At the age of 28, the prodigious talent of George Best was starting to take its toll on the man. Having scored 178 goals in 466 games for Manchester United to become one of the best players in the game, Best’s career was beginning to wind down in the 1970s after he won two league titles and also helped the Red Devils to the UEFA European Cup in 1968 with a 4-1 win over Benfica.
1968 had seen the Northern Irishman voted both the English and European Footballer of the Year, but his famous off-the-field party lifestyle caused problems with his club and he opted to leave United in 1974, journeying through spells in South Africa, Ireland and America before coming back to the English league when he landed at Craven Cottage in 1976.
Initially there were some administrative hurdles to navigate. Best’s contract was owned by the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Football League would not allow anything that wasn’t a permanent transfer. The Club were also trying to bring Rodney Marsh back from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, but the player had been denied a move to Crystal Palace earlier in 1976 because of contractual wrangles. “The moves have to be permanent, otherwise I don’t think that the League would agree to the signings,” said then-Manager Alec Stock at the time.
In early August, we put an offer to Best which was reported to be for £500 a match. “We have offered George terms,” Stock said. “And I have been told by outside sources that he has accepted the offer. But I have not heard officially and until he is on the pitch and playing for us then I won’t believe it.”
On 12th August, Chairman Ernie Clay announced the captures of both players (and also that of new Manager Bobby Campbell), but we were forced to wait until the end of the American season to bring them in. When Best arrived at the end of the month, it was only on a provisional agreement from the League as his registration was subject to a review on 31st December 1976.
Having trained with the Club for two weeks before his debut, it was obvious that he was not the same player that had wowed crowds at Old Trafford; he was short of pace and of match time but he was still more than capable of flashes of brilliance and looked fit. The Times’ Norman Fox wrote: “I was impressed by his athletic appearance and his convincing interest in ‘coming back’ as he felt able to cope with the pressures of life as the centre of permanent publicity... he seems to have made efforts to moderate his way of life, even to the point of deciding to marry an English girl he met in Los Angeles.”
Doubts over whether the winger would be able to compete in the English league again were dispelled by the player himself, who said: “I just want to get on the field and be allowed to play. If people can judge me as a football player then that’s all I want.”
Best made his debut in front of 21,177 at home to Bristol Rovers on 4th September 1976, alongside Marsh and Bobby Moore and scored the only goal to seal a 1-0 win inside 71 seconds. Historian Alex White wrote of his return: “The crowd were treated to flashes of his old acceleration, the immaculate first-time control, teasing dribbles, accurate passes and a range of flicks and tricks,” while The Times’ Clive White insisted that: “It was as good as ‘dream debut’ as any that Roy of the Rovers could invent.”
In the League Cup against Peterborough in his next game, Best helped us to a 2-1 win and scored another. “The moment of confirmation that Best was worth recovering from the United States at the cost of £500 a game came on 40 minutes,” wrote Fox. “The winger, 30 yards from goal, rolled the ball under his right boot, flicked it into the air and unleashed an unstoppable dipping shot into the corner of the net.”
Best made 32 appearances and scored six goals in his first season with the Club, which was punctuated by moments of brilliance (an exhibition which saw him tackle his own teammate Marsh in a 4-1 in over Hereford United); moments of madness (when he was sent off for ‘foul and abusive language’ in a 4-1 defeat to Southampton); and the off-the-field issues which had blighted his career to date (when he crashed his car outside Harrods at 4am).
As ever with the man, it was a case of balancing between off-field distractions and on-field brilliance. A prime example was that, after his crash, Best was back in training within six weeks and returned to star in a 3-1 win over rivals Chelsea in April that helped to ease our fears of relegation. It would prove vital as we finished only one point off the drop, but the following season saw Best miss training and head for sanctity to a secret health farm.
With two goals in his 10 games in 1977/78, Best’s career at the Cottage ended on a sour note as he was given a Club fine and left under a cloud to return to America. One of the greatest players to have played the game struggled with alcoholism later in life and died on 25th November 2005, aged 59, after suffering multiple organ failure.