I was nine years old when I first became aware of George Best. It was 1968 and I was living at my aunt Constance’s house in Chorlton cum Hardy, as once again my parents were going through a ‘rough patch’ and, as was the usual routine, I had been ‘farmed out’.
Aunt Constance was a relative of my stepfather and although she had never married and had no children of her own, I always ended up staying with her in times of trauma in my parents’ relationship. This time, however, it appeared for good as I had also been enrolled in the local school, St John’s and attended Mass on a Sunday at the church further down the road.
Matt Busby attended the same church and although I didn’t know who he was when I first attended, I soon learnt how important he was to many football supporters.
During the previous months I had become aware of all things football in Manchester as aunt Constance, had several lodgers in her big house, many of whom were fledgling newspaper reporters, and on a Sunday over breakfast I used to sit and listen to their regaling of the games they been to the previous day.
Little did I know it at the time but this was the most exciting period in years for Mancunian football fans as United and City were the two teams that everyone else in the country were talking about.
I saw for myself at firsthand how good the two teams were as I was taken to Old Trafford and Maine Road on alternate Saturday’s as the season neared its climax, although it was many years later that it became apparent that I had witnessed Best, Charlton, Law, Bell, Summerbee and Lee in their ‘pomp’.
My first introduction to ‘real’ football had been the previous May as my hometown team, Stockport County, received the Fourth Division trophy on the last day of the season and, as I was to find out over the next 40-plus years, in typical County fashion they lost to the bottom club Lincoln City by the odd goal in nine on their biggest day in years.
I had been taken to the game as a treat and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was going to spend the vast majority of my life witnessing many more disappointing days and nights watching the Hatters.
There were several things that I really loved about being ‘farmed out’ to Constance’s: my regular visits to ‘big games’; my football education at the hands of the likes of James Lawton, who was early into his career at The Daily Express, but most of all Constance had a television, something that we didn’t have in our dysfunctional home.
On that night in May 1968, I sat in a full lounge at Constance’s as we all huddled around the black and white television set to watch United against Benfica in The European Cup final. The game itself was remembered as the first occasion that an English team won the trophy, but more than that it was the night that George Best became the idol of many young boys, and girls, no matter who their team was.
His brilliant goal in extra time was the stand out moment for me and I remember at school the next day every boy in the playground, both red, blue and indifferent was Georgie Best as soon as he had the ball at his feet, although having the longest hair amongst the boys, if not the best technical ability, I knew that it was I that stood out as the one most like him.
A couple of years later my mother and stepfather had finally separated and my mother, sister, two brothers and myself moved into a new house in Heaton Norris, in Stockport. I still visited Constance every Wednesday evening, as by now I had left primary school and attended St Bede’s College in the heart of Manchester City territory in nearby Whalley Range, so it was easy for me to call in on my way home to Stockport.
All these years later, I am ashamed to admit that my visits to see Constance were not just about repaying the loyalty she had shown to me for many of my formative years. She had always treated me as the son she never had, indeed for one period in my very unhappy childhood she took me with her to Kilkenny in Eire, where I stayed for several months during another of my parents ‘breaks’; another reason for my continued visits was that she always used to give me pocket money, which I used on every other Friday night to watch County.
Even though my love affair with Stockport County was starting to grow stronger, I never forgot about my first footballing hero, George Best, and Constance used to keep all the newspapers so that I could catch up on his latest deeds, whether they be good or bad.
It was common knowledge that George had had a new house built in Stockport as it seemed to be on the television or in the paper every week. One day after school, myself and my pal Stan Alleyne decided to see this most famous of tourist attractions for ourselves.
Whilst we were outside the house admiring the e-type Jaguar on the drive and playing with the ubiquitous leather ‘casey’ that went everywhere we did, a friend of George’s came out and asked if we wanted autographs, to which we both readily replied affirmatively. To our surprise we were invited in to collect them in person.
George was sat in the lounge watching the biggest television I had ever seen, and as we walked in he pressed a box on the arm of his chair and the television not only turned off but disappeared up the chimney, it was the most surreal thing I had witnessed to date.
Over the next few years George was always in the headlines, although unfortunately it was not always for football reasons, and so imagine my surprise when one day, not long after my 17th birthday I picked up a newspaper and there for all the world to see was the headline ‘BEST signs for Stockport in the fourth division’.
I must have read an re-read the article a dozen times before it really sunk in, George Best was actually going to play for County, MY COUNTY, at Edgeley Park. He had agreed to play in three games for County all of which were to be at Edgeley Park and that first game against Swansea couldn’t come quickly enough for me.
(In an effort to get to know his new team-mates, and also to give him some much-needed match practice, George actually played in a friendly against First Division Stoke City in the days leading up to his debut for County and scored passed the England keeper of the day, Peter Shilton, with a well placed free-kick)
The first thing that struck me on the way to the game was that I had never seen so many people walking towards the ground and when we got onto Hardcastle Road there was a sea of people the likes I had not seen before at Edgeley Park.
The crowd was over three times the normal we were used to at County and most of them were there to see George. He didn’t disappoint anyone who had come to see him.
Almost 20 minutes into the game, and having caused the visiting defence problems with two previous corner kicks, George sent over another in-swinging corner which Steve Potter in the Swans goal could only palm into his net to give the Hatters the lead.
Ten minutes into the second half and George took on and beat three men, and to my young mind at the time at least double that amount, before sliding the ball into the path of Lee Bradley who slotted the ball passed Potter to double our lead.
With less than 20 minutes to play the Edgeley Park crowd got the one thing that the majority had come to see – a George Best goal!!
George began the move with a pass to Ian Seddon whose cross was headed on and George, with his back to goal, volleyed the ball into the net for a tremendous finish to the loudest cheer I had ever heard at Edgeley Park.
Swansea did pull two late goals back to give us all a few nervous minutes before the referee blew for full time with County holding on to the two valuable points.
George’s next game for County was a couple of weeks later, but my time in between was spent telling anyone who would listen that the George Best had played and scored for myStockport County, it was an unbelievable feeling to know that all those years after I had witnessed the ‘Belfast Boy’ playing for Manchester United, he had played for County – and he still had it!!
George’s second appearance for the Hatters came against Watford, and again the crowd was much larger than before his first game. George scored the opening goal and had a hand in a goal for his fellow Irishman Ian Lawther as County picked up a point against the ‘Hornets’ in a 2-2 draw.
The last time I ever saw George Best play in the flesh came on Boxing Day in 1975 against Southport, he wore the No.11 shirt that he had worn against Watford and although he didn’t score in his final game, his presence again attracted a bumper crowd with well over 6000 in Edgeley Park to see the mercurial Irishman play his part in a one goal victory thanks to a goal from Micky Hollis.
Whenever I hear people talk about George Best I know that I have been blessed to have witnessed one of the world’s greatest ever footballing talents, both at the height of his powers with Manchester United and also for Stockport County where he played a big part in County picking up seven out of eight points and certainly helped the club to make some much needed revenue as over 20,000 supporters came through the Edgeley Park turnstiles to witness his three appearances in the blue and white of County.
God Bless you George
A shorter version of this story is included in a new book about George: ‘George Best will not be playing today’