As football fans we’re often preconditioned to think that a professional career should last from the age of 18 until 35, and that anyone who walks away any sooner has been lost to the game and hasn’t made the most of their talent or opportunities.
George Best, although he played his last games for a host of clubs in the early 1980s when he was pushing 40, is often unfairly tarred with that brush. That is because he made his final appearance for Manchester United in 1974 when he was only 27 and never again played at the highest level.
The remainder of Best’s career was spent as a journeyman at various clubs across the world, taking in several lower league spells in England, including at Stockport County and Fulham, the glitzy NASL in the United States, as well as Ireland, Scotland, Australia and even Hong Kong.
An infamous off-field party and celebrity lifestyle that later defined his public image hasn’t helped the perception that he could have done more in football. But that would be to ignore the fact that, notwithstanding his relatively short career in terms of time, he was still among the best players of a generation that produced countless legends, and remains one of the greatest of all time.
Despite walking away from the highest level at 27, Best had already been playing for United as an important first-team player for 10 years by that point.
In that time he did and achieved far more than most might in a much longer career.
It is easy to overlook the fact that Best still played 470 games for United. He is 14th on the club’s all-time appearance list ahead of Bryan Robson, who was at Old Trafford for 13 years, Rio Ferdinand, who was there for 12, and former teammate Denis Law.
Best was famously a wide player rather than a striker, but his 179 goals in United colours also leaves him still joint fifth on the club’s list of all-time top scorers.
From being discovered by a United scout aged 15 in his native Belfast in Northern Ireland, Best made his first-team debut in the autumn of 1963 at the age of 17 and fully established himself in the second half of that season, still shy of his next birthday.
An 18-year-old Best then played 59 times in all competitions as United won the First Division title in 1964/65, the club’s first league trophy since the Munich air disaster in 1958. A year after that at 19 he rose to international prominence when he masterminded United’s 5-1 demolition of Benfica in the European Cup, scoring twice in the opening 13 minutes against the two-time European champions. The Portuguese media dubbed Best ‘the fifth Beatle’ and the image of him arriving back in Manchester from that trip with a sombrero has become particularly iconic.
United won the league again in 1966/67 and Best again tormented Benfica in 1968, this time in the European Cup final at Wembley. That season he scored 32 times in all competitions, including the crucial and decisive first extra-time goal in the 4-1 win against the Portuguese in the final.
Best won the Ballon d’Or that year at 22 and was the last player at an English club to receive the award until Michael Owen in 2001 and the last United player until Cristiano Ronald in 2008.
The 1967/68 season also kicked off a run of five consecutive seasons in which Best scored at least 21 goals in all competitions. In 1970 he scored a record six goals in one game against Northampton.
On the pitch, Best’s downfall can perhaps be at least partially traced to frustrations over United’s failure to rebuild in the early 1970s. He was the young talent that completed an otherwise established team a decade earlier, but as the likes of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law aged and weren’t suitably replaced, the club’s fortunes declined considerably.
By his own admission he had remained part of an ‘old guard’ clique at the club that hardly spoke to newer players less talented than those they were replacing. He twice announced his retirement in 1973 alone and played his final game for United on 1 January 1974.
But ‘wasted’ talent? Hardly.