'El Beatle' arrives
The year of 1966 has become forever associated with England's World Cup success. However, on the domestic scene, it also saw one of Manchester United's greatest ever days - March 9 - as a 19-year-old George Best announced himself to the world with a stunning two-goal performance against Benfica in the quarter-finals of the European Cup that helped his side to win 5-1. 'El Beatle', as he would become known in the Portuguese press, had arrived.
When Manchester United took on Benfica in the quarter-finals of the European Cup, the Portuguese side were the giants of the game. Winners of the top European prize in 1961 and 1962, and runners-up in 1963 and 1965, the Eagles also had the best player in the game, Eusebio, who collected his 1965 European Footballer of the Year award before kick-off in an act almost designed to strike fear into the opposition.
United, and manager Sir Matt Busby, were not to be overawed. They had overcome the tragedy of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster to return to the European stage with Busby at the helm, and a campaign of rebuilding throughout the early '60s had seen them win the FA Cup in 1963 - the same year as a 17-year-old Northern Irish winger named George Best made his debut and The Beatles got their first British No. 1 record, 'From Me To You'.
With players like Denis Law and Pat Crerand at the forefront of Busby's side, United were challenging for honours again and, after finishing second in 1964, they won the First Division title the following year by beating Leeds United on goal average (having finished with exactly the same record of W26, D9, L7).
For the first time in seven years, United were back in the European Cup. They had a relatively easy task in the first two rounds, with Finland's HJK Helsinki (9-2) and East Germany's Vorwarts Berlin (5-1) providing little by way of opposition. Now 19, Best had scored twice in those two games and had made himself a first-team regular in the side with his unique dribbling style and impudent tricks. His ''dark Beatle mop'' of hair and film star looks were gaining him as much attention off the pitch as his skills on it and, by the time the first-leg against Benfica in the quarter-finals rolled around, Best was in the spotlight more than any of his team-mates.
The game was played in front of a crowd of 80,000, overflowing onto the perimeter at the Estadio da Luz. From the early exchanges, it was obvious that Italian referee Concetto Lo Bello was intent on stamping out every minor infringement and it was a policy that would reap benefits for United. Indeed, in the sixth minute, the whistle was blown for a foul on Bobby Charlton by Pinto and Tony Dunne's resulting free-kick was headed expertly into the roof of the net by the "little red rocket" Best.
Five minutes later, Best was at his most brilliant again as he used his dribbling skills to get the better of three opponents after a long ball from Harry Gregg had been headed back to him by David Herd. The finish was cool and his ''educated foot'' played a role in the third goal two minutes later as he started the move that saw John Connelly steer the ball home to chants of 'Easy, Easy' from the travelling Manchester fans.
Football historian Cris Freddi recalls: "Before the game, manager Matt Busby had told his wingers, Best and Connelly, to stay deep for the first 20 minutes. Keep it tight and quieten the crowd. But George Best was only 19, too young for such caution. All he heard was 'blah, blah, blah'. When the game started, he grabbed it by the scruff. Watch this, Eusebio. And Coluna, Simoes, Torres, Germano, Jose Augusto. I'm George Best, and this is how it's done."
Indeed, the great Eusebio was restricted to a bit-part role in which his free-kicks were the most dangerous aspect of Benfica's attack. He may have only been allowed three shots in the first-half, but the Portuguese was at the centre of Benfica's goal as he harried and hustled defender Shay Brennan into hacking a clearance over the head of Gregg and into his own net. The comeback was not to be, though, as late goals from Denis Law and Charlton made the final score 5-1 and 8-3 on aggregate. The angry Benfica fans hurled their seat cushions onto the pitch in protest, but still took time to acknowledge the performance of a star.
The Daily Express' Desmond Hackett wrote: "I have never seen a British team abroad play with such spirit and brilliance... Best so bedevilled the muscular men of Benfica that finally the crowd were compelled to applaud his brilliance and impudence."
And The Daily Mirror, under the headline 'Best (2 goals in 5 mins) Blasts Benfica' left their readers in no doubt about who to praise for the stunning victory. As Frank McGhee wrote: "It did not take the miracle I thought they would need to beat Benfica. It took only football, pure football, played with flair and ferocity that makes these English champions great when they hit peak form. The player at the centre of it all was that skilful waif George Best, who scored the first two goals in the space of five minutes. Now surely he is the pretender to the 'King of European Football' title awarded to Eusebio before the match."
After the game, Busby revealed: "This is our finest hour. And mine too. What more can I say other than they were all wonderful." Best was, of course, the centre of attention and the newspapers the following day bore a photograph of the winger sporting a giant-sized sombrero; the nickname 'El Beatle' was born with the group still at the peak of their powers in the public consciousness on the back of their ninth No. 1 hit, 'Day Tripper'.
Best, who never met The Beatles for all their similarities, later remembered in The Independent: "As I walked up the tunnel and heard the noise, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. But I didn't feel any fear. I wasn't in awe but I did know that I was ready. That, whatever the outcome of the game, this was the sort of stage I was meant to play on. It was perfect theatre.
"On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods... It was surreal stuff. I've seen other great teams play like that but to be a part of such an experience was unreal. Strangely, although I can replay almost the whole 90 minutes of that match in my head, I can't remember a single thing after the final whistle."
What happened next? A review of the '60s in the Guardian saw Albert Barham write: "From the disaster which lost the lives of the great players, and almost cost him his own life, one man's quest spreads like a rainbow - the burning ambition of Matt Busby to hold the European Cup and that Manchester United should win it for him. The embers of hope were fanned many, many times. In the great Stadium of Light with the Eagles of Benfica crushed 5-1, Busby had reason to beam. 'This,' he said, 'is going to be our year.' It wasn't."
Indeed, Partizan Belgrade won their semi-final clash to knock United out 2-1 on aggregate. Best had injured his knee in an FA Cup game against Preston a couple of weeks before and, although he played in the first leg, he was not fully fit. United struggled, losing 2-0 at the JNA Stadium, and a single goal from Nobby Stiles in the return leg at Old Trafford was not enough. Busby and Best would not have to wait long to claim the European Cup, though, as the 'fifth Beatle' built on his success to play a major role in the 4-1 defeat of Benfica at Wembley in 1968.