The showman and the dynamo: the unique similarities between George Best and Howard Kendall’s careers

The showman and the dynamo: the unique similarities between George Best and Howard Kendall’s careers

For the press corps and television companies who are always looking for a new angle to portray the age-old English institution of the FA Cup final, the 1964 final was a godsend. Preston North End became the first Second Division club to reach Wembley since Leicester in 1949.  Their opponents, West Ham, were making their first return to the stadium since playing in the inaugural 1923 final there.

A rich shroud of footballing nostalgia enveloped this encounter. Nevertheless, the eyes of the nation were focussed on one player, a young man who had made only a handful of appearances for his club but now attracted the attention of a nation. He was just 17 years and 345 days old and he was about to become the youngest player ever to be selected for an FA Cup final at Wembley. His name? Howard Kendall.

It was unquestionably Howard’s day, yet if events had followed a different course, he would have been sharing the occasion with another player who was the same age as him.  On semi-final day – 14 March 1964 – Manchester United, the holders, took on West Ham at Hillsborough, with the East Enders prevailing 3-1.

When the teams left the pitch, a young Red Devils starlet may not have fully understood the opportunity that had passed him by. If his side had returned to Wembley, at the age of 17 years and 345 days, he also would have shared the honour of becoming the youngest ever player in an FA Cup final alongside Kendall. His name? George Best.

It would have been a case of meticulously comparing recorded times of birth to proclaim who of the two was officially the youngest.

As their careers developed, the FA Cup was to prove elusive for the two; Best never played in a final and Kendall failed to win in either of his two appearances in one. It is one of several parallels that ran through the lives of the two footballers who by a strange quirk of fate were born on the same date: 22 May 1946.

Baby Boomers

Born so soon after the end of World War Two, Best and Kendall were at the beginning of the baby boom which led to record numbers of new offspring arriving in the United Kingdom after the cessation of hostilities. 

Howard Kendall was born in Ryton upon Tyne, a suburb of Newcastle, and was apparently such a heavy baby weighing in at 11lbs that it allegedly deterred his mother, May, from having any more. From an early age, he showed a natural talent for football. His father Ted, was a decent amateur footballer, was a major influence, coaching his son in the skills of the game at every opportunity.

Kendall played regularly for his primary school team. By then, his family had moved to the new town of Washington, which, in contrast to the industrial grime of Newcastle, offered many green spaces for a youngster to practice his ball skills. Howard was a gifted sporting all-rounder, excelling in cricket during the summer months.

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In Belfast, George Best was the first child of Dickie and Anne, the latter having apparently threatened to leave her husband if she didn’t get pregnant within six months. Therefore, like Kendall, he was the first born into the family, although a further five siblings would follow.

Best was also strongly supported by his parents who encouraged him to kick a ball at every opportunity. Best’s parents also relocated to new housing in 1949, with the family home now on the newly-built Cregagh estate in the city, which offered the opportunity to enjoy football on grass rather than cobbles. At primary school, he stood out for his football ability despite his waif-like stature and, like his English counterpart, was also a multi-talented athlete.

Secondary Days

For any baby boomer, the words the Eleven-plus still strike a raw nerve. It was a form of social division which, at the tender age of 11, could dictate a youngster’s life prospects. The stakes were incredibly high: pass the examination and you were off to a grammar school which enhanced your life prospects. The pass rate in the United Kingdom varied between ten and 35 percent depending on where you lived. Even now amongst the post-World War Two generation, arguments can still be settled by the riposte, “Well, I passed the Eleven-plus – did you?” 

Kendall and Best were pushed hard by their parents to reach the standard required. Their efforts paid off and both gained a place at the local grammar school. For the former it was Washington Grammar School, while for the latter, the Grosvenor High School. In Belfast, this school had one major drawback for Best: it played rugby union and not football.

Although he showed ability in this new sport, it wasn’t for him. Eventually, after prolonged bouts of truancy, his parents recognised that he was not happy there and he transferred to Lisnaharragh Secondary, where football was the main sport. Although they were never the closest of friends, Kendall would find himself playing for his school team with a certain Bryan Ferry as well. When Ferry was at the height of his fame with Roxy Music, it emerged that a young Kendall was also an excellent organ player. Perhaps Ferry modelled his technique on that of his former teammate.

Whilst they both played for their school teams and county sides, neither progressed to becoming regular choices for their national schoolboy teams. Kendall made just one appearance and Best, although selected in a squad for Northern Ireland Schoolboys, never made the starting line-up. Given what they went on to achieve in their later professional careers, it does seem to have been a considerable oversight by the selectors. 


Clearly, both boys possessed sufficient academic ability to continue their studies and sit their O and A levels. However, at that time, when the school leaving age was 15, once a football scout from a league club knocked on your family door, you were always going to choose a life in football over academia. For Kendall and Best, it was a no-brainer.

In Kendall’s case, his local sides, Newcastle and Sunderland, wanted him as an apprentice. Arsenal also invited him for a trial but the scout from Preston, Reg Keating, had courted the player and his family over a period of time and he duly signed as an apprentice for the Lancastrians in May 1961, a few days after his 15th birthday.

Over in Belfast, the boy neglected by the schoolboy selectors was creating a reputation for himself playing for Cregagh. He attracted the attention of the Manchester United scout Bob Bishop who allegedly told his superiors, “I ‘ve found you a genius.” In a similar fashion to the experience of the Kendall family, Bishop cultivated a trusting relationship with the Best family, and they were happy to allow their son to travel to Manchester for a two-week trial.

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In July 1961, the 15-year-old Ulsterman was on his way to join up with United. His parents were reassured that such a big club would look after their son well. They could not have been more mistaken.

Child protection policies were not a feature of society in the 1960s. If they had been, Preston might have graded as outstanding whilst Manchester United would have been placed in special measures. For the youngsters, barely in their mid-teens, their experiences contrasted sharply.

Kendall was met on arrival at his new club and placed in lodging with Emma and Tom Rawlinson near Deepdale. He settled in well and the club gave him free travel passes to return home once a month. Being the only apprentice staying with the Rawlinsons, the experience wasn’t too dissimilar to that of living at home with his own parents.

It is still bewildering to consider how derelict Manchester United were in their treatment of Best. He travelled across on the ferry from Belfast to Liverpool with another young 15-year-old prospect, Eric McMordie. It is astounding that no representative of the club was there to accompany them. On their arrival at Liverpool, after a long sleepless overnight journey, bedraggled and bewildered, they dragged their luggage across to Lime Street. Still no sign of any official from United to assist them.

They caught a train to Manchester, after which they took a taxi to Old Trafford. With it being the summer, the driver assumed they meant the cricket ground; nobody had explained to them that there were two stadia of that name. The club staff were equally unhelpful, making no effort to make them feel at home.

It was no surprise that within 36 hours, they were on the boat home to Belfast. Although it was challenging for Kendall to adapt to a new life in Preston, at least it was the same country. For Best, with his rich impenetrable Belfast brogue, he struggled to make himself understood, and indeed be understood, in this new environment. He was later to reflect that he wished the scout Bob Bishop had been with him as an “interpreter”.


To Matt Busby’s credit, he was outraged when he learnt of how Best had been treated and insisted on immediate changes. After assurances were given to the forward’s father, he returned to the club and settled in his new lodgings with Mrs Fullaway in Chorlton-cum–Hardy. In a similar manner to Kendall, Best had found the ideal accommodation.

The two players adapted to their new apprentice lifestyle which involved cleaning and the boots of the senior players and the dressing rooms and terraces. They also impressed the coaching staff with their determination to practice their skills at every opportunity on the training ground, long after the scheduled sessions had finished. In truth, although they were extremely confident in their own abilities, they had seen too many apprentices fail to make the grade.

Read  |  My first football match: Everton vs Blackburn in the harsh winter of 1962

May 22, 1963 loomed large in the lives of the youngsters. This would mark their 17th birthday – the day that would indicate if their clubs were prepared to sign them on as professional footballers. There was never any doubt that this was going to happen. Best agreed a deal for £17 a week, whilst in Preston, Kendall would receive £15 a week.


Kendall was the first of the duo to make the first team. A raft of injuries caused by the backlog of fixtures created by the big freeze during the winter of 1962/63 gave him his opportunity. Eleven days short of his 17th birthday, he was picked to play against the team he supported, Newcastle, at St James Park.

On 11 May 1963, the young tyro played his part in earning his side a 2-2 draw in front of a sparse crowd of 13,502, and kept his place for the next game before injury curtailed his season. Nevertheless, as the 1963/64 campaign started, he was back in the reserves.

Best made his debut for Manchester United four months later. Busby told him “you’re in today, son” and on the 14 September 1963, four months after his 17th birthday, he appeared in a red shirt at Old Trafford for their fixture against West Brom in front of a crowd of 50,453. His team won 1-0, but after this brief cameo it was back to the reserves.

Kendall struggled to establish himself as a regular first-teamer during the 1963/64 campaign, but an opportunity came knocking on 13 January 1964 when he was recalled to the side for the FA Cup third-round Replay against Nottingham Forest. In extra-time, with the score at 0-0, the youngster hit a screamer from 25 yards to seal the tie for the Lilywhites. It was some way to score your first goal for the club. It was also the start of what was to prove to be a momentous cup run.

He featured in the next two Cup matches against Bolton and Carlisle, but injury forced him to miss the quarter-final tie at Oxford United and the semi against Swansea. Against all odds, they were about to play in an FA Cup final.

After a humiliating Boxing Day defeat at Burnley, Busby recalled Best to the side for the return fixture on the 28 December 1964 – and he duly scored a goal in an impressive performance which resulted in a 5-1 victory. His place in the starting line-up was never in doubt after that. A matter of 16 days separated the debut first-team goals of both players.

Manchester United were the FA Cup holders and, after overcoming Southampton, Bristol Rovers, Barnsley and Sunderland, they faced West Ham in the semi-final. The Belfast boy only realised later that he was on the verge of making football history by becoming the youngest ever player to appear in a Wembley final. Whether he even knew of Kendall’s claims or vice versa, it didn’t matter as the Londoners triumphed 3-1.

Kendall himself. although recalled to the first team the Saturday before the final, was not expecting to appear at Wembley. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Ian Davidson was sanctioned by the management at Preston for a “serious breach of club discipline”, which meant a Wembley place beckoned. 

Kendall was now scheduled to be the youngest player at a Wembley FA Cup final, and a media frenzy ensued. One could only feel sorry for John Sissons, the West Ham winger whose birthdate was 30 September 1945, which would have made him the record-breaker had Howard not played. On the day itself, Cliff Bastin, the ex-Arsenal winger who had held that record since 1930, sent Kendall a telegram to congratulate him. Best could only watch and reflect on what might have been.

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Preston lost an enthralling final 3-2. It was the start of an FA Cup hoodoo for young Kendall. He lost in the 1968 Cup final with Everton, in addition to losing at the semi-final stage in 1969 and 1971. Later in his career, he lost at the same round with Birmingham.

Best fared even worse in the same competition, never once playing in an FA Cup final for Manchester United and losing at the semi-final stage again in 1965 and 1970. Neither player encountered much success in the League Cup either, as their respective clubs failed to reach the final of that tournament during their playing careers.

Golden Years 

The period from the start of the 1964/65 season to the European Cup final in May 1968 were the glory days for George Best. He won the league title in 1965 and 1967 and the European Cup in 1968. His performances were recognised on a wider scale when he claimed the Footballer of the Year and the European Footballer of the Year awards in 1968. 

After making his debut against Wales on 15 April 1964, he became a regular fixture in the Northern Ireland side for the next 13 seasons. When Manchester United lifted the European Cup in 1968, it should have presaged an era whereby the club imposed a total domination on English and European football. Nobody at the time would have suspected, including Best himself, that it was the last trophy he would ever win.

Whilst Best was establishing himself as a full international, Kendall’s international career looked set to blossom. In the summer of 1964, he captained the England youth side which won the so-called “Little World Cup”, and it seemed only a matter of time before Alf Ramsey would call him up for the senior team.

It is one of the mysteries of football that Kendall didn’t win a single England cap. To many neutral observers he seemed the ideal candidate – calm, level-headed and the archetypal midfield dynamo – but somehow Ramsey never seemed to recognise those qualities. Some commentators have speculated that if Best had been English, then he would have won many caps, but despite all his natural football talent, surely Ramsey’s team of workhorses might not have been able to accommodate a thoroughbred like him. 

Media Stars

It is hard to believe now but after his Wembley appearance and success with the England youth team, Kendall was receiving far more coverage in the media than Best. He was inundated with so much fan mail from admiring teenage girls that he had to employ his mother to deal with the volume of correspondence.

Throughout that summer, he was invited to be a judge in many local beauty pageants where his appearances would draw gasps and screams from besotted females. If Best had been watching he might have learnt some early lessons on how quickly media attention could escalate. In some ways, by staying with Preston, he avoided the excessive press scrutiny which was to blight Best’s career.

In contrast, as Best’s career flourished, his every move became the focus of attention. With his film-star looks and prodigious footballing skills, he was a marketing dream. By the time of United’s European Cup win, his face was everywhere, with his photograph appearing on the cover of newly-launched football magazines such as Goal and Jimmy Hill’s Football Weekly.

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By the end of the decade, he would also be seen on the front page of popular girl’s magazines such as Jackie, and in addition to marketing Stylo football boots, would launch his own clothing range through Littlewood’. To add to the wholesome image, he was still lodging with his landlady, Mrs Fullaway, although how often he stayed the night there was increasingly questionable.

The Pendulum Swings

After helping Manchester United to lift the European Cup, Best was looking forward to the next stage in his career. Little did he know, the sands were shifting at Old Trafford.  Busby had achieved his dream and seemed to be losing interest in the club. Several key elements of that team, including Denis Law and Pay Crerand, were nearly 30 and Bobby Charlton was 31. It was obvious that replacements would be needed as the ones that had arrived, such as Ted MacDougall, were nowhere near the standard required.

If the Belfast boy had imagined himself to be an essential cog in a well-oiled machine, he gradually realised that he was the one keeping the whole operation together on the pitch. It seemed that for too many at Old Trafford, winning the European Cup had fulfilled all their aspirations. United were runners up to Manchester City the following season but they never finished higher than eighth during Best’s remaining time there. The party was over for Best – at least on the football pitch.

Between the summers of 1964 and 1968, Kendall might well have regarded the successes of the Northern Irishman with some envy as he languished in the Second Division with a directionless Preston. Nevertheless, he was still only 21 and the words of his father remained embedded in his mind: “If you make it there, the big clubs will come for you.”

Many First Division sides were monitoring his progress and Kendall knew that Bill Shankly of Liverpool was interested. Therefore, he was somewhat surprised to discover in March 1967 that Harry Catterick had agreed to buy him. He was off to Goodison Park to become an Everton player. It was the start of a life-long love affair.

At the end of the 1967/68 season, he appeared on the losing team for the second time in an FA Cup final, but two seasons later he was an essential part of an Everton team that lifted the league. It was the first major honour of his career.

At the age of 24, Kendall could anticipate achieving further trophies with Everton. However, just like Best, he appeared to be playing for a manager who was about to lose his touch. In one fateful week in March 1971, Everton crashed out of the European Cup at the quarter-final stage to Panathinaikos and lost a FA Cup semi-final to Liverpool. With Catterick’s health continuing to decline, Everton were never the same again. It is still a shock to realise that neither Kendall nor Best collected winners medal as players after the age of 24.


This was to be a defining season in the lives of both players. Best was struggling under the new regime of Tommy Docherty at Manchester United. His personal life was descending into chaos and his drinking problems were making him the centre of a media maelstrom. On 1 January 1974, he made his final appearance for the Red Devils in a 3-0 defeat away at QPR.

Few present would’ve imagined that this was his last game for the club. Indeed, he never played top-flight football in England again. After one fall-out too many with Docherty, Best was on his way. He was still only 27. Everyone at Manchester United was expecting him to reconsider and return, but he never did.

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Kendall was experiencing a new managerial regime under Billy Bingham. Although still the club captain, he was unfortunate that a knee injury caused him to miss nearly five months of the season. Perhaps Bingham concluded that he could do without him. The captain returned from injury and, on 9 February, he played as Everton beat Wolves 2-1 at Goodison. It was his third consecutive comeback game and fans were pleased to see him back in the team. Once again, nobody had any inkling that he was about to leave.

In a stunning transfer in March 1974, Kendall was shipped out to Birmingham as part of a deal that saw Bob Latchford arrive at Goodison. At the age of 27, just like Best, he had left one of the top clubs in England. Instead of challenging for trophies, he was now joining a team that would be in a constant battle to avoid relegation. However, unlike Best, he was still playing in the First Division.

Two of the best post-war footballers in British football, who shared the same birthday and should have been at the peak of their footballing careers, found themselves clubs they absolutely loved, ones they never wanted to depart. Their adoring fans felt bereft. It took both clubs years to recover from their departures.

The Long Goodbye

Best established himself as a player in the North American Soccer League whilst also playing for Fulham and Hibernian. Howard moved to Stoke and then Blackburn as a player-manager. He was appointed as the Everton boss in the summer of 1981, but still managed a few appearances for the first team during an injury crisis, playing his final game as a professional footballer on 2 January 1982 at the age of 35 against West Ham of all teams, almost 20 years after his debut for Preston.

Meanwhile, Best made one last hurrah in the Football League for Third Division Bournemouth. He appeared on five occasions, his last coming on 7 May 1983 against Wigan two weeks short of his 27th birthday in front of a paltry crowd of 4,532. It was nearly 20 seasons after his debut for Manchester United.


Kendall went on to become the most successful Everton manager of all time, winning two league titles, the FA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup. Europe was once again to play a significant part in the life of the duo. As a consequence of English clubs having been banned from continental competition after the events of Heysel in May 1985, Kendall was prevented from leading his team into the European Cup on two occasions.

He was still only 41, with a long managerial career ahead of him, but his progress was about to stall. After a golden period of four trophies in as many seasons in three different competitions, he was never to add to that haul as a manager. By the summer of 1987, his halcyon years were behind him, through events completely beyond his control. He departed for Athletic Club to experience the European football that was denied to him at Everton. 

The 1980s, in contrast, were difficult times for Best. His drinking was out of control and his health deteriorated without football as a focus. His drunken exploits were ready-made for the tabloid paparazzi and a disastrous appearance on the Wogan Show in September 1990 indicated how low he appeared to have sunk in the public eye.

Eventually he made a comeback of sorts as an after-dinner speaker which led to him being employed as a pundit on Sky Sport’s Soccer Saturday show, where he showed a natural flair for discussing the game. Away from the studio he could often be found in his local, The Phene, in Fulham where he was more than happy to talk football, sometimes forgetting he was due on Sky Sports.

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Kendall returned for a third spell as Everton manager in 1997/98 but it was a season to forget as, after a calamitous campaign, the club only just avoided relegation on the final day. He was removed from his post during the summer – a seriously shabby way to treat a club legend.

Despite his pedigree and long record of success, at the age of 52 he appeared to have no future in football, regarded in some circles as “damaged goods”. With no active role in the game, Kendall appeared to turn more and more to drink for comfort. He could also be found in his local, The Freshfield, in the north of Liverpool, where he was happy to while away the hours talking about football. Why Sky Sports never came calling is a mystery.

Best finally succumbed to the ravages of alcohol and died on 25 November 2005 at the prematurely young age of 59. Kendall died ten years later, also well before his time, on 17 October 2015 aged 69. Everton had a home fixture the afternoon that the news of his passing broke. Their opponents that day? Manchester United. It was almost as if fate was trying to bring Kendall and Best together again for one last time.

As you approach the Old Trafford, your eyes immediately gravitate towards the impressive bronze statue that stands imperiously above the gathering matchday crowd. On the plinth is the famed United trinity, featuring Charlton, Law and Best, the players who powered Manchester United’s success in the Busby area.

Thirty miles away at Goodison Park, there is another imposing statue showcasing Everton’s Holy Trinity that is the focus of attention for all Blues going to the match. It features Alan Ball, Colin Harvey and Howard Kendall, the midfield triumvirate that drove Everton to the title in 1970.

It is fitting that Best and Kendall are commemorated forever in bronze at the clubs where they made their greatest impact. For many it is a shrine, and the followers come every day to worship. They are immortal standing outside the stadia they used to grace.

Over the years, several films have tried to depict the life of Best. The most recent, All by Himself, released in 2016 focuses on his battle with the bottle rather than concentrating on the unbridled joy he brought to millions as a footballer.

Last year saw the release of the film Howard’s Way, which details the fantastic Everton side that won the league and Cup Winners’ Cup in 1985. The insight into Kendall’s managerial style is fascinating. Clearly he liked a drink, but so did the players in his charge. It was the football that mattered. This is exactly how he should be remembered and I am sure that is also the way Best deserves to be recalled.

Perhaps it is time for these iconic footballing individuals, born on that same day in 1946 and who departed from this planet far too early, to have a film made to celebrate their combined colossal contribution to British football. The audience is out there. All any prospective director needs is the right script. I may have just written it for them.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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