No Threat To George
No Threat To George
George Best was the footballing genius who dribbled with the ball as if he didn`t know where he was going, and neither did anyone else on the pitch, but the forward, loosely defined as a left winger, or inside forward that could play in midfield, or up front as a recognizable striker, had an unerring ability to put the ball in the net from almost anywhere he found himself to be on the field. Comparisons with Duncan Edwards, who lost his life in the February 6, 1958, Munich air crash, as the team came back from playing Red Star Belgrade, 3-3, and so qualified for the European Cup semi-final against A.C. Milan, after winning the home leg, 2-1, at the club`s Old Trafford stadium, were relevant but inaccurate. Duncan was a big, strong, player, who could play as a central defender, a central midfielder, or a forward, with equal effect, which is why he was described as the heart of the England team torn out on the eve of the 1958 World Cup Finals. The team lost eight players in the snow and ice of the failed plane take off at Munich, that is, England`s left back, and captain, Roger Byrne, and his understudy, right back, Geoff Bent, midfielders, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, centre back, Mark Jones, left winger, David Pegg, centre forward, Tommy Taylor, and mercurial Irish forward, Liam `Billy` Whelan. Irish inside forward and sometime centre back, Jackie Blanchflower, and England winger, Johnny Berry, were so badly injured they never played again.
By 1966 a much slighter figure than Duncan Edwards was holding centre stage at Old Trafford and at many of the world`s biggest stadiums as United continued their quest to win the European Cup and other of the world`s soccer prizes. George Best had been discovered in Northern Ireland`s Belfast and was now playing for the club to great effect. Matt Busby, United`s manager, had rebuilt the squad after the disaster, which had taken the lives of the team the media and public had called `The Busby Babes`; a squad of players that had won the English league championship in 1955-56 and 1956-57. Although Best was the player that caught the eye of the glamor obsessed paparazzi, United`s deep lying centre forward, Bobby Charlton, had begun as a powerful striker of the ball and goalscorer from out on the left wing with the Babes, and moved into the deep lying centre forward position after the crash, while Scots` goal `king`, Denis Law, had been brought from Italian club Torino for £115, 000 in 1962, and preceded George`s arrival on the Old Trafford stage at what came to be known as `The Theater Of Dreams`.
In 1963 United won the F.A. Cup Final, 3-1 against Leicester City. Charlton`s name on the team sheet for the programme of the event still has him down as an `outside left`, while Johnny Giles, who went on to play for Leeds United in a much lamented transfer deal on Busby`s part that saw Giles boss the Leeds` central midfield for a decade, and which brought that club the Second Division title in 1963-64, was marked down as an `outside right`. On the subject of his transfer to Leeds, Giles reportedly said to Busby: `I am going to haunt you.`1 He did, and United were thwarted time and again by Giles` Leeds, who became league champions in 1968–69, and 1973–74. The Leeds side also won the F.A. Cup in 1971–72, and the UEFA Cup in 1968, and 1971. It was Giles that provided the defence splitting pass for Herd`s opening goal in the F.A. Cup Final of 1963, which United won with goals from England forward, David Herd (2), and Law. At Manchester United wingers, like Giles, were prized, and though after the F.A. Cup win over Leicester City, 3-1, John Connelly arrived from Burnley for £56, 000 to play on the wing in a team that would win the League title in 1964-65, and 1966-67, before winning the 1968 European Cup in extra time after the game finished, 1-1, at London`s Wembley stadium against the Portuguese side Benfica, 4-1, with goals from Charlton (53, 99), Best (92), and Kidd (94), Giles` success at Leeds showed Manchester United how much greater their success might have been with John in the team.
In 1964-65 George Best had been a part of the F.A. Youth Cup winning side which had featured several future stars of the upcoming successful campaign seasons; England`s Bobby Noble (Capt.), who`d be United`s left full back in 1966-67 before a car crash ended his career; Scot, John Fitzpatrick, who`d deputize in United`s back, and half-back line, for much of the club`s successful 1960s period; England centre back, David Sadler, who many thought was better at centre forward, but he preferred the back line; England right winger, Willie Anderson, and England left winger, John Aston, son of John Aston Snr, who`d played as a left full back, or inside forward, with the United team that had won the F.A. Cup, 4-2, against Blackpool in 1948, and the league title winning team of 1951-52, which saw the emergence of England`s Bill Foulkes at right back, and who was later switched to great effect to centre half after the Munich air crash and the deaths of England centre back, Mark Jones, and the career ending injuries to Irishman, Jackie Blanchflower. Foulkes was still there at centre half for the 1968 European Cup Final defeat of Benfica, 4-1, in a more or less half-back line that included Sadler and Stiles; or Fitzpatrick in the event of injury or suspension.
Bobby Charlton won the World Cup with England playing in the same role for the national side as he did for United and alongside his United team mate, defensive half back, Nobby Stiles. England won, 4-2, at London`s Wembley stadium, against Germany. Although John Connelly played right wing in the first game of the World Cup Finals against Uruguay, 0-0, he didn`t figure in the Final. Manager Alf Ramsey was unimpressed and decided to opt for a team without wingers. England subsequently won the trophy with goals from West Ham`s centre forward, Geoff Hurst (3), and midfielder, Martin Peters, who had essentially been drafted into the team to replace John Connelly in Ramsey`s `wingless wonders`. Connelly had been ousted from the Burnley team by the play of winger, Willie Morgan, and Morgan was winging his way to United after the European Cup Final win of 1968 to replace Connelly. Although Morgan scored an 89th minute goal against the South American champions, Estudiantes of Argentina, to give United a 1-1 draw at home in the second leg of the Intercontinental Cup Final, they`d lost away, 0-1, and so the trophy went to Estudiantes, 1-2, on aggregate, and it wouldn`t be until the 1974-75 season when Morgan as right wing captain of a United side relegated to the Second Division the previous season, 1973-74, would lift a trophy, the Second Division championship. George Best had remained the doyen of the fans until he`d intimated to the press before the relegation season of 1973-74 that he wouldn`t play Second Division football with United and shortly afterwards he `retired` from the game; ostensibly to a beach in Spain.
Sir Matt Busby, knighted for his winning of the 1968 European Cup by England`s queen, Elizabeth II, was criticized for what happened after he retired in the 1968-69 season United lost the Intercontinental Cup Final, 1-2, to Estudiantes of Argentina. Busby`s role was taken over by Wilf McGuinness, a half back who, like many future successes at the club, won the F.A. Youth Cup (1953-54, 1954-55, and 1955-56) as captain, before making the step up to the senior squad with which he won a league title in 1956-57 after making 13 qualifying appearances, and later he was a coach with Busby`s squad. Wilf`s tenure was characterized by failure. The team made the F.A. Cup semi-final of 1970 but lost after a second replay, 0-1, with goal `king` Denis Law mysteriously unused on the subs` bench in consecutive 0-0 draws. Law missed most of the season supposedly injured and McGuinness transfer listed him at £60, 000. Earlier that 1969-70 season United had lost on aggregate, 3-4, in a League Cup semi-final to Manchester City, which saw the team draw 2-2 at home, and the fans` support for Wilf evaporated when Italian midfielder, Carlo Sartori, was preferred to Denis in the F.A. Cup semi-final to Leeds, which the side lost, 0-1 in a second replay, and with reputedly injured goalscoring legend, Law, kept by McGuinness in the `transfer shop window` of the substitutes` bench.
In the 1968-69 season George Best had top scored with 19 goals, and Denis Law was second top scorer with 14. It`s unlikely that Denis` potency as a forward should have declined so much through injury that Wilf McGuinness was justified in transfer listing him at £60, 000 before the commencement of the 1970-71 season. In 1969-70 George Best again top scored with 15 goals while, Brian Kidd, the club`s hero in the European Cup Final of 1968, when aged 18 he`d scored United`s third with a header as a replacement in the side for the injured Denis Law, was joint second top scorer with Bobby Charlton that season with 12. Because no other club came in with the £60, 000 needed to obtain the transfer signature of Denis Law, he was there in 1970-71 when McGuinness` United again lost their League Cup semi-final to Aston Villa, 2-3 on aggregate, and played in the 1-2 away defeat, while Brian Kidd scored both United goals. Kidd didn`t figure in the list of top scorers at United that 1970-71 season, although Denis Law did. He was second top scorer to George Best (18) with 13 goals, so suggesting that McGuinness` attempt to sell him on when injured was based on something other than professionalism.
Frank O` Farrell of Leicester City was appointed as United`s new manager because of Wilf`s lack of success and managerial inexpertise. George Best again top scored with 19 league goals, while Denis Law was second top scorer with 13, and Kidd got 10. Top of the league at Christmas, United lost seven straight games thereafter, and O` Farrell`s £225, 000 emergency buy, Ian Storey-Moore, a left winger from Nottingham Forest, scored 5 goals in eleven appearances to keep United out of the relegation zone and finish in 8th place. Moore scored only 7 more goals for United before injury curtailed his career and he retired in 1974, but he was in the mould of great United wingers and his early retirement from the stage at `The Theatre Of Dreams` was tragic for both club and player as it brought United closer to relegation. Scotland boss, Tommy Docherty, ironically replaced O` Farrell on December 19 midway through the 1972-73 season. Ironic given the fact that United had been top of the league the previous Christmas before a run of seven straight successive defeats saw them finish 8th. Docherty`s United finished 19th and Bobby Charlton top scored with 6 goals. As wingers, Best (4), Storey-Moore (5) and Morgan (4) weighed in with their expected share of goals, but the forwards, Brian Kidd (4), Lou Macari (5) bought from Celtic by Docherty for £200, 000, weren`t good enough. For £200, 000, Ted McDougall (5) arrived from Bournemouth, where he`d scored 103 goals in 146 games, and Manchester City`s Wyn Davies (4), brought by O` Farrell to replace then 34 years old Denis Law (1), who made only 9 starts that season, and was given a free transfer to Manchester City in a move that, like John Giles` to Leeds, would haunt Docherty, because the following term it was Denis, who`d left Manchester City in 1961 for Italian club, Torino, where he scored 10 goals in 27 games for £110, 000 in 1961-62, who back-heeled the ball into the net in the 81st minute at Old Trafford, 0-1, to relegate United in 1973-74, a season in which he played 24 games for City while scoring 9 goals from midfield.
For a while Docherty`s side was known as `Scotland United`, because of the predominance of players from across the border with England. In 1973-74 there were eight Scots` players that played in most of the league fixtures (42); centre backs, Martin Buchan (42), who`d been signed by O` Farrell in February 1972, for a then club record transfer fee of £120, 000, and would still be at United in 1983 after winning the 1977 F.A. Cup Final against Liverpool, 2-1, and Jim Holton (34), who played alongside Buchan as centre back for Scotland in the 1974 World Cup Finals in which the Scots were undefeated, but went out at the group stage on goal difference when Brazil beat Zaire, 3-0; right full back, Alex Forsyth (18), bought by Docherty for £100, 000 from Partick Thistle, who famously beat the Glasgow giant, Celtic, 4-1, in the 1971 Scottish League Cup Final; left full back, Stewart Houston (20), bought from Brentford by Docherty for 55, 000 in 1973, midfielder George Graham (23), who`d won `the double` with Arsenal in 1971, and was bought by O` Farrell for £120,000 in 1972, Jim McCalliog (11), bought from Wolves by Docherty in 1974 for £60, 000, Lou Macari (34), and Willie Morgan (41), who also played in the 1974 World Cup for the famously unbeaten Scots `team. The other mainstays of the 1973-74 season were England`s Alex Stepney (42) in goal, who`d still be there, like Buchan, when United won the F.A. Cup Final against Liverpool, 2-1, in 1977; England`s Brian Greenhoff (36), who`d play alongside Buchan in that final in the centre of defence; England`s centre back Steve James (21), who`d been in the team that won the quarter final with Austria`s Rapid Wien in the European Cup of 1969, 3-0, but without him the side lost to A.C. Milan in the semi-final, 2-1 on aggregate; English right full back, Tony Young (29), and Irishman Sammy McIlroy (24), often billed as `last of the Busby Babes`, who made a scoring debut on November 6, 1971, against Manchester City, 3-3.
The 1973-74 season saw United relegated to the Second Division. George Best made only 12 appearances for 2 goals, and the top scorer was his Northern Irish compatriot, Sammy McIlroy, with 6. Goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, was nominated as the penalty taker by `The Doc` in the face of nervousness at accepting such a burden of responsibility amongst the outfield players, and Alex subsequently scored from the spot twice, which made him top scorer after 22 games. Best`s unsanctioned retirement to a Spanish beach saw the emergence of Gerry Daly, an Irish winger who played 14 times in 1973-74. Daly was a mainstay of United`s year long stay in the Second Division before retuning as champions in 1974-75. Willie Morgan was captain, but gave way to Martin Buchan towards the end of the campaign when future England winger Steve Coppell arrived from Tranmere Rovers to replace Willie on the right for £60, 000. England`s future left winger, Gordon Hill, arrived from Millwall for £70, 000, and Daly, who`d filled George`s boots for 11 goals that season, switched inside to midfield, where he played alongside `Super Sam` McIlroy, withdrawn from the front line despite being the previous season`s top scorer with 6, and he still managed to score 7 goals in 1974-75 from midfield. Up front, alongside Lou Macari, who scored 11 goals that season, was England`s future front man, Stuart Pearson, bought for £200, 000 by Docherty from Hull City, because he was a reputable Second Division scorer, and he netted 17 times. Brian Greenhoff and Martin Buchan were the centre backs, and Alex Forsyth and Stewart Houston were the full backs in front of Alex Stepney in the United goal.
1 `Interview: Leeds legend John Giles`, The Scotsman, Saturday, November 13, 2010, https://www.scotsman.com/sport/interview-leeds-legend-john-giles-1-1370246 .