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  • Writer's pictureDavid JA Grant

George Best Down Under: A football icon's time in Australia

George Best, perhaps Northern Ireland’s second-most notable global export after the RMS Titanic but just as significant in appeal and interest, visited Australia many times during his playing days. Whilst he was by no means the only celebrity footballer to play in the land down under, the impact of his stints was significant regarding the crowds drawn, the finance raised, and the publicity garnered. Even today, almost 20 years after he died, aged just 59, people still talk and write about him. In his new book “George Best Down Under”, author Lucas Gillard seeks to delve deeper into Best’s time in Australia to tell the lesser-known story of the football superstar’s visits to the Antipodes.

George Best speaks to the media during a stint in Australia in 1983. (Image: ABC News)


All up, Best appeared in 19 football matches across Australia between 1967 and 1990, several of which were competitive league games. Gillard has documented them all, along with the behind-the-scenes stories that intrigue as much today as they did when the footballing luminary was at his peak. Gillard sourced much of his information from newspapers and interviews with Best’s agent, Bill McMurdo, and others who knew him well.


Best’s first visit to Australia was with Matt Busby’s Manchester United side on a pre-season tour that took them to the United States and New Zealand before landing in Australia to play the Queensland state side at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground, now known as the Brisbane Showgrounds, on the 4th June 1967.

Results on the USA leg had not gone in United’s favour. A 3-1 loss to Benfica in Los Angeles was followed by a 4-2 loss to Scottish side Dundee United in San Francisco. Gillard mentions that, despite these games being friendlies, the team’s performances were “bothering Busby”. Results on the New Zealand leg had been better, but they were against lesser-fancied teams. Busby required improvement if they were to win the European Cup that he desperately craved and that his friend and fellow Scot, Jock Stein, had won just a few months earlier with Glasgow Celtic.


Busby’s team performed well in Australia, and Manchester United made a clean sweep of their eight-game tour, winning seven of the octet. The only blip was a 1-1 draw against a Victoria XI at Olympic Park (now an oval used as a training ground by AFL club Collingwood) in Melbourne.

Best challenges for the ball at Adelaide's Olympic Sports Field (now Kensington Oval) in the game between Manchester United and South Australia on 24th June 1967. (Image source unknown)


Manchester United would finish the 1967-68 season by lifting the European Cup at Wembley against a Benfica side featuring Eusébio. Best, Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton (all in the 1967 Australian touring party) scored for the Red Devils in the May 1968 final. On top of that, Best was to be awarded the Balon d’Or, placing him atop the pile of the greatest footballers of his era. Yet the media attention remained focused on his off-field antics. Gillard documents this in the book and reminds us that Best also acknowledged his weaknesses - women and alcohol.


The match programme for the game against the South Australian state side in Adelaide contains a full-page feature on George Best, much of which is devoted to details such as the car he drives (a 3.4 Jaguar), the hairstyle he prefers, the nightclubs he frequents, the women he dates, the fan mail he receives, his earnings, and the clothes he wears.

But the magic wasn’t to last.

The tour programme from Manchester United's 1967 visit to Australia. (Image supplied by Lucas Gillard)


Enter Tommy Docherty, an acerbic and tough Glaswegian with over 300 post-war appearances for Preston North End and a handful of Scottish international caps. He was to be Manchester United’s manager from 1972, effectively ending Best’s career at Old Trafford with his last competitive game for United coming at Queen’s Park Rangers in January 1974. Docherty described Best as “more trouble than he’s worth” as Manchester United suffered the ignominy of relegation from the top tier at the end of the 1973/74 season.


The pair went their separate ways, but their paths were to cross again some nine years later, in Australia, when Best would appear in a National Soccer League (NSL) game for Brisbane Lions against a Sydney Olympic side managed by Docherty; who had been in Australia a year already having coached South Melbourne in 1982.


Best returned to Australia via Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Hibernian, and Bournemouth. In mid-1983, he’d signed on for a three-game stint in the NSL for Brisbane Lions, who have an indirect link to the contemporary Brisbane Roar club, with a fourth game appended later.


He landed in Sydney “37, bearded and bankrupt and trying to turn over a new leaf” and was costing Brisbane Lions $50,000 for a mere handful of games. Gillard puts this fee into perspective by adding that John Kosmina’s 1981 transfer fee to Sydney City was $45,000. But the crowds swelled to see Best.


At Brisbane Lions, Best played under the Dutch manager Simon Kistemaker, who seems to have been unimpressed with the arrival of the Irishman, considering it more of an interruption and inconvenience than anything else. Kistemaker (who in 1991 coached De Graafschap to the Dutch second division title with a team that included current Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag) went along, reluctantly, with the show. But he was not the only detractor. Figures such as Rale Rasic and Johnny Warren were also sceptical about Best playing mercenary football in the NSL.

Now, to the games themselves. The one that garnered the most interest was the clash between the Brisbane Lions and Sydney Olympic—Best vs Docherty at Brisbane’s Perry Park on 3rd July 1983. The outcome was a 2-1 win for the home side, and Docherty, whose wit, sharpened like a Claymore, was often targeting Best, headed back to Sydney bereft of league points, bragging rights, and, probably, pride.


Best’s other three NSL appearances were in a 3-0 defeat to St George, a 1-1 draw away to Marconi, and a 4-0 home loss to Adelaide City. His fifth and final competitive match in Australia was for Osborne Park Galeb in a 2-1 win against Melville Alemmania in a Western Australian First Division league game. There is no evidence that George Best played another game for league points after this one. So his competitive career and last goal (he scored in this match) finished with the final whistle at the Yugoslav Club ground at 59 Jones Street, Osborne Park, Perth on 24th July 1983. The site is now filled with houses whose residents are, no doubt, unaware of the historical sporting relevance of their domain.

George Best (bottom row, centre) during his time at West Adelaide, where he made one appearance against Adelaide City in 1983. (Image: West Adelaide SC Facebook)


Best then experienced several nomadic years (including a couple of months’ imprisonment at Pentonville on drunk-driving and assault charges) before returning to Australia in 1989 and again in early 1990 for a handful of fund-raiser matches in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Tasmania. His last game in Australia was for Wrest Point Hotel Casino XI against a British Airways World XI on South Hobart Oval in February 1990.


“George Best Down Under” is the only book focusing on Best’s time in Australia. It is a follow-up to an earlier book by Gillard with Jason Goldsmith, “Be My Guest: Football Superstars in Australia,” which tells the stories of football icons who visited Australia, including Kevin Keegan and Bobby Charlton. So, why Best?

 

READ MORE HISTORICAL CONTENT ON FPF

Lucas Gillard, the author of “George Best Down Under”. (Image supplied)


“There’s a very practical reason. There was so much about the Best story that was still untold and really for the first time. There is basically nothing out there in other books about the Australian visits. In between the two books, I did a lot more research, spoke to new people, re-wrote the story and added exponentially to it, and was able to tell the Best story in full," Gillard told Front Page Football.


“He’s also such an iconic name in the sport. Even up against Charlton and Keegan, he really captures an audience. The on-field and the off-field…there really isn’t a name in football that quite compares as a subject.”

Copies of “George Best Down Under" and “Be My Guest: Football Superstars in Australia” are available to purchase through the Fair Play Publishing website.

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