The sentence ‘the word legend is overused’ is most definitely overused, as is the word, but when trying to define who we should bestow these tributes upon, and who is most deserving, there are simpler and more clinical ways to to get to the point.
Subjective arguments presented as objective points of view are part of what we love about football.
Facts, of course, are different animals. They serve as ostensibly indisputable platforms for arbitrariness, even if really they only ever act as supporting evidence to a subjective point of view.
No-one would reasonably dispute George Best’s place as a legend in the game, and certainly not in the history of Manchester United.
In the weeks since the release of the book True Genius, and the days since the movie was screened on Wednesday, I have noticed one theme when George is mentioned – it’s a theme that is often replayed and regurgitated in any of these conversations.
How would he have done today on today’s pitches with today’s diets?
How would Lionel Messi have fared with the cannonball balls and cannonball tackles, the agricultural approach from defenders on agricultural pitches?
We don’t know, of course. This is one of those subjective debates. The closest we have to an answer is George’s own form of autumn, 1971; the rules on tackling from behind had been amended to protect players of George’s calibre, and his form skyrocketed with the liberation. There’s no doubt in my mind that this argument supports any that George is the greatest of all time.
But some things are inarguable. Some things just happened as they did, without dispute, and we look at it and celebrate it for what it was.
On this day in 1968, George Best scored the winning goal in the European Cup Final for Manchester United against Benfica at Wembley.
It was the first time United had won the Cup and it came ten years after Munich. It was Sir Matt Busby’s Holy Grail; a trophy he had cheated death trying to win.
In interviews for the book almost everyone I spoke to described it as the most important goal in Manchester United history. Paddy Crerand and Alex Stepney were on the pitch that night and they subscribe to the theory.
What it stood for in terms of fact cannot be disputed. But as ever, it was the colour George added to the conversation with his own personality that elevates the significance of the goal.
For the preceding 92 minutes of that match at Wembley, George had been treated to some rough-housing from the Benfica players, many of them still smarting from the eviscerating way Best had made his own name two years earlier at the Stadium of Light.
On that night he scored twice – and, it is not often told, he also had the ball in the net a third time, but this was wrongly disallowed for offside. He was too quick for the linesman. Too quick for the Benfica defence. Benfica winger Antonio Simoes was watching this unfold from down the same side of the pitch and described Best’s performance as a ‘tornado’. It wasn’t just the Portuguese contingent that had become discombobulated – Jimmy Murphy, in his autobiography of 1968, wrote of George’s ‘hat-trick’ in Benfica, believing that they all counted!
Two years later Benfica were in no mood to allow George to embarrass them. So he had two minders and the players were told that a third should trace his movements just in case.
George was frustrated at Wembley as time and again his dribbles were stopped by illegal tackles, usually by that second or third player.
In 1966, Best’s European Cup run had ended prematurely. He had been injured in a bad tackle against Preston in the Cup, and tried to play in the semi-final against Partizan Belgrade. He was United’s best player in Belgrade, but his knee gave out in the second half and he couldn’t play the second leg. United were eliminated.
Despite this, there was never any moment, any hint of a suggestion where George would shy away from trying to express himself and showcase his own ability.
In the opening moments of extra-time on May 29, 1968, he anticipated the bounce of a header from an Alex Stepney goal-kick and the rest was history. Defender nutmegged. Goalkeeper rounded.
That season, George had spoken about how he’d love to have a great Wembley Cup Final moment.
He would trap the ball with his backside, dribble around the goalkeeper, and then stoop to head the ball in on the line. He changed his mind with the finish when he thought about it again. He thought he might back-heel it.
George was a manipulator of the football and players around him in a manner that few could be. It was remarkable, really, that what he had envisioned unfolded in a manner so close to his imagination.
There was no controlling the ball with his arse but the nutmeg of the defender was just as impressive.
There was no time to back-heel or head the ball in on the line, because this was a top goalkeeper who was recovering from being rounded. So George did what was the next best thing – strike it to goal with just enough power that Henrique thought he had a chance of saving it. He had no chance.
United, liberated by the goal, scored two more. The pressure of playing for the boys who had perished in Munich was lifted from their shoulders in this remarkable ten-minute spell where they obliterated Benfica in the irrepressible style of the Babes as well as a style all of their own.
What is meant by that? Well the stories are of legend. Duncan Edwards telling Jackie Milburn before a game that he respected him but reputations stood for nothing on the pitch. Edwards then going out and winning games sometimes by simply being a force of nature. Eddie Colman’s cheekiness. Tommy Taylor and Dennis Viollet’s guile. It was a team picked with as much personality as talent.
Alex Stepney described Best’s divine intervention on the night as though he was ‘in his heart and soul, the spirit of the Babes’.
Not until Zinedine Zidane’s art-house volley against Leverkusen did the elements combine again so richly to have the greatest player on earth scoring a goal only they could have scored to win club football’s biggest trophy.
But because of Munich and because it was at Wembley and because it had been a ten-year journey for Busby, the stakes for Manchester United were much higher than at any other time in their history. George shrugged off every obstacle and insisted on doing it in his own style; capturing the essence of the Babes. This was what football was about according to Matt Busby and his babes. Entertainment and personality.
When it comes to the cold, hard matter of trophy counts, the Busby Babes and the post-Munich side don’t have the medals to compare with the 90s team or even the 2007-2013 vintage.
But qualification for certain tournaments was much more complicated back in the 50s or 60s. Best’s three seasons in the European Cup were earned through proper achievement and not by finishing fourth.
The entire interpretation of how a dynasty was defined was very different in 1968 to how it is seen today.
The stakes were higher because you didn’t know when this moment would come again.
It had never happened before.
Someone had to go first. This much is indisputable.
“This was the journey the club started under Matt, to be the first to win the European Cup,” Alex Stepney told me for the book. “So to score the goal which brought the club to that achievement couldn’t ever be anything other than the most important in United’s history. And what made it better was that it was scored in a way that was so unique to George, it was a product of his imagination, and that was a benefit of the freedom given to him by Matt.”
Today, as we remember that it is 53 years since Manchester United won the European Cup for the first time, it should be remembered just as clearly just why George Best’s goal on the night was not only the winner, it was the most important strike in the club’s history.
The book True Genius is available to order from all good book retailers now. The BT Sport film True Genius airs again tonight at 11pm on BT Sport 1.
The moment Manchester United became European champions for the very first time in 1968 🏆
Matt Busby’s mission completed, and George Best shining at the top of his game!
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 26, 2021