He was the world’s first celebrity sports star and football’s original pin-up – George Best held a grip on 1960s culture that rivalled the dominance of the Fab Four during his golden years at Manchester United. It’s no wonder they called him ‘El Beatle’.
But, given that United’s most famous No.7 never met the boys from Merseyside, what was the association with the world’s biggest-ever band and George Best inspired by? From sombreros and Merseybeat fringes to advertising sausages, there are surprising similarities between one of the world’s greatest footballers and John, Paul, George and Ringo…
The origin of the name El Beatle
On 9 March 1966, George Best made his mark on the European footballing stage. The stage was set: Manchester United vs. Benfica at the Stadium of Light in Portugal. The giants of the European game vs. England’s leading team. The noise of the crowd as Best walked up the player’s tunnel was enough to make the hairs on his neck stand up.
According to Antonio Simoes, the Benefica left winger, the next 90 minutes of football after the whistle was blown were like nothing he’d ever seen: “A hurricane passed through Luz that night – and his name was George Best.”
Over the course of the football game, the Belfast-born player was catapulted from the back pages of the newspapers to the leading story, as he helped United grab one of the greatest European victories of all time: 5-1, with the 19-year old Best scoring twice in the opening minutes.
George himself quickly recognized the importance of the match, later saying that “On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods. It was surreal stuff.”
Overnight, the No.7 rising star became a world-wide sensation, and when he stepped off the plane the next day in dark sunglasses, a black leather jacket, a shaggy mane and a souvenir sombrero, the awe-inspired Portuguese press knew exactly what to call him: ‘El Beatle’.
The British press soon caught on and George Best became immortalized as the ‘fifth Beatle’.
Did George ever have anything to do with The Beatles?
The short answer is no. There’s no evidence that George ever met the Fab Four.
But despite this, George’s rise to riches through the 60s includes eerie parallels to the four lads hailing from the other side of the Irish Sea. Both parties soared in popularity throughout the 60s – and both saw a decline in their careers as the 70s swung around.
From screaming girls to stylised haircuts, both George Best and The Beatles were some of the first to experience ‘celebrity culture’ and understand that the phenomenon had many bonuses alongside more sinister negatives.
The Belfast-boy was arguably as important to the 60s scene as The Beatles themselves and Best inspired the same cult devotion and hysteria as the Hey Jude singers. Even he recognised the similarities, writing in his autobiography “I noticed that then I touched the ball on the field you could hear this shrill noise in the crowd with all the birds screaming like at a Beatles concert.”
Best made his debut for United in 1963, the same year that The Beatles had their first No.1.
And as the first ‘star’ footballer, George’s life was more like The Beatles than the generations previous of meat-and-veg footballers who played a match in the morning and then spent the afternoon down the colliery. With his penchant for fashion, beautiful women and the high-life, George lived the life of a rock’n’roll star, closer in style to the world of global musicians than his teammates.
One of his best friends, Malcolm Wager, reminisces in his autobiography George Best & Me, of a seminal moment on New Year’s Eve 1966. It was reported that The Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison and his wife Patti were refused entry to the London club ‘Annabelle’s, with other notable music bigwigs including Eric Clapton and Brian Epstein, because Harrison wasn’t wearing a tie. In contrast, ‘Waggy’ says that he and George Best went to Annabelle’s nightclub in Manchester the same night and, Waggy says, “I believe the pair of us could have been stark-naked and covered in strawberry jam and they’d still have dragged us in – George was now even more famous than The Beatles”.
By the end of the sixties, Best was earning around £2,000 a week from football alone. Alongside that, he had a handsome contribution to his income from the new celebrity world: a ghost-written newspaper column, modelling contracts, endorsements for consumer items as varied as football boots and chewing gum – George’s face was splashed across the world as a marketing ploy to encourage bright, young things to buy everything from Cookstown sausages to British eggs. He was as recognisable as The Beatles – and as successful financially.
Dressed to Impress
And it wasn’t just the hysteria that followed George and the Beatles which linked these two sixties icons.
George’s rocket launch into the public eye saw him embrace the high-fashion buzz of the decade’s pop-culture. With his heavy Merseybeat fringe, suits, boots (and occasionally, fringed leather jackets and denim hot-pants) it’s no wonder the Beatles comparison stuck.
He was the equivalent of the fifth, and best-looking, Beatle and was arguably much better dressed.
Pop-Sensation George Best
And despite George Best never meeting the Beatles themselves, he had plenty of other fans amongst famous musicians.
The Gallagher brothers might be devoted City followers but their guitarist Bonehead defiantly reminded everyone that there was at least one United man in Oasis when he placed a small photo of the Belfast boy in the window during the cover shoot for their album Definitely Maybe in 1994.
And there are more music connections associated with George: Manchester-bred Morrissey was once so overcome with seeing George Best in action at Old Trafford as a child that he fainted, having to be taken home by a furious father who didn’t get to watch the end of the match.
The End of the Sixties….
As the sixties drew to a close, it came with the news that the world’s most famous band was breaking up. And, just as Best’s career had seemed to follow the rocketing heights of the Fab Four’s careers, so it seemed his footballing days would mimic their path back down.
In 1974, George played his last ever game for Manchester United. It was a sad end after such a stunning reign. But despite the downfall, both The Beatles and George Best continued to share a pathway, namely in the legacy they left behind.
As Waggy says in his autobiography, The Beatles were much more than musicians: they were “four lads who seemed to embody the hopes and aspirations of every ordinary, working-class Briton”. Just like Ringo, George, Paul and John, Bestie was an inspiration for years to come – that ordinary lads from inner cities could make it big on the world stage.
Celebrate the legacy of Northern Ireland’s best footballer at The George Best Hotel
Set to open autumn 2018, the luxurious George Best Hotel is a tribute to the life and legacy of the world’s greatest footballer and Northern Ireland’s most famous sporting son.
Featuring decadent interiors, a lavish bar and restaurant and opulent events space, the hotel celebrates the legendary footballer and his connection to Belfast, with exclusive memorabilia and stories of Best’s life woven throughout the design of the building.
Be one of the first to stay at the George Best Hotel this Christmas as Belfast’s most exciting new hotel hosts lashings of festive fun throughout the Christmas season with decadent meals and delightful treats for a yuletide filled with joy.
For a sneak peek inside, read our blog on what The George Best Hotel is set to look like.
We’d love to welcome you to The George Best Hotel for the festive season. To book one of our incredible Christmas packages, please contact our friendly team on 0151 236 0166.
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