George Best in his younger days © Getty Images
George Best, the greatest player to pull on a green shirt for Northern Ireland, and a legendary winger for Manchester United, almost had his career derailed after reaching the wrong Old Trafford – the cricketing one. Arunabha Sengupta retraces the rookie footballer’s harrowing first trip to the club in July 1961.
Stocky and with hunched shoulders, Bob Bishop had a rugged, taciturn face and draped himself in shabby clothes. His fingers were stained by nicotine and a hacking cough resulted from the same habit. His hair was white, face lined and his days as a riveter in the Belfast shipyards had left him partially deaf.
Yet, everyone in Northern Irish football recognised ‘The Bishop.’ If anyone kicked a ball in Belfast, this ageing man knew him. He spent bitterly cold days, often drenched from incessant rain and biffed about by gale, watching matches at the school or youth club competitions, Boys’ Brigade matches and amateur leagues. He had a gift for spotting talent – knew instinctively whether a player possessed ‘it.’
He was recruited by Manchester United in 1950 at £2 a week to find talented 14 or 15-year-olds. And he worked six days for them, often dragging himself to football matches on Sundays as well. He gave them Jackie Scott, an outside forward who soon made his first-division debut in 1952 and played for Northern Ireland in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. In 1960, Bishop was promoted to the role of the Head Scout of Northern Ireland. And in that capacity he came across a skinny, wimpy, frail boy with bamboo like limbs called George Best.
At that stage of life, Best was 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 7 st 7 lb (around 47 and a half kgs). His ribs almost dented his chest by poking out grotesquely. Other scouts had come to see him, drawn by stories and legends already building around his esoteric football skills. They had come from Glentoran, the club that Best supported, from Wolverhampton Wanderers, even from Manchester City. Every one of them had thought him too puny to last against real athletes. He was built like a matchstick.
With the ball, however, the matchstick was struck alight. He scored plenty and set up many more as he played for Cregagh. But it took The Bishop to discover the flickering flame of talent beyond the wafer thin bag of skin and bones.
It was April 1961 when Cregagh Boys Club played Bishop’s Boyland Youth Club. Best was three weeks away from his 15th birthday. His opponents were more than three years older. Best glanced at the old gent in a coat and cap who stood in the sidelines and did not register anything special. He scored two goals that afternoon. The second was a run in from wide on the left, a swerve around three challenges, a deft one-two before a low, angled shot grazed the post and went in. Bishop had specifically instructed the Boyland boys about a wee lad up front, who was not to be given an inch. That meant the use of force if required. In the first half no one was quick enough to get close to him. In the second he jumped over most of the tackles.
Did Bishop really send the cable to Matt Busby that read: “I think I have found you a genius?” Many believe that he was much more sedate in his communications, painstakingly filing his reports to Old Trafford’s chief scout Joe Armstrong. However, soon he had found out all about Best and his family, about his amateur footballer father and his spectacularly talented hockey playing mother, his honest and creditable schoolwork and scholarship to Grosvenor High. Bishop invited Best to spend a couple of days at his sister’s Bay cottage. He made him run till he almost dropped. And within 48 hours he had filled in the signing-on form. “I’ve got you to Old Trafford,” he told the boy. “But, I can’t keep you there.”
Best had never been further than Bangor, a town four miles from home. Manchester was 250 miles from Belfast. His companion for the trip was Eric McMordie, a boy from Bishop’s Boyland Youth. None of them had worn a trouser before, and they itched uncomfortably. The Ulster Prince that ferried them overnight to Liverpool seemed like an iron monster. There was more food in the buffet than they had ever seen in their young lives. They ate quietly and little before retiring to their bunk beds, whispering about football and their families.
Both had assumed that they would be met by a United official at the Liverpool docks. Nothing of that sort happened. The two poor souls had to journey to Manchester on their own, heaving their luggage to the Lime Street Railway Station, trying to find out when the next train to Manchester left.
On reaching Manchester, they got into a taxi and confidently voiced the two words they knew well, “Old Trafford.” They were driven straight to the cricket ground. Lancashire, led by Bob Barber, were busy in their encounter against Middlesex, and the taxi driver naturally mistook their choice of sport.
Barber, Ken Higgs, Peter Lever, Peter Parfitt, Geoff Pullar, Fred Titmus and Alan Moss made a formidable collection of Test stars involved in the match. However, all that the two confused lads saw was a ground that was obviously not the headquarters of the football club.
When they finally reached, Joe Armstrong was waiting for them and with a nasty frown on his brow. He looked like a gnome, white haired, wizened, almost 70 and reaching up to only 5 feet 4 inches. He took the boys to task severely for not waiting for the taxi that the club had sent to fetch them. By the time they were through with the dressing down, Best and McMordie sat down to a full English breakfast even though they had eaten just a few minutes earlier. Neither had any spirit left in them to remark or refuse.
The homesickness got worse as they were shown their digs and it did not improve with their first training session. The little old houses and narrow streets jarred in their minds. The men at the training were full grown and muscular. Best yearned for the secure life in Belfast. Even the introduction to fellow Irishman Harry Gregg did not help matters. Best wanted to return. He had made up his mind to play in the Irish league and occasionally brag about his almost making it to Manchester United once.
Both the lads went back on the following day, boarding the same Ulster Prince for the return journey.
Thankfully, a phone call from Armstrong followed by astute handling of the situation by Best’s father ensured a return to the hallowed club.
The rest, as they say, is one of the most colourful chapters of football history.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)