This story is taken from Chapter 4 of Benjamin Robert’s new book on Northern Irish football, Gunshots & Goalposts which is available to purchase here with 20% off with the discount code: BTOB. Illustration kindly provided by Mark Johnson whose other work can be found here.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper and reluctant hero of the Munich Air Disaster Harry Gregg can take credit for alerting Bertie Peacock to the talents of his Manchester United teammate, George Best, in 1964. He called up the Northern Ireland manager, telling him ‘Bertie, there’s a bloody kid here, he’s incredible. He’s a bloody genius.’ Best had the audacity to put the ball through Gregg’s legs twice in training. ‘You do that again,’ he had told the winger,‘and I’ll bloody break your legs.’
He remembered their first encounter well, ‘I thought about the game as a player, even when I was a young man. Very few people caught me in a one-on-one situation. See George Best, he is the only c**t to have done me, through one-to-one with a goalkeeper.’ After an initial truncated trip to Manchester with Eric McMordie – both young men had become homesick and returned home just two days into a two-week trial – Best was persuaded by his father Dickie to go back and try again on his own.
This time there would be no turning back, and George settled into a new home with his landlady Mrs Fullaway by night, and by day at the Cliff, United’s training ground. Yet he would wonder if he had made the right decision.
The Scottish and Irish Football Associations had complained bitterly of their young talent being whisked from the clutches of their clubs by the comparatively rich English clubs, and there had been a decree by the English FA to placate their fears. The end result was that young men from those nations could not be signed as apprentices by English club sides, so George joined with United as an amateur.
Practically speaking, this meant he had to have a job and was officially only able to train with the other amateur players on Tuesday and Thursday nights. In some ways, it would have been better to have stayed in Belfast for a few more years, as he now had to deal with the tedium of being an errand boy on the Manchester Ship Canal, far away from the familiarities of home.
When young George had put pen to paper Matt Busby had sent £150 to Cregagh Boys Club as a goodwill gesture but Dickie and Ann were not forgotten. Gregg explained, ‘the club’s contract [with Best] was £5 per week for 40 weeks, with £200 to his parents in lieu of what George would have received had he been an apprentice at the Harland & Wolff shipyard.’
The man who would famously claim that he had ‘spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars and the rest I just squandered’, could not have foreseen as a fifteen-year-old that he would become bankrupt a few short decades later through wine, women and song. In those earliest days, he was ‘even embarrassed to speak to the conductor on the buses because everyone had trouble understanding my accent and people were always asking me to repeat myself. So I tried to make sure I had the exact money, threepence or fourpence or whatever it was so that I wouldn’t have to ask for a particular destination.’
While George’s star was ascending, Dickie continued his work at the shipyard. In the days before cheap and convenient air travel, he would make an arduous thirty-six-hour pilgrimage to watch his boy when he could. ‘Once George had made the grade, I used to try to get over to watch him play maybe six or seven times a season. It wasn’t easy. I used to go over on the boat overnight on a Friday and come back the same way on Saturday night.’ He continued, telling Best biographer Joe Lovejoy, ‘When I was on the nightshift, we worked four and a half nights.’
‘That was four normal shifts and then from 4:45 on a Friday afternoon until 8:45 in the evening. I used to collect my wages on Friday at 8:00 before I left. I’d have a change of clothes with me and I’d pull off my overalls and put them in a bag in my locker and head for the boat. It was a fifteen-minute walk from Harland and Wolff, but if you were lucky you could flag down a car and someone would give you a lift.’
While Dickie was making this unglamorous trip as and when, he remained firmly rooted in east Belfast, just as his son became cut adrift from the deteriorating situation in the land of his birth. Many years later, Best would sound naïve – if we are being generous, and myopic if we are not – when describing where he came from, declaring ‘The Troubles, as we know them now, hadn’t started then. Our troubles amounted to name calling, no more than that. The street my dad has lived on for forty-nine years is totally mixed. The next-door neighbours I knew are still there, and they are Catholic. The woman there, Melda, was my mum’s best friend. A couple of doors away there is another Catholic family, living happily next to a Protestant one. Everyone gets on so well that my dad can still leave his front door open, like he used to when he was a kid.’
Dickie spoke frankly in the early nineties, asserting that his son has been gone too long if he thought anyone in Belfast could still leave their doors open, adding that he actually kept a piece of wood by the door and another under his bed. Pat Crerand, a contemporary of Best’s at United and not unfamiliar with sectarianism as a Scottish Catholic, wrote perceptively on the subject: ‘I think sometimes if you bring people out of their environment and they’re away from it, it can change their whole outlook. George came to Manchester when he was 15 before the Troubles had really started. He had a different outlook.’
Indeed George would remark that the ‘only time the Troubles came close to me personally was when I was in Ford Open prison and some lunatics wrote to me, saying they were going to spring me. They wouldn’t have needed to do much springing since Ford was like a holiday camp and if I had really wanted to get out, I could have simply walked through the open gate!’ Perhaps memories of a death threat at St James’ Park had eluded him.
Nevertheless, it speaks of a man detached from his former reality in a way that was not possible for other players of an ever so slightly later era.