George Best achieved pretty much everything in football. He won League titles, European Cups, and was even voted European Player of the Year in 1968. Off the pitch he didn’t do too badly either.
But what he did on a muddy pitch one freezing cold afternoon at Northampton’s County Ground on February 7th 1970 proved to be one of the most iconic and memorable moments in his short but illustrious career.
The early 1970s were far from a halcyon period at Old Trafford. Memories of the incredible achievements of the 1960s, where the side dominated at home and abroad were fading fast, while the recent resignation of Matt Busby, the manager who is still regarded as the man who built the modern day Manchester United, left the club reeling.
Like when Alex Ferguson decided to call it a day in 2013, United found themselves lacking identity, bereft of a leader who was able to pull the club up by the bootstraps and steer the ship in the right direction.
As for the team, they were still pretty much the same side who had won the league title on two occasions in the 1960s, not to mention the European Cup final on a memorable evening when they defeated the mighty Benfica at Wembley.
These were fantastic players in their own right but the side was ageing fast, with little evidence of new blood coming through the ranks that were full of the hunger and enthusiasm that Busby’s sides had oozed a decade or so before. A succession of managers post Busby, who struggled to grasp the enormity of the task they had undertaken, didn’t help either.
One such player who epitomised this fall from grace more than any other was George Best. The ‘Belfast Boy’ was as synonymous with the ‘60s as the Beatles and mini-skirts. He could do no wrong as he bamboozled defences while becoming a household name thanks to something of a high-profile social life and a string of well documented relationships.
But like his team, the 1970s had somewhat caught up with Best, who now found himself without the father figure, Busby, by his side who had guided him through the early days of his career, nurturing him and encouraging him to become arguably the greatest player ever seen; he had gone off the rails spectacularly and it appeared only a matter of time before a minor derailment became something of a major train wreck.
Wilf McGuinness, the man who had been given the job of replacing Matt Busby when he had retired the previous summer, struggled to rein-in United’s superstar. The former Busby Babe was similar in age to Best, meaning it was almost impossible for him to discipline the Irishman who was increasingly finding himself on the wrong side of the law both on and off the pitch.
So when Fourth Division Northampton Town were drawn against McGuinness’s United in the 5th round of the FA Cup there looked to be a genuine possibility of an upset. United were sitting mid-table under their new boss and Best found himself on the receiving end of a six week FA ban after knocking the ball from referee Jack Taylor’s hands in a 4-0 defeat in the recent Manchester derby.
Furious at the level of the punishment, which he felt was a result of his celebrity status, Best was determined to flick the bird at the establishment that had chastised him by demonstrating that his game had not been affected by their harsh sentence. Unfortunately for Northampton, the lay-off meant Best was refreshed and ready to prove a point, and they just so happened to be in the firing line when he eventually did return.
Best’s return to action was the topic of great debate and for the once European Footballer of the Year this was his chance to make a point.
“I felt that if we were beaten by Northampton, people would say it was my fault. People think that just because I’m a bit of a showman and lose my temper occasionally I’m not trying but I do as much running as anyone.” Best later explained.
For Northampton the visit of United was a huge deal. This was only the second time in the club’s history that they had made it to the 5th round of the FA Cup, the match was a sell-out and the Cobblers were excited at the prospect of taking record gate receipts, with punters flocking from miles around to see the likes of Best, Law and Charlton in the flesh.
In order to relax his players, Town Manager Dave Bowen, who also managed Wales at the time, took them for a steak before the game with the promise of a £15 win bonus intended to give them extra impetus. They also had a secret weapon up their sleeve – or so they thought.
Unlike the pristine surfaces of today, the pitch at the old County Ground was more like a quagmire, and there was barely a blade of grass on it that day. This, it was assumed in the home dressing room, would be a real leveller; but Best had other ideas and seemed to float above the the suface while those around him became stuck firmly in the mud.
What happened next would go down in folklore as George Best became the first player to score six goals in one game for United in 59 years, when Harold Halse did the same against Swindon Town in the 1911 Charity Shield.
GOAL ONE: Best cleverly deceives his marker to race into the box where he leaps high to nod home Paddy Crerand’s right wing centre, goalkeeper Book has no chance.
GOAL TWO: Best comes storming forward forward and finds himself through on goal but still with a defender and the ‘keeper in front of him. He eludes the advancing Kim Book before guiding home his second from a difficult angle.
GOAL THREE: Some comical defending ses Best receive the ball on the six yard line but still with a host of defenders on the line to beat. His first attempt at claiming his hat-trick is blocked on the line but his second effort sends the ball flying past a host of bodies and into the net. There’s little in the way of celebration as Best simply stands with hands on hips as his colleagues slide through the mud to congratulate him.
GOAL FOUR: Best flings himself at a Brian Kidd cross from the left to neatly steer the ball past the hapless Book and the ball nestles just inside the far post.
GOAL FIVE: Best steams through the mud onto a long through-ball and calmly guides the ball home for his fifth before casually strolling back towards the centre circle as cool as you like.
GOAL SIX: Probably the finest goal of the lot as Best casually shakes off a defender and tricks ‘keeper Book into going to ground as he runs his sixth goal into the empty Northampton net. He then stands for a moment, leaning against the goal post, looking shattered and slightly embarrassed in equal measure. Slumped on his backside Northampton goalkeeper Kim Book has only one thing to say as he looks up at George Best: “Haven’t you had enough yet?”
United eventually ran-out 8-2 winners and for the man who had the job of marking Best that day, Ray Fairfax, it would be something of a nightmare afternoon, but one that he can appreciate now.
“I think the closest I got to him was when we shook hands after the final whistle,” he later told the Telegraph.
“He’d been banned for so long we assumed he wouldn’t be fit. We certainly hadn’t worked on a tactical plan to stop him,” recalls Fairfax. “When the manager came in the dressing room to say he was playing, he just looked at me and said: ‘Right, you mark him.’
“The thing was his speed of thought. I remember one of his goals, Paddy Crerand got the ball on the halfway line and Best was way out wide on the left wing. I thought he could do no harm there. Next thing, Bestie went past me anticipating a pass. He was just a couple of yards ahead of me, but when the ball arrived, he was gone”
Best said afterwards: “I don’t really class myself as a footballer I call myself an entertainer. I know a lot of people have paid to see me do something spectacular and that’s what I was trying to do.” He would eventually receive an invitation to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Harold Wilson for his efforts that day.
Perhaps more importantly for a man who thrived on personal achievements, it meant that he’d got one over on his United teammate Denis Law, who had scored six for Manchester City in a cup game against Luton at Kenilworth Road in 1961. Unfortunately for Law, though, the game ended up being abandoned due to heavy rain and the goals never counted.
Best would finish the season as United’s top scorer with 23 in all competitions while United went on to reach the FA Cup semi-final, but lost in a replay against Leeds United. In the league they finished eighth, but the double hat-trick in the FA Cup fifth round at Northampton was to be yet another highlight in a career that was sadly coming to an abrupt end.
Northampton’s players sportingly acknowledged Best’s incredible achievement by signing the match ball, while Town defender Frank Rankmore joked: “It’s a good job you weren’t really trying George.”
However, not everyone was as gracious in defeat with Northampton Chairman Eric Northover taking exception to the way his side had performed that day.
“We should have put the pride of Northampton first,” he said. “Instead we tried to match Manchester United skill-for-skill and went into these absurd attacking positions to give them goal after goal. Six of the best? I would call them six of the easiest. “
Though Northover did later apologise, George Best’s beleaguered marker, Fairfax, felt that his chairman had misread what had happened that afternoon; the full-back who had been run ragged from the very first minute reckons, if anything, that he was actually in a very privileged position.
“Really I don’t think he could complain. We were up against a genius that day and we were lucky to have been there,” he said.