Friday, January 20, 2017

Move Like A Downtown Dancer - George Best and Chelsea

George Best, Manchester United, London, Chelsea

Been watching quite a few dvds in the past few weeks to tide myself over a freezing 21st Century British January - here in the post-Brexit political ghostscape of dumbstruck silence. One of these has been the Leeds United edition of ITV's The Big Match series of the late Sixties, Seventies and Eighties - endlessly entertaining fare.

Leeds of course were re-embedded in public consciousness off the back of the David Peace book on Brian Clough's short tenure as manager in 1974 and the subsequent movie The Damned United. The performances that that iconic squad of international players left behind to British social history of the Seventies are still breathtaking to witness. Between promotion from the old Second Division in the 1963-64 season and being cheated out of a European Cup final win over Bayern Munich in 1975 the team won the League Championship in 1968-69 and 1973-74, the FA Cup in 1972 against Arsenal and the League Cup in 1968 against the same opposition. To this day the Leeds fans hail their team as European Champions at games with reference to the 1975 controversy and their martyrdom at the hands of bogeyman referee Monsieur Michel Kitabdjian.

Extraordinarily enough they were were runners-up in the League in 1964-65 to Manchester United, 1965-66 to Liverpool, 1969-70 to Everton, 1970-71 to Arsenal and 1971-72 to Derby County. Also FA Cup runners-up in 1965, 1970 and 1973 to Liverpool, Chelsea and Sunderland. In Europe they won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (precursor of the UEFA Cup) in 1968 against Hungary's Ferencvaros and then Juventus  in 1971 - they were also were runners-up in the competition in 1967 against Yugoslavia's Dinamo Zagreb and likewise runners-up in the 1973 European Cup Winner's Cup to AC Milan. Players of such calibre and metal as Eire's  Johnny Giles, England's Terry Cooper and Paul Madeley and Scotland's Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray and Peter Lorimer insure that the legend of Don Revie and Super Leeds will run and run.

One of the best matches on the collection was a 1973 away game at Stamford Bridge in London against the equally renowned Chelsea squad of the time - John Hollins, Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood, Ron Harris, Peter Bonnetti, Alan Hudson et al. Leeds won 2-1. That most famous of all Chelsea squads is also interesting in terms of a particularly thought-provoking piece of counterfactual football history. This alike the possibility of Best, Law and Charlton having been joined in the Manchester United front line by a retained Johnny Giles and Celtic's  Jimmy Johnstone and as with regard to the possibility that a troubled Belfast Boy could have ended up here in what could and should have been the literal middle-point of his career.

Following the early Sixties decision of East Belfast's Glentoran to let the apparently questionable talents of a teenage George Best go by the board- as did scouts from Wolverhampton Wanderers who Best actually supported as a boy and Manchester City - his ten year stint at United was followed by a light flight of golden top end appearances with the Johannesburg Jewish Guild, Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian of Edinburgh, San Jose Earthquakes, Sea Bee (of Hong Kong), Hong Kong Rangers, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions and Osborne Park Galeb in Australia, Warwickshire's Nuneaton Borough and finally Tobermore United who are based to the north of Magherafelt in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Yes,that wee town on the road from Desertmartin to Maghera.

However,  despite the general car crash nature of Best's career following the 1968 European Cup final and the decline of the aging United squad, several teams were yet interested in him according to an historical haul through the rich Best bibliography on the shelves - of which the most impressive by a long way remains Duncan Hamilton's 2013 Immortal. These included Real Madrid and Juventus at the beginning of the Seventies, Chelsea and Manchester City and also Brian Clough's Derby County in the fall-out from the 1973 sacking of Best and manager Frank O'Farrell, a particularly keen New York Cosmos at the very launch of the North American Soccer League in clear preference to even Pele as the lodestar of the revolution, Real Madrid again in the period when Tommy Docherty came to manage United, Birmingham's Aston Villa in the same time frame and several Italian and Spanish clubs following his performance for Northern Ireland in the 1976 World Cup qualifier against Holland in Rotterdam.

The possibility of a move to Chelsea in particular is truly fascinating in light of the panache of their team performances, general individual flair and timely location in Western cultural history on the King's Road which was exemplified by the visit of the regal Raquel Welch to Stamford Bridge for a 1972 home game against Leicester City. Welch yelled enthusiastically to striker Peter Osgood from the touchlines during the match - he later recalling "She probably figured as I was standing there on the pitch doing nothing it was okay to interrupt. If I had been George Best I would have slipped her my number but then again if I was George Best she would have slipped me hers". Welch was photographed previously by Terry O'Neill wearing a Chelsea strip on the set of her western movie Hannie Caulder - the team was also watched by Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in this period. Chelsea won the League Cup in 1965, the FA Cup in 1970 and the UEFA Cup in 1971.

Hamilton's biography notes the especial frisson that playing against Chelsea in London gave to Best:

It is said that man responds to those landscapes in which he instinctively feels he belongs. Best had never played at Stamford Bridge before; but he knew he belonged there. The architecture was unimpressive. There was rickedly-looking double-decker seating on stilts beside the modest main stand, its footballers weather-vane twisting atop a white-fronted pediment. There were wide, open spaces behind each uncovered goal and 20-floor high-rises could be seen in the middle and far distance. But something indefinable in regard to the ambience of the ground and the atmosphere inside it never  failed to in inspire Best. He was roused whenever he went to Chelsea, which became one of his spiritual homes. 

In the eleven seasons that George Best played for Manchester United he took part in 17 matches against that classic Chelsea squad of the Sixties and Seventies - four victories, six draws and seven defeats for United in a batch of 16 First Division ties and one League Cup match.

1963-64: 23rd March 1964 - 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

1964-65: 30th September 1964 - Manchester United's 2-0 away victory at Stamford Bridge which would be the game to bring Best firmly to public attention across Britain. Best himself always saw it as the day the trajectory of his career left an earthly gravity - 21 players and the stadium having applauded him off the pitch at the end. He scored in this game as did Dennis Law. In the return League fixture on 13th March 1965 in Manchester Best scored again in a 4-0 victory - another
oft- transmitted piece of footballing genius with Best outwitting Eddie McCreadie on the top left wing before looping the ball over Bonnetti from a ludicrous angle. United went on to win the Championship in this season.

1965-66: 12th March 1966  - Three days after Manchester United's famous 5-1 victory against Benfica in the European Cup Quarter-Final Chelsea defeated them 2-0 in West London - the home fans applauding the significance of the Lisbon victory enthusiastically before kick-off.

1966-67: 15th October 1966 - 1-1 draw at Old Trafford the week before Best played in Northern Ireland's 2-0 defeat by England in Belfast in the European Championship Qualifier. The Jules Rimet Trophy being paraded before the Windsor Park crowd - including my father and grandfather - beforehand. Manchester United won the League Championship in this season again.

1967-68: 25th November 1967 - 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge with Best carrying an injury. The
2nd March 1968 return at Old Trafford saw an on-form Best miss a penalty in a 3-1 defeat for the home team. Chelsea's Ron Harris succeeded in both matches in fundamentally limiting George Best's scope. A borderline apocryphal story of the time relates how a fashion photographer was assigned to take action shots of Best against Chelsea to juxtapose with trendy clothing shots already obtained - the photographer subsequently observing how a ubiquitous blue-shirted, square-jawed and mean-faced hard man seemed to be in every solitary captured image.

1968-69: 24th August 1968 - 4-0 defeat for the European Champions at Old Trafford with Harris reassuming his defensive watch. The 15th March 1969 return at Stamford Bridge saw Best out-perform Harris though relegation-threatened United again lost 3-2.
1969-70: 6th December 1969 - Manchester United defeated 2-0 at Old Trafford with Harris again neutralising Best on the wings. Chelsea also won the 21st March 1970 return at Stamford Bridge - Ian Hutchinson scoring twice in Manchester and the same again in London. The season would end with Chelsea's first FA Cup final victory over Revie's Leeds. (Alan Hudson's comments on these two matches and further reflection on Best's relationship with Chelsea are contained in a 2013 interview available on youtube. The footballer underlines his firm belief in the chat that manager Dave Sexton was the main factor hindering the prospect of Best moving to Stamford Bridge - a decision he feels had a sobering if not disastrous impact on Chelsea's prospects for domestic and international success in the Seventies).

1970-71: 19th August 1970 - A scoreless draw at Old Trafford in the League. Best also played in a League Cup 4th Round game against Chelsea on 28th October 1970 - this was the game where Best outwitted a hammering Harris challenge in the Manchester downpour to score one of his most famous ever goals in a 2-1 victory. The Stamford Bridge return tie in 1971 in the League saw Best suspended for missing training and spending the weekend in an Islington flat with actress Sinead Cusack - United won 2-1 without him.

1971-72: 18th August 1971 - Best was sent off for arguing with the referee following Chelsea's opening goal - the press photograph of his exit from the pitch beside a placating Bobby Charlton and Tony Dunne has been reproduced many times. United however won the game in London 3-2.  The 22nd January 1972 return at Old Trafford saw Chelsea's Osgood score the only goal of the match.

1972-73: 30th August 1972 - Another scoreless draw in Manchester. Best did not play in the Manchester United team between 25th November 1972 and 20th October April 1973.

1973-74: 3rd November 1973 - 2-2 draw in Manchester during what would be Best's final 12-game bow for United under Tommy Doherty.

As an appendum to the above, on 27th December 1976 at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea defeated Fulham 2-0 in the Second Division tie. Fulham's team included Best and Bobby Moore. The two players were also in the Fulham squad on 8th April 1977 at Craven Cottage where the home team won 3-1 - Best scored one of the goals.

As discussed in an earlier post on George Best and Northern Ireland, his footballing career ran in parallel to the worst years of the civil war in Ulster. The 18th August 1971 and 22nd January 1972 ties mentioned above came only nine days after the introduction of internment and one week before Bloody Sunday respectively - these being the two events which pushed months of sustained radical civil disorder into a full-blown guerrilla insurgency with an accompanying sectarian carnage that shamed  the name of Ireland across the world for many years.

Both Duncan Hamilton's defining work on the footballer - and indeed many other studies of his extraordinary lifepath - reference how Best's deep-seated love for United may well have been the core reason for the radical downfall of his career in the mid-Seventies. This of course standing alongside the sobering fate of being lodged deep within a mediocre Northern Ireland international squad that was linearly placed between highly successful and passion-driven World Cup final appearances in the Fifties and Eighties.

An elongation of George Best's British football career at this point may well indeed have seen him alive today - let alone within the context of the commercial multi-billion pound invigoration  of the sport he alone single-handedly revolutionised alike Belfast's Alex Higgins with the game of snooker.

Granted George Best at Chelsea may not be as tangible a sporting counterfactual as the prospect of the star in his glorious prime at the Mexico World Cup of 1970 - where Northern Ireland would have been arraigned against first round opponents of  Belgium, the host country and mighty El Salvador had they topped the qualifying group above the USSR. Nonetheless the thought of a blue-clad mid-Seventies Best at Chelsea remains fascinating - looming there between the overweight and heavily bearded player working through his demons for a brace of uninspiring fixtures under Tommy Docherty in 1973 and 1974 and the night that the Gods of Dutch Total Football fought for his shirt at the end of the 1977 Northern Ireland match in Rotterdam. That would end in a 2-2 draw and was the 33rd of only 37 international appearances.

Privately, George Best was of course a long term resident of the King's Road for many years. However the thought of Belfast BT6's finest son playing with a top flight Chelsea team in the mid-Seventies for a half-decade or so remains such an incredible piece of historical reflection. It certainly would have made the utterly degrading - and perhaps unparalleled collapse - of London as a great city even more harrowing to consider today.

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