Northern Ireland: Best in Green

It is difficult to speak of George Best without recourse to idolatry; a superbly balanced athlete with a penchant for the spectacular made him a hero for all seasons. The game might have showered him with gifts in a glittering career. But the feeling persists that he got a modest return on his talents. Two League Championship medals, a European Cup and 37 Northern Ireland caps would be a towering achievement for most players; not only that, he was also voted European Footballer of the Year in 1968. But shouldn't the Belfast Boy have achieved so much more? A lack of fulfilment may have been self-inflicted as he effectively retired at the age of twenty-six. Best never appeared in an FA Cup Final or the World Cup; and the lack of international honours is a noticeable gap in his CV. Not caps won against Albania or Cyprus; but games where he tested himself against the very best, at a time when international football was the game's pinnacle.

Best was rejected as a youngster by Glentoran who thought he was too small. He consequently failed to win schoolboy, youth or under 23 honours with Northern Ireland. He was spotted playing for Cregagh Boys as a fourteen-year-old. The words of Manchester United scout Bob Bishop were prophetic when he told Matt Busby 'I think I've found you a genius'. Best made his full international debut in April 1964 against Wales in the Home Internationals; he was five weeks shy of his 18th birthday and arrived just in time for the World Cup Qualifiers starting in October. Northern Ireland manager Bertie Peacock always claimed he picked Best without ever seeing him play; it was goalie and fellow Ulsterman Harry Gregg who tipped him off. Best had joined a moderate squad licking its wounds after an 8-3 defeat against England. However, with Pat Jennings also making his debut a promising nucleus was beginning to take shape. Unlike modern Northern Ireland squads, the 1964 vintage was almost entirely drawn from top flight clubs. Best had Derek Dougan, Willie Irving and Terry Neill for company, all of whom played regularly in the first division.

Northern Ireland were drawn in the same WCQ group as a pre Cruyff Holland, Albania and a useful Switzerland side. Romantics could briefly imagine a repeat of 1958 when all four home nations qualified for the World Cup. The Ulstermen might just get to spend the summer of 1966 in England; but first had to get past the Swiss. A significant marker landed at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland edged a 1-0 victory. Johnny Crossan converted a penalty after Best was brought down with the goal in sight. A month later in Lausanne George Best scored his first international goal; but paid the price of a leaky defence losing by the odd goal in three. It was a setback but not a disaster as a new round of Home Internationals got underway. Best played against England and Scotland but the Irish were narrowly defeated in both games.

Northern Ireland ground out a 2-1 victory against Holland before losing 5-0 to Wales in the last Home International match. It meant the wooden spoon in a disappointing finish to the Championship. The Wales defeat could easily be attributed to Best’s absence. However, in his first seven appearances Northern Ireland won four and lost three games; but tellingly averaged two goals per game. Best returned for the key qualifier with Holland in Rotterdam. A frustrating goaless draw did neither side any favours who were now locked on five points apiece. However, Best had the fillip of an outstanding domestic season. Manchester United became league champions and reached the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. But it had been a punishing season as Best played in 59 club games.

The banker game swiftly followed as Windsor Park hosted Albania for the final home qualifier. A 4-1 victory may have looked comfortable on paper, but the Irish made heavy weather of it particularly in the second half. George Best scored direct from a corner kick while Johnny Crossan completed a hat-trick. Their final group game in November 1965 against Albania was a simple proposition; win and a playoff against Switzerland was guaranteed, anything less would consign another campaign to the eternal ‘if only’ category. Preparation wasn’t ideal as no airline offered a direct flight to Tirana. So it was a flight to Rome followed by a private charter. They found an archetypal communist state unfettered by progress or enlightenment. The accommodation and food was appalling as the players lived off bars of chocolate. But nothing could disguise the shocking ineptitude of a 1-1 draw.

The 1965/66 season marked the transition of George Best from talented youngster to superstar as Manchester United embarked on a dazzling run in the European Cup. They swept past Benfica in the quarter finals 8-3 on aggregate; the away leg at the Stadium of Light is now part of United folklore as Best tore the Portuguese apart in a 5-1 victory. He returned to Manchester in a sombrero and was dubbed El Beatle. It also marked the beginning of George’s estrangement with the national side. He missed the first three internationals of 1966; whatever the explanation given for his absence; it was a sign of his newly established priorities. Best retuned for the England game in October but was missing for the remaining Home Internationals. Manchester United had won the league championship in 1966/67 and Best was one of only two ever presents in the United side.

His next game came against Scotland in October 1967 and is fondly remembered as his finest performance in an Irish shirt. The Home Internationals in 1967/68 also doubled as a qualifying group for the European Nations Cup finals. It was perhaps the first time Best had reproduced his club form, as he teased and tormented the life out of Scotland. Even the Glasgow Herald was moved to report on his 'exhilarating skill, delicate touch, blistering pace and delicate use of the ball'. It seemed there were 20 spectators on the pitch as the game reduced to a duel between Best and Scotland goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson. Northern Ireland won the game with a Dave Clements goal; but did little to dent the big picture as England qualified for the finals. Best was missing from the national side for most of 1968 as he helped Manchester United secure victory in the European Cup.

Northern Ireland was now managed by ex-international Billy Bingham. Like Bertie Peacock he was an Irish legend who played in the 1958 World Cup. Surprisingly, the Irish Football Association allowed him to continue as a club manager. He had stints with Plymouth Argyle and Linfield; the former while the World Cup Qualifiers for 1970 were in progress. They had been drawn in a straight forward three team group; a weak Turkey and moderate Soviet Union would be their opponents. Best was back for the home qualifier against Turkey. It was a shaky start as the Irish went behind after seven minutes. It took a Best equaliser and three second half goals to make certain of victory. Inexplicably, he was omitted for the return in Ankara but a 3-0 scoreline suggested a comfortable win.

With the Home Internationals now confined to the first week of May 1969 Best played in all three games; however two draws and a defeat was not ideal preparation for the Soviet Union game. A lacklustre Northern Ireland spluttered to a 0-0 draw at Windsor Park; it left them needing a draw in Moscow to force a playoff. George Best was missing from the line-up as they sank to a miserable 2-0 defeat. Faint hopes of a playoff rested on Turkey beating the Soviets in the last group game; a 3-1 defeat left the Irish as also rans yet again. But exactly why was George Best omitted from their most important game in four years? He missed few club games during this period and played for United on Saturday 18 October 1969; scoring in their 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest. He missed the Soviet Union game four days later but played on 25 October in the 2-1 defeat at West Brom.

Ironically, Best played in the next 10 games which included his only international hat-trick in a 5-0 win over Cyprus. The 1970s became a watershed as sectarian violence exploded in Ulster and the Troubles began in earnest. He subsequently withdrew from the squad following death threats made by the IRA. It marked Best’s gradual decline and played what appeared to be his final international against Portugal in November 1973.

However, a unique talent would flower once more on the international stage in 1976. George Best enjoyed a sojourn at Fulham where he hooked up with Bobby Moore and Rodney Marsh. Northern Ireland manager Danny Blanchflower selected Best in the World Cup Qualifier against Holland. It turned into a scrapbook moment as Best appeared on the same pitch as fellow legend Johan Cruyff. In a memorable passage of play Best beat three players and nutmegged the incomparable Cruyff. Best won four more caps (including games against West Germany and Belgium) before the curtain finally came down in 1977.

It seems that George Best was short changed during his international career. Northern Ireland were an under achieving side who failed to build a team around his outstanding ability. He saw playing for Northern Ireland as recreational football, almost a break from the rigours of the club game. The avuncular Matt Busby was undoubtedly influential and coloured his views. But would Busby have dared to restrict Bobby Charlton’s England career in the same way? It might be argued that Busby wanted to protect Best from injury. It was obvious that players kicked lumps out of him without fear of censure; and would almost certainly be carrying an injury of some description. Busby even insisted that teammates tackle him with ferocity in training so he would be ready. There are continual echoes in the club versus country debate, particularly when a player represents a weak footballing nation. From Ryan Giggs to George Weah and more recently Mo Salah; it remains one of game’s great inequities.

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Brian Penn. 

©The Football History Boys, 2022


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