By David McGaw
The Albert Bridge and its squat, robust appearance carry three majestic arches spanning the River Lagan heading into the city centre of Belfast, birthplace of the brilliant, self-destructive, and fanatically worshipped George Best. As a wee lad growing up in Creagh Estate, he may well have crossed the Albert on numerous occasions with his family heading into the city of Belfast. The former global industrial giant and world leader in linen production of the 19th century and birthplace in the early 20th century of RMS Titanic no less had seen better days by the time a teenage Best was spotted by Mr Bishop, the Manchester United scout in Ireland who directly sent a message to club manager, Matt Busby, claiming he had discovered a genius.
George Best gave Belfast and all of Northern Ireland as much to hope for as linen and shipbuilding and his limitless skills with a football provided a platform of hope and a sizeable distraction of the political troubles and downcast economic conditions befalling Belfast and other industrial British cities. George Best was highly technical, using balance and poise in possession with a flair for scoring goals that both left defenders scrambling in thin air and goalkeepers sat on their backsides, befuddled in the mud. His connection with Australia was a long one and his presence Down Under once thrilled heaving crowds, coast to coast.
On the other side of the world from Windsor Park, Best kicked a football on several occasions in Australia for diverse clubs such as Osborne Park Galeb in the suburbs of Perth, for Devonport City in Tasmania and mighty Dee Why FC on the northern shore of Sydney along with a superb one-off in Adelaide for Hellas against Juventus. Years earlier, he was in his youthful prime in 1967 when his beloved Red Devils toured Australia. In 1967, England were world champions, Manchester United recently crowned English champions and were a year away from being crowned kings of Europe. Matt Busby would achieve his career obsession with the European Cup coming to Old Trafford and for just a few moments, be relieved of the pain of Munich ten years past when Duncan Edwards and the Busby babes were maimed and taken well before their time.
Best most notably at club level aside the exhibition nature of many of his Australian appearances played some serious football. George will forever be among the list of players who laced their boots in our highest level of football competition, the National Soccer League of Australia. Best would play for NSL foundation club Hollandia Inala, playing under an Australianised banner after 1977 and renamed the Brisbane Lions. It was only 15 years before arriving at Richlands to wear the orange and blue of the Lions in 1983 that Best achieved his pinnacle on the football pitch, aged 22. The years in between saw him travel the world and experience both greatness and despair borne out of fame and adoration before arriving in Brisbane to have the Queensland winter sun kiss his face for one last club. A warm night at Wembley with a gate of 92000 under the twin towers witnessed Manchester United winning the European Cup five years after George Best arrived at Old Trafford. The wizard of Northern Ireland was at his peak and yet 12 months previous, Best graced Australian pitches before European glory when United visited Australia for 7 matches on a gruelling tour, opening in Brisbane and scoring twice in the Sunshine State capital during a 7-0 romp against Queensland. Best also hit the back of the net in matches played in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and Perth, exhibiting his trademark immaculate touch, speed when turning in possession and total grace with a ball at his swift feet. His scintillating form in Brisbane in 1967 for Man U not surprisingly failed to repeat itself in 1983.
Onwards 12 months and Best scores in Manchester United’s night of glory at the expense of the Portuguese champions. The Guardian football writer Eric Todd headlined ‘Busby dream comes true at long last’ on 30 May 1968 as the Red Devils ironically wearing an all-blue strip including blue stockings swept aside Benfica in extra time to become the first English side to hold aloft ‘big ears’ as European Cup champions. Perhaps George heard a whisper in his ear that very night, a ghost from the future predicting “This is as good as it gets young man”. He could now cross the Albert Bridge home to Belfast forever a European champion and remain eternally the darling of the Stretford End. Now in Brisbane and closer to 40 than 30, George Best officially retired from professional football after playing four matches for Brisbane Lions. Not Benfica nor Liverpool or Real Madrid, instead his opponents included Sydney Olympic, Marconi Fairfield, St George Budapest and Adelaide Juventus.
A boy from Belfast who made and lost his fortune in England was now watching the sunset on a decorated career in the sunshine state as far from the Albert Bridge and boyhood Creagh as possible. In Australia, he played against football clubs built by Italian, Greek and Hungarian migrants while playing for a club built by Brisbane’s Dutch community. Crossing the Albert Bridge not lost on George as he now sees the Story Bridge in Brisbane as the landmark of his temporary home for a few short weeks. Best was in Brisbane to stimulate some genuine interest in the dwindling fortunes of the Lions and according to Joe Lovejoy, author of ‘Bestie’, an opportunity to keep playing as a long list of clubs were willing to fund guest appearances. Ultimately, George Best would play his last serious football not at Dunstable Town, Bournemouth or San Jose Earthquakes. It would be Brisbane and Bestie, together for one last fling on the pitch at Perry Park and Richlands, a football world of another kind so far from fabled Old Trafford.
George was still in what observers described as ‘decent shape’ despite his long record of dancing with the bottle as much as the many attractive admirers who appeared at every function before and after football matches. Best arrived in Brisbane shortly after 10 appearances for Bournemouth in English Division 3 and manager Bill McMurdo claimed George was fitter than most expected after playing over 50 games around the world in the previous 12 months. Appearances on the Michael Parkinson and Mike Walsh TV shows were booked and the anticipation reached fever pitch when Best appeared on the front cover of Soccer Action magazine courtesy of photographer Carlos Picasso with a trio of typically attractive ladies labelled as Brisbane Lions’ supporters.
He started and finished all four games for Brisbane, playing the full six hours of football asked of him for a fee reported between $40,000 and $50,000 depending on the source. Soccer Action and Australian Soccer Weekly magazines covered his time in Brisbane extensively. His authorised biography by Joe Lovejoy stated such a tour would assist alleviating mounting debts and remove George from his personal demons back in Britain. Best went on tour many times and played in Hong Kong, South Africa and even Iceland. Yet this was no exhibition series, no charity match nor testimonial, the like of which he played in well into the 1990s. Brisbane Lions, one of two proud clubs in the city alongside Brisbane City (Azzuri) were in the middle of a scrap to avoid a forgettable season in the NSL of ’83.
The Brisbane Lions were embarrassed at times in 1983 including a 1-6 hammering in the nation’s capital against the Canberra Arrows, a shambolic 2-7 rout in Sydney against APIA Leichhardt and a 0-5 defeat at the hands of Preston Makedonia. To further display their inconsistency, the Lions themselves thrashed Footscray JUST 5-0 and held bragging rights over their Queensland rivals with a 4-0 win in May and a 0-0 stalemate in August yielding positive results in Brisbane derbies against City. Best took to the pitch against Sydney Olympic at Perry Park on July 3, 1983. On that day Calvin Smith set a record in the 100 metres clocking 9.93 seconds while John McEnroe claimed another Wimbledon crown.
That same day at 37 years of age and 37 years ago, one of football’s greatest spent the first half against Olympic jogging up and down the touchline at Perry Park touching the ball 16 times according to the Queensland press, yet offering little else in the opening 45 minutes for the crowd of 3200.
Best opened his account against Sydney Olympic in a performance Brisbane football writer Ricky Rosso described as ‘showing only glimpses of his player-beating finesse’. George told the Brisbane press his 16 touches and quiet first half was due to being placed on the wing to ease his way into Australian football. In the second half, wearing number 7 and moved into the midfield, Best gave a dazzling display with many in the 3200 who attended, cheering at all his 6 consecutive corner kicks he perfectly delivered to his orange and blue team-mates. The afternoon held an air of humour with autograph hunters chasing George at full-time all the way to the dressing rooms and a fan lunging at the pitchside fence to offer him a beer. George dislocated a finger on his right hand during the first half and this demonstrated another sign of the full-blooded nature of the match.
The second match at Perry Park the following Friday evening failed to draw a larger crowd than the previous Sunday which disappointed club officials. The promising display by the Lions and George sadly evaporated after the Olympic match with multiple poor performances exposing tiredness and a sad realisation of Best’s actual physical condition. Even more depressing was the 0-3 result against eventual NSL champions, St. George Budapest who boasted a plethora of Socceroos recently hardened by a three-match series against England. In just the 4th minute, George Best himself was dispossessed on the halfway line by David Skeen who then beat four defenders before dispatching the ball into the net. That moment was the beginning of the end for the Irish wizard and the remainder of the Brisbane guest appearances were labelled lethargic. George’s only appearance outside of Brisbane in July 1983 in the NSL came at opulent Bossley Park against Marconi. The final result at 1-1 was solid for the struggling Lions however the Sydney football press was scathing. A crowd of around 2800 proved Sydney football fans including British ex-pats had seen enough. Football journalist Alex Vesic labelled Best as ‘performing 7 levels below his average and gave a match rating of just 5/10. Best was marked by Marconi defender Jovan Djordjevic and the press agreed this was accomplished with ease. Returning to Brisbane for one final match before heading to Adelaide and Perth for lucrative exhibition matches, George Best played his last professional football match at Lions traditional home, Richlands.
Adelaide City (Juventus) were the visitors and easily routed the Lions 4-0. Ricky Rosso again writing in Soccer Action joined journalists from the Courier Mail and other media outlets unleashing on George Best. Rosso remarked Lions Dutch coach Simon Kistemaker would ‘have nightmares of bringing Best to Australia’. After successful guest spells by Alan Sunderland and Bob Latchford at Richlands, Best was overwhelmingly criticised for inept and pedestrian performances. Another claim was the poor crowd of 1600 was so uninspired, they may never return. He received 4/10 for this match rating and left the Richlands pitch dishevelled, disinterested and seemingly pleased to cross the Story Bridge and head out of Brisbane.
To be fair to George, pathetic performances and paltry crowds were central to Richlands in 1983 with attendances v Newcastle United and Canberra listed as 200 and 150 respectively. One of the finest home wins of 83 came against Heidelberg Alexander and that 3-1 success was witnessed by just 300 spectators. In 1983, Brisbane Lions conceded 61 goals, finished last, were knocked out of the National Cup in Round 1 and drew just over 7000 fans to three matches against strong opposition with George Best as the marketing dream. Another club had banked on George Best reviving their fortunes and the 37-year-old shoulders could not be asked to do it anymore. Lions possessed a strong playing roster including the striking duo of Calvin Daunt and club legend, Danny Wright. A strong spine with Socceroo Alan Hunter, midfielder Steve Hogg and club veteran Alan Niven meant Lions contained good bones, yet manager Simon Kistemaker could not yield the promised results, even with a magician wearing number 7. Brisbane Lions disastrous season saw them finish last of 16 teams with just six wins in a 30-game campaign that despite the drawcard of George Best, managed little more than derision from club members.
Three decades before the Brisbane Lions a young boy from Creagh Estate dazzled all who saw him from an early age and he became Northern Ireland’s finest. The European nights, the solo runs dismantling countless British backlines, El Beatle the Playboy, the mesmerising dribbling, the 6 goals in one match against Northampton Town and much-needed brilliance wearing the national colours of his Tuaisceart Eireann, Northern Ireland. The brightest of stars finally faded just 20 minutes from the Story Bridge and 16,500 kilometres from home, the River Lagan and the Albert Bridge. When leaving the Richlands pitch for the final time, did George think about Benfica, Busby and his halcyon days at Manchester United. Manchester United were still another decade from becoming English champions again and were still trying to find another George Best. Yet Best himself was unable to find another life worthy of his decent and courageous soul. Not in Brisbane at least.