Arguably no other club in England possesses such a long, illustrious list of iconic players with universal recognisability, proven to be the envy and to the detriment of most other sides as Manchester United. Famous faces epitomising the romanticism, brilliance, and majesty of England's most successful football club.
Most famously over the club’s 140-year history, it is the footballers to have donned the Number 7 shirt that have grown to become some of the most distinctive; George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo.
For a certain generation, George Best’s supremacy stands just that hair’s breadth above; beloved, brilliant, beguiling Best, possessing a Man Utd career peaking in, and indeed helping to define in part, a modern-day era that has provided more cultural iconography than any other, the 1960s.
On September 14, 1963 the Belfast Boy, at 17-years-old, made his debut for Manchester United in a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, the first of 232 appearances at the Theatre of Dreams.
Best spent 10 years of his professional playing career with Manchester United, a club he first arrived at the age of 15.
Though his time as a Red Devil ended in ignominy, having been placed on the transfer list during the tenure of manager Frank O’Farrell in 1972, before eventually departing in ‘retirement’ two years later in dispute with Tommy Docherty, Best maintains a reputation as one of the greatest players of all-time. He was the brightest jewel in the Sir Matt Busby side that became the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968, poignantly a decade after the Munich Air Disaster.
Best won the Ballon d’Or in the very same year.
George Best died in 2005, a life eventually tainted by much-documented personal problems, but a Manchester United legacy that resonates like few others, though he had finished his ‘Devil Days’ at the age of just 27.
What perhaps is less known about George Best is his playing days after he left United. Best was continuously called back to the pitch in a journeyman career, mainly to subsidise a notoriously exuberant lifestyle before finally ending his playing days at 37-years-old. The Northern Irishman ventured to no fewer than 16 clubs for distinctly varying periods, including Fulham and Bournemouth.
In the mid to late ‘70s he began an association with the burgeoning soccer scene in the United States of America. After a failed move to the New York Cosmos, Best first moved to the West Coast to join up with the Los Angeles Aztecs (at the time partly owned by Elton John). While in LA, Best opened ‘Bestie’s Bar and Restaurant’ at Hermosa Beach, the premises - under a different guise - still available to attend today.
Later on, at the San Jose Earthquakes, he won the North American Soccer League “Budweiser Goal of the Year” while at the club, with dazzling feet to elude a helpless Fort Lauderdale Strikers defence. He celebrated by going on a 22-day drinking binge.
The goal, however, is still considered one of the finest ever seen in the professional game in North America.
Best later ventured to the Far East, playing one game for Hong Kong Rangers, named from the Scottish expat founder’s affinity for the Glasgow club, and then went eventually further afield to Australia.
In 1983, 'El Beatle' treated thousands in a small Perth suburb to a cameo for Osborne Park Galeb, a team in the WA state soccer league (National Premier Leagues Western Australia). Usually 20 or 30 people would attend a typical match-day. When Best rocked up, attendance was wrenched up to 2000 plus - his appearance may have been fleeting but lives long in the memory.
Similarly, nine years after leaving Manchester United, Best landed at Bournemouth to play their final six home games of the 1982/83 campaign. He'd been persuaded by the Cherries new owner, Anton Johnson, while out in the West End with Miss World 1977, in an attempt to improve ticket sales for the final stretch of the season - one last good milking.
The Bournemouth player-coach at the time was the anecdote’s best proponent Harry Redknapp, who recalled picking Best - and Miss World ‘77 - up from the East Anglia Hotel to go to the Salisbury races after training, Best instructed Redknapp to drop the partner off at the nearest train station:
“We drop her off. George says: ‘Thank God for that.’
'What do you mean?’
‘We went to the cinema last night and she kept trying to kiss me.’
‘Oh, poor you, George. Miss World all over you . . .’
‘Yes, but I was trying to watch the film.’"
Best led a life that took him from the streets of Belfast to Manchester, and then to the USA, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Hong Kong and Australia.
But that wonderfully unique playing career began on Saturday, September 14 1963 in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford against West Bromwich Albion.