Bet now with totesport - Free £25 bet!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Best: His final days at United

George Best once said that when “he was on fire, I could win games single handed”. It came back to haunt him in the years after the European Cup triumph of '68 as we regressed as a team, failing to make necessary surgery to the squad, so that time and time again fans and team-mates would look at Best not just as a talisman to lift them, but as the only one who could keep popping up to save the day.

His initial walk-out of May 1972 didn't last for long, but it came on the back of an 18 goal return (5 more than the Lawman) (18, 15 and 19 goals in the seasons that followed the Wembley triumph) and though he came back to start the 72-73 season (scoring 'just' 4 goals in 19 appearances), we won just 4 out of our opening 19 league games and the writing was on the wall not just for Best's United career. But our survival in the top flight. We finished 18th that season, just avoiding relegation and though Best returned in the relegation season (playing 12 games and scoring 2) his incompatablity with the Doc meant his final appearance in a United shirt came at the age of 27.

Hence the ‘he threw it all away’' comments, spouted by those either not there during that era or a minority who just can't forgive Best for not staying put. It's easy to say if Sir Matt has been in charge that he'd have carried on, but with his father figure no longer manager, and having to save the day for a side that even with a genius still near his peak, continued to lose more than it won. Best simply had had enough. After lighting up the Championship win of '65, cementing another in '67, then Wembley the following year and European player of the year of course he didn't throw it all away. Nor did it go wrong, as such. His best years were at United and nowhere else. It was not a wasted talent but that doesn't mean I regret not seeing him play longer at United.

But Best was no longer happy. The drink began to win over. “There was always somewhere when I got up where you could get a drink. I started missing training. I didn't want to play for anyone else but I didn't want to stay at United. So I just walked away”. United tried to persuade him otherwise, but the whole scenario was being played out in front of waiting media lenses and it proved nigh on impossible for the club to get Bestie to commit. United tried in May 1972 to get him to to leave his bachelor pad and return to his old landlady. Mary Fullaway. Best flew to Spain saying he was finished with football. The club kept trying, as the fans prayed for a positive outcome. He came back at the start of the season, with a condition that he went to live with Pat Crerand (it lasted two nights) and, somewhat sadly, that he also saw a psychiatrist. But deep down Best knew it was over. He missed more training sessions and after a 2-1 win over Southampton in December '72, the club placed him on the transfer list. Frank O'Failure had failed to get the best out of Best and paid the penalty. As did Best. Both were sacked. Sir Matt told the press: “We want to get him out of our hair. We are at the end of our tether.”

But Best isn't to blame for what happened during that period. United had rested on their laurels after '68 and the team was ageing. Sir Matt recalled: “It was evident to everybody that all was not well with Best. His way of life has always been well reported, of course, but he seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for the game. This came as a surprise to me, because at the time of his earlier indiscretions under my management his love for the game and enthusiasm for training had always shone through.” Sir Matt hinted at a wider depression at the club: “The disenchantment seemed to be almost throughout the team. It was not just the losing of matches. It was the manner of losing.”

During his final weeks, after another missed session back in 72-73, O'Farrell asked the Board to discuss “the problem of George Best”. Louis Edwards and Sir Matt tried to get Best's side of the story. It took a day to locate him and things got messy. O'Farrell said it was ok for just Edwards and Busby to meet Best, who told them he'd return to training, but privately fumed. Edwards tried to issue a statement to the press, which O'Farrell didn't want, whilst Best tried to see Busby on his own, which Sir Matt declined (“I said I could not see him as this would be dishonourable to the manager”). It is said O'Farrell leaked events to a Sunday paper which slated the Board's handling of the situation. Denis Law was later to remark of O'Farrell: “He came a stranger and left a stranger”. Best didn't return for training, himself unhappy at events, and after a 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, the Board sacked O'Farrell, the day Best penned an open letter to them.

Best was later to comment: “I don’t have many regrets. If there is one big one it is leaving United as early as I did because I could have become a multi-millionaire. Too bad, but at the time I just couldn’t handle it. The pressure was too much for me.” Willie Morgan recalled that Best's relationship with United could have disintegrated earlier than it did: “All kinds of people covered up for him, even the Press, and he was lucky to get away with it for so long”. The saga obviously had an adverse reaction to the team. After his first retirement, Bobby Charlton, club captain, threatened to quit if Best returned. O'Farrell told him it was wrong to force any manager to have to choose between two players of their magnitude.
Bill Foulkes was quoted in 1973: “Looking back, I feel guilty. Best was a youngster when he came into a great side, and I don't think we senior players took enough interest in him. Older players influenced me a great deal when I was young, but we failed to influence George Best. We all went our separate ways and I wish now we had involved him more away from the ground”.

Best himself explained his dissatisfaction at events after '68. “After the European Cup it was like being in at the winding up of a company. That was not the way I wanted it. The others were coming to the end of their careers. I was still in the middle of mine. I wanted to win things. Sir Matt hung on to players much longer than he should have done. I became a rebel, especially when we carried on buying bad players and playing bad players and passing over the good players who were available. The bad players started making me look bad, and that made me worse. United were heading for the 2nd division where I had no intention of playing for them, not when I was right at the peak of my ability. If United had been winning my story might have been a different one because I believed I could have coped with anything. That was the most awful feeling - to go out and think you were going to lose, or worse to sides that 3 or 4 years earlier United would have demolished. It was dreadful for everyone but it was worse for me because I was the one who always took the jeers. I would be passing the ball to certain players, thinking to myself, ‘That's the end of that move”.

Best in later years said maybe he should have handed in a transfer request, contemplated a move to Chelsea instead of just walking out but he confronted the ‘wasted’ accusations head on: “I let United down by the way I handled things and by the way I disappeared. At the same time I gave them nine glorious years. I was their leading goalscorer for six years and it will be a long time before anyone equals that. We won the Youth Cup, two Championships and if I hadn't been playing we wouldn't have won the European Cup. I was European and British footballer of the year and, to be quite honest, if it hadn't been for me they would have sunk into the Second Division before they did. There is one school of thought that says I couldn't handle my genius. Another idea might be that Manchester United couldn't handle it. But either way, I paid any debt I might owe to the club by what I did for them on the field. And if it hadn't been for Tommy Docherty I might have even done more for them”.
After quitting United in '72, Spain didn't work out for Best (“after making love to every woman I chanced upon”) and after rushing back after he developed thrombosis, Best “started to miss football”. Paddy Crerand arranged a meeting with the Doc After Docherty convinced Best that “he wanted to play football the right way, the way United had always played football, the way United should play football - going forward, always on the attack always looking for goals”. They agreed that George would return to United. Tommy told Best: “I know you like a night out with the boys, as long as you train hard and play well, I'll keep any problems you have out of the press”. Best wasn't fit but started playing, he was, after all, still only 26. He stopped drinking and felt he was back to his best. “You're back to where you used to be, this is the perfect opportunity to show that George Best really is the best”. Best was dropped after missing a Wednesday morning training before a home Cup game against Plymouth. Best, only told on the morning of the game, said: “There was no going back, not this time”. His last appearance for United had been two days earlier, January 1st 1974; a 3-0 defeat at QPR.

Docherty later said: “It was easier to find Martin Bormann than it was to find Best.” Sir Matt watching from the sidelines knew it wasn't working out and suggested giving Best a free transfer. The Board wanted a cash return. Paddy Crerand was to allege that Docherty received £2,000 for letting Best play for Dunstable (Doc: “totally untrue”), though United themselves got £1,000 a game, as they had to give permission for every match that Best played in. Best said he couldn't work with Docherty: “It comes down to one word. Integrity. People say to me, he is a lovable rogue, he's a character. He may be a lovable rogue - but character is something he does not have”.

And so that was it. Not a waste of Best after all he'd given us, but a waste in terms of what might have been. Best said in 1990: “I regret walking out on United. I wish I hadn't walked out. I wish I had been able to handle my problems in a different way. I don't for one moment regret walking out on Tommy Docherty”. Sir Matt was to sum it up in 1975: “I don't think about the headaches he gave me. I think about the unforgettable moments he gave me, when he lifted me from my seat with excitement and joy. I wouldn't have changed a minute of it. Every manager goes through life looking for one great player, praying he'll find one. Just one. I was more lucky than most, I found two - Big Duncan and George”.

Utd finally released Best's contract in November ‘75 and though 3 years of arguing, turmoil and bitterness soured that time, it does not compare to the 9 years of unbridled joy that Best gave us all. He did not throw it all away. It just ended early. As he himself said: “I may not have won as many medals as other players or appeared in FA Cup Finals. I've never played in the World Cup Finals. On the other hand I've done things most people only dream of, seen places, met all kinds of people. It wasn't all sour. Life is not all regrets”. Quite right Georgie. It's about looking at the positives, not the negatives. The good far, far outweighed the bad.


Post a Comment

<< Home