1976: Simply the Best

Thursday 20 June 2013 09:00

Hopes that reaching the FA Cup Final in 1975 would spark a promotion challenge the following season soon evaporated. Instead, the Club was plunged into financial turmoil (unpaid debts on the Riverside Stand) and behind-the-scenes chaos. A new force emerged on the board, Ernest Clay, and he deposed the old guard of Tommy Trinder and the Deans. Manager Alec Stock was also a casualty, making way for Bobby Campbell.

To generate interest in the Club, to boost attendances and improve our playing fortunes, Clay pushed for a couple of high-profile signings, and two of the biggest names in football arrived at the Cottage via the United States.

Rodney Marsh had started his career at Fulham but was sold by manager Buckingham to QPR for a knock-down price in 1966, where he blossomed into one of the most exciting and individual talents in England. George Best, of course, made his name with Manchester United, a supremely gifted but wayward individual who ranks amongst the greatest of all British footballers.

In the summer of 1976, he was playing his football in the US, as was Marsh, and the two were tempted back to England to play for Fulham. Marsh was something of a disappointment - he stayed less than a season and scored six times in 22 games - but Best made a bigger, albeit a more erratic, contribution.

He scored in the first minute of his first match, the only goal of the game against Bristol Rovers in September 1976. Attendances soared on his arrival (21,127 for his first game, compared with an average of 9,741 the previous season) and away crowds benefitted even more. George was a little heavier and a little slower than in his United heyday, but still stood out at the lower level and could produce moments of breath-taking brilliance. He scored 10 goals, several of them, including the one against Chelsea on Good Friday 1977, would not have been out of place at Old Trafford.

Team-mate Les Strong recalls that Best never trained with the rest of the squad in the mornings, “because the mornings wasn’t George’s time of day” but he worked twice as hard as everyone else in the afternoons to maintain his fitness. In the evenings, he took full advantage of being in London, which offered everything Manchester had, and more. But the club’s ‘pay as you play’ arrangement protected us from the worst of his behaviour.

Not surprisingly, he was involved in some well-publicised scrapes. He was also a target for less talented opponents and at times was pushed to the edge. At Southampton, he was sent off despite being more sinned against that sinning.

In total, George played 47 times for Fulham, before signing off, rather disillusioned, after a 2-0 defeat at Stoke in November 1977. During his time at the Cottage, he was immensely popular with the other players and with the staff behind the scenes. Despite his wonderful talent, he was no ‘Big Time Charlie’ and wanted to do his best for the team.

In many ways, his career and life resembled another tormented genius from an earlier generation, Scottish left winger Bobby Templeton. He also had skill to burn and, after a star-studded career elsewhere, played 32 times for Fulham just before the First World War. The two of them, however, despite their gifts, paid a high price for their lifestyles, both dying prematurely young.