George Best is number 18 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series

There is an element of the ‘what might have been’ when it comes to the career of Manchester United legend George Best, who was arguably the most naturally gifted player British football has ever produced but walked away from the highest level aged just 27.

There is some validity to that. After leaving Manchester United in 1974 at what perhaps should have been the peak of his powers, Best spent the next 10 years playing for 16 different clubs all over the world, from the English lower leagues, to Africa, Asia and North America.

But, consider this. Despite effectively from retiring from the elite level so young, Best had still played 470 games for United by the time he left Manchester under a cloud. Only 13 players in the club’s entire 142-year history have ever played in more, while to this day his tally of 179 goals remains joint fifth on United’s list of all-time top scorers.

George Best

In those first 10 years alone, he achieved far more than most footballers could ever dream of.

‘I think I’ve found you a genius’ was the message sent to United manager Matt Busby by scout Bob Bishop when he spotted a 15-year-old Best playing in his native Northern Ireland. Having been overlooked as a result of his diminutive physical stature by local team Glentoran in Belfast, the Old Trafford club saw the potential in his immense ability on the ball.

Although initially homesick, Best made his first-team debut in September 1963 aged 17. He gained a regular place in the side a few months later, combining it with youth team duties as United won the 1964 FA Youth Cup – a first since the 1950s and the days of the Busby Babes.

The following season, a teenage Best hardly missed a first-team game as United captured the First Division title, which was another first since the previous decade. The birth of the club’s ‘Holy Trinity’, with Best joining established stars Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, was the foundation that not only restored United to former glory before the Munich Air Disaster, but even reach new heights.

George Best

United returned to the European Cup as a result of their domestic success and 1966 was the year Best went stratospheric.

Already a world class player in the making, it was a European Cup tie in Lisbon against Benfica, who had been in the final in four of the preceding five years, that saw a Best’s superstardom explode, all the while still two months shy of his 20th birthday.

United had narrowly beaten the Portuguese giants 3-2 in the first leg of the quarter-final at Old Trafford. But Benfica had never been beaten in 17 previous European Cup home games at the iconic Estadio da Luz and had averaged more than four goals per game.

Yet rather than the giants overturn the aggregate deficit, Best had scored twice and assisted a third within 15 minutes of the second leg kicking off and United ran out 5-1 winners. One opposing player described him as being like a ‘hurricane’ sweeping through the stadium.

Benfica were the team to beat in Europe at that time and United didn’t just win the game to preserve their existing lead, they destroyed and embarrassed them.

In awe, the Portuguese media dubbed Best, ‘O Quinto Beatle’ – the fifth Beatle.

George Best

Even though United ended that season trophy-less and Best missed the very end of the campaign through injury, something special was building at Old Trafford. He scored fewer goals in 1966/67 – his tally of 10 would be his lowest until his United career unravelled five years later – but the club reclaimed top spot in England and a second league title in three years.

Best enjoyed the standout season of his career in 1967/68. He took his goalscoring to the next level, netting 28 times in the league as United narrowly lost out to local rivals Manchester City, while scoring 32 times in all competitions.

His crowning moment was once more in the European Cup. United reached their first ever continental final after beating six-time winners Real Madrid 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals, with Best scoring the only goal of the game in the first leg at Old Trafford.

In the final itself, played at Wembley, Best again put Benfica to the sword. He scored the decisive goal two minutes into extra-time after an initial 1-1 draw, prompting the Portuguese collapse for United to eventually win 4-1 and lift the European Cup for the first time.

Manchester United squad

Later that year, Best was presented with the Ballon d’Or for his achievements. Still only 22, he became the third United player of the 1960s to win after Law (1964) and Charlton (1966).

Despite still being at the beginning of his career, 1968 was the last year Best won a trophy.

United returned to the European Cup semi-finals as holders the following year, but it would be another quarter century before the club’s next league title.

Best continued to perform at an incredibly high individual level, scoring 22, 23, 21 and 26 in the four seasons between 1968 to 1972, top scorer in each. Remaining among the very best in Europe, he was in the Ballon d’Or top five again in 1969 and 1971.

In January 1970, Best even scored six goals in an FA Cup tie against Northampton Town, which remains post-war club record for United.

“I don’t really class myself as a footballer. I call myself an entertainer,” Best said after that game.

George Best

“I know a lot of people have paid to see me do something spectacular and that’s what I was trying to do. It’s my job to do something that will send people away feeling that they’d like to see me play again.”

Best’s problem at United in the late 1960s was that he was a young star in an ageing team. As the 1968 European Cup side began to wane and break up, the players brought in to replace them were not of the same standard, while Matt Busby also called time on his reign.

It was around the same time that Best’s celebrity and party lifestyle began to lead to disciplinary problems, missing games and skipping training to spend time with actresses and models.

Best announced his retirement in 1972, then again in 1973 after briefly being transfer listed, before playing his final game for United on 1 January 1974. Although he continued his career for a further 10 years, he never played another top flight game in England a major league.

Best suffered with alcoholism for much of his adult life. He continued to drink even after a liver transplant in 2002 and died three years later at the age of 59. His final message from his hospital bed published on the front page of the News of the World…‘Don’t’ die like me.’

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90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here.

Number 50: Luka Modric

Number 49: John Charles

Number 48: Hugo Sanchez

Number 47: Jairzinho

Number 46: Omar Sivori

Number 45: Paolo Rossi

Number 44: Paul Breitner

Number 43: George Weah

Number 42: Kaka

Number 41: Lev Yashin

Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl

Number 39: Kevin Keegan

Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov

Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon

Number 36: Johan Neeskens

Number 35: Xavi Hernandez

Number 34: Luis Suarez

Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge

Number 32: Andres Iniesta

Number 31: Rivelino

Number 30: Bobby Moore

Number 29: Socrates

Number 28: Sandor Kocsis

Number 27: Lothar Matthaus

Number 26: Ronaldinho

Number 25: Ruud Gullit

Number 24: Bobby Charlton

Number 23: Giuseppe Meazza

Number 22: Raymond Kopa

Number 21: Romario

Number 20: Eusebio

Number 19: ​Marco van Basten