ernie Clay saw an opportunity in Best’s brief schedule to fulfil his idea to assemble a team of stars to draw bigger crowds to Craven Cottage. Two seasons previously, club captain Alan Mullery induced Bobby Moore to trade West Ham for SW6, and Clay now honed his sights on Best and Rodney Marsh to complete the triumvirate.
Marsh took the chance to return to his former club on loan from his own American dream at Tampa Bay Rowdies. An old drinking pal of Best’s, it is Marsh who persuaded the Belfast Boy, who had a home on the nearby King’s Road, to accept Clay’s £500-a-match contract and make the short saunter down the Thames to join him at the Cottage. On 12 August, Clay announced both players would join when the NASL season broke at the end of the month, under new manager Bobby Campbell.
Although many were sceptical about Best’s UK return, some observers noted an upturn in attitude upon his arrival. After watching him train for two weeks with the club, The Times’ Norman Fox wrote: “I was impressed by his athletic appearance and his convincing interest in ‘coming back’, as he felt able to cope with the pressures of life as the centre of permanent publicity.”
The man himself underlined he was focused solely on football, and not the temptations littered on its periphery. “I just want to get on the field and be allowed to play,” Best told reporters. “If people can judge me as a football player then that’s all I want.”
Best took the duty to beguile the paying public to heart; a new, adoring, audience gave him a desperately sought-after drive long since excluded from his fame-and-alcohol-induced bubble. Moore was football royalty, Marsh the club favourite, but it was Best the punters came to see.
No fewer than 21,177 fans streamed into Fulham’s Putney ground to see Best make his debut against Bristol Rovers on September 4, 1976, and score the game’s only goal after just 71 seconds. But not only did Best seal victory that day, he spent much of the remaining 88 minutes and 49 seconds diligently delivering on his promise to “make football fun again” – and the dubious press were suddenly rapturous.
“The crowd were treated to flashes of his old acceleration, the immaculate first-time control, teasing dribbles, accurate passes and a range of flicks and tricks,” scribed author and Fulham historian Alex White, while journalist Clive White claimed the return was ‘as good a dream debut as any that Roy of the Rovers could invent’.
The next home game against Wolves drew a crowd of 25,794, nearly three times the 9,437 that had turned up to watch the opening game of the campaign against Nottingham forest just three weeks earlier. Although the game ended 0-0, Best was again a standout. He and Marsh both produced flashes of animation on the pitch punctuated by irresistible trickery, and the crowd loved it. As Duncan Hamilton put it, “Best and his amigo Marsh … were like a two-man circus, pitching their tent to perform Big Top tricks”.
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Read | The fleeting career but eternal brilliance of George Best
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The next home league match against Hereford United saw the Best and Marsh carnival at its zenith. Fulham ran out 4-1 winners with Alan Slough and John Evanson opening the scoring. In the second half Best crossed for John Mitchell to head down for Marsh to score his first, before the Londoner completed a brace with a whirling shot from the very edge of the area. Fulham even scored Hereford’s consolation by way of an own goal from Ernie Howe.
Best and Marsh were at the height of their magisterial tomfoolery throughout. In the second half the pair stood over a free-kick. Best motioned to place the ball before flicking it up for Marsh to volley and loop wide. The pair even tackled each other to illuminate the game’s paler patches. It was carefree, flair football at its finest. Best’s trademark grin and guile had begun to resurface and what seemed so enigmatically different upon his return had become promptly apparent: George Best was enjoying playing football again.
In training he was no less jocular. On one occasion, he wagered £10 with Peter Mellor, Fulham’s goalkeeper, that he could score a penalty against him without looking. Best won, back-heeling an effort into the bottom corner after a two-step backwards shuffle.
Of course, there were still tales of Best’s wilder side courting the playboy lifestyle. London in the 1970s was a hive of hedonism featuring the world’s most gifted and tainted individuals, and Best was frequently found in the middle of that particular social Venn diagram. The West End nights sometimes crept into the days and intruded on his relationship with the young Fulham manager.
“When [Best would] turn up at 3pm Bobby Campbell would give him a rollicking and send him into Bishop Park,” recounted Tony Gale, a teenage trainee at Fulham in the 1976-77 season. “Bob would put down jumpers for goalposts, order Perry Digweed, another apprentice, in goal and send George out to dribble round a few willing kids and score a few, while dodging women pushing prams!”
And then there was the more shameful incident where Best required 55 stitches to facial wounds after crashing his car into a lamppost outside Harrods at 4am following a drinking session in a Jermyn Street nightclub. There were less savoury moments on field too, such as the red card in a 4-1 defeat to Southampton for using language as colourful as his character. But the stories of his positive endeavours far outweighed the negative.
Best played for Fulham 32 times in his first season. His performance in the 3-1 win over Chelsea – six weeks after his crash – helped the Cottagers to avoid relegation by just a point in front Fulham’s largest crowd of the season.
Surprisingly, the Moore-Best-Marsh trinity played only 15 times that season and the trio had long since disbanded when Best left for LA again at the beginning of the 1977-78 season, having managed just two goals in ten games.
At the tail end of his Thames-side stay the club fined Best for missing training, while the player complained of unpaid wages. But any cloud under which he left for America was banished by the memory of the sparkling displays he imbedded in the minds of those who saw him, aided by his friend Marsh. “It was like the Harlem Globetrotters. The fans came to be entertained, we entertained them,” Marsh later remembered. “We did it to put a smile on people’s faces,” Best innocently insisted.
After leaving Craven Cottage, Best globe-trotted around a number of clubs, signing for nine more teams from Scotland to Hong Kong. Many critics would say his career took a downward turn after departing Manchester United, but his time at Fulham was the closest he came to recapturing the form that made him famous.
Nearly 30 years after his debut, Best succumbed to a disease he was powerless to stop, aged only 59. One of his last wishes was for people to “remember me for my football”. Few who witnessed his brief but brilliant revival in English football at Fulham, could ever forget.
By Daniel Armstrong. Follow @DannyWArmstrong