This feature is part of Virtuoso
There has never been much doubt about the footballing brilliance of George Best. Hailed as a genius when he was first discovered by Bob Bishop as a fresh-faced teenage street footballer with bags of potential, it might seem odd that the Northern Irish youngster didn’t take to life in Manchester straight away. Homesickness and the balancing act of working as an errand boy while playing amateur football certainly made for a tough start to what would ultimately culminate in Best’s destiny to become one of the standout players in the world throughout the 1960s and early 70s.
While his 1968 Ballon d’Or award, European Cup triumph, league titles, pin-up boy celebrity and almost myth-like playboy-style persona are all widely recognised as integral components of Best’s lasting legacy, for many there is one 90-minute spell that perfectly captured everything brilliant about him. It wasn’t the grandest of stages, either – an FA Cup fifth round clash against Northampton Town, back on 7 February 1970 – but Best managed to put on a show like none before, all the same.
Sporting the eye-catching red jersey of Manchester United, complete with starch-white shorts that would soon become a kit man’s nightmare to clean, considering how mucky and torn-up the County Ground was on that cold sunlit afternoon, Best was out to prove himself. This might seem an odd fact considering the exemplary evidence he had already submitted to the court of popular opinion; after all, he was already widely considered a great. Nevertheless, this was no ordinary match for him. He was out to dispel any doubt among the Red Devils faithful that his star was burning out or that he had lost control.
Best had picked up a lengthy ban of six weeks, following a naughty misdemeanour during the Manchester derby several weeks prior, after he had decided to kick the ball out of the referee’s hands. It was a minor bit of recklessness but it gave pause for many to question his mentality and desire.
However, the ball would be his friend against Northampton as he ran rings around the defence and, in particular, the man saddled with the responsibility of marking him that day, Ray Fairfax. Such was the lengthy absence of Best from the United team, no-one was quite sure if he would be fit and firing or how United would adapt with him back in the fold. Indeed, it’s now known that Northampton were unprepared for Best to be as good as he was that day.
In total, Best scored six goals as United won 8-2, running rampant to terrorise the opponent’s rear-guard, setting a new club goalscoring record in the process. In many ways, Best was sending a message to everyone that he was far from a waning talent. Northampton just happened to be the unwitting victims on the day – though they did register two goals of their own.
Although off the pitch he was a showman who attracted the limelight on a regular basis with his glitzy, champagne-fuelled nightlife, on the pitch there was a humble aura about him. The Northampton match showed that quite clearly as, even after he netted his sixth, his celebrations were subdued. As Fairfax explained to the London Telegraph a few years ago: “When he rounded our ‘keeper Kim Book and toe-poked it in, he looked embarrassed. He wasn’t trying to rub our noses in it.”
The first goal, a header in the opening half, arrived courtesy of a Brian Kidd cross from the right flank after the midfielder was played in by Paddy Crerand. Leaping with the assurance of a man on a mission, Best nodded the floated ball powerfully down into the goal, having judged the delivery to perfection at the back post.
The second goal saw Best played in on goal by a swift through-ball from Crerand from the centre circle, and he simply let the ball run beyond Book and the onrushing defender before collecting the ball the other side, in the box, to stroke it into the back of the net. With United 2-0 up and Best the instigator of their dominant position heading in at the break, his redemptive return had already been completed. His side cruising, and on course for the next round, Best was on a hat-trick – and he wanted it.
His sublime awareness, combined with some slick movement and quick reactions earn him the match ball. Another piece of inventive dribbling from Kidd allows the winger to send a ball in to the six-yard box where Best was lurking and, although Book gets a hand to it, and Best needs two efforts before he manages to hit the back of the net, it’s clear he is purring and in the mood to rack up as many goals as he can.
Number four is once more the combination of Kidd and Best, with the United number 11 throwing himself towards the ball, and the turf, to direct a right-footed cross from the left flank into the far corner, pinging it diagonally across the path of Brooks with his head. At this stage, Best’s shorts are muddied, but his reputation is sparkling once again – and when he collects Francis Burns’ expertly-weighted 30-yard through-ball minutes later, striding toward the net, the inevitability of his fifth goal is obvious as he skips beyond his marker.
With dexterity and accuracy, he slid the ball to the right of the helpless Book as the crowd erupted again in delight. Rounding Book for his double hat-trick, he slammed the ball home from close range before sidling over to one of the goalposts to lean on it for a moment, head down. Perhaps he stopped briefly to catch his breath, maybe he did it to take in the historic nature of what he had just accomplished, or, as Fairfax suggested, it was out of embarrassment – either way, it’s a lovely snapshot of his humility, the sort of anti-braggadocio that today’s modern game could do with more of.
After the match, Best made the distinction between himself as a footballer and an entertainer, saying, “It’s my job to do something that will send people away feeling that they’d like to see me play again.” Because while he went in to the Northampton fixture to entertain, and perhaps to prove a few people wrong, he left the air-punching flashiness out and stuck to doing what he did best: scoring goals to win matches for his team.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp