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Running with George Best


AFC Bournemouth AFC Bournemouth

On the day he would have turned 74, we look back on the brief time George Best spent as an AFC Bournemouth player.

He may be legendary for his time with Manchester United, but the final five league appearances of the Ballon d'Or winner's career came in the red of the Cherries.

Playing alongside best in all of those games was a young Nigel Spackman, and he spoke about the intriguing spell in the club’s history when the two of them lined up together.

During an illustrious playing career, Spackman rubbed shoulders with some of the game’s greats – none more so than George Best.

Spackman lined up alongside Best when the legendary Northern Irishman turned out for AFC Bournemouth on five occasions in the 1982/83 season.

The two players were at opposite ends of their careers, Spackman having joined the Cherries as a teenager from Southern League Andover in May 1980.

Best, meanwhile, had played his last game for Manchester United some nine years previously and had continued to ply his trade with a host of clubs in England, Scotland and America.

The 36-year-old had been persuaded to play for the Cherries by Anton Johnson, the flamboyant head of a consortium which had reportedly recently purchased the club.

Spackman, who went on to win the top-flight title with Liverpool in 1987/88, takes up the story: “There had been a lot of speculation in the local press about George Best coming to play for us. There was no Sky Sports in those days, it was just local media.

“You would see stories in the local Echo that then-manager Dave Webb was trying to get George. It would all die down and then raise its head again.

“One day, we turned up for training and Don Megson, who had taken over as manager, told us we had a new signing.

“We were in the dressing room getting changed and Don asked us to give him a warm welcome when we went outside to meet him.

“To my recollection, Don didn’t say it was George. I don’t think he told us and it was a surprise when we got out there. I might be wrong but that’s how I remember it, it was a long time ago!

“As we walked across the field, you could see this guy volleying balls and warming up. As you got closer, you could see the beard and you could see it was George Best.

“Everybody got together and welcomed him and that was the start of George Best being an AFC Bournemouth player.

“In the session, you could see George wasn’t as fit as he needed to be but it was amazing to be on the same training pitch as an absolute icon of the game.

“The thing I remember most is a woman in a tracksuit watching the training. I was 21 at the time and admit I had taken my eye off the ball, looking at this rather attractive young lady in a tracksuit.

“That young lady turned out to be Mary Stavin, the former Miss World! It was a double whammy for me – George Best and Miss World both at the same time!”

News of Best’s signing created a media frenzy with a crowd of more than 9,000 – over double the usual gate – flocking to Dean Court to witness his debut against Newport County in March 1983.

However, the match proved something of an anti-climax with Best failing to live up to the hype, his mercurial talent sorely missing as the Cherries suffered a 1-0 defeat.

Best failed to show for the next home game after returning late from Manchester where he had been attending a funeral and then limped off in a 2-1 win over Chesterfield, apparently suffering with blisters.

Spackman said: “He’d stopped playing at Manchester United when he was 27 and had gone to the States where he’d done well and enjoyed his life.

“Coming back to a Third Division team is not quite as romantic as playing for San Jose Earthquakes, I would imagine!

“I remember queuing up at Southampton to watch him play for Manchester United and he was a world-class player. When he played for us, he looked quite frail compared to then and certainly wasn’t at his physical best.

“His touch wasn’t as good as it normally was but, technically, he still had it. His vision was good but he couldn’t execute what he used to do.

“I remember the build-up to the Newport game. George wasn’t at the level of fitness he needed to be to play but he had to because of the whole bandwagon and he doubled the gate which is what he had been brought in to do.

“Losing the first game was a bit of a downer but, for me as a young player, it was great to play in front of such a big crowd.

“I played in midfield and George floated around a bit. He was never going to run back and tackle. You had to get the ball to him for him to do something and that’s what we tried to do.

“As you get older, you realise players can’t do it all on their own and certainly not at 36 years of age. It was a physical league and a physical game.

“When you got the ball and gave it to George, you would try to give him an outlet. If you made the right move, he’d find you. But he was used to playing with far better players than me.”

Despite his well-publicised problems – with alcohol contributing to his death at 59 in 2005 – Best showed his human side when he attended a junior football tournament organised by the club and made sure he played for every team so the children could say they had played with him.

“He was a very down-to-earth man,” said Spackman. “He was a legend of the game who finished playing at the very highest level far too early.

“When Dave Webb was manager, he signed players like Charlie George, Eddie Kelly and Alan Whittle who were coming to the end of their careers.

“As a youngster, I tried to learn from them and George was exactly the same. He was always there to have a chat with you and that was great because I was an inquisitive young player who now had one of the game’s greats in the same dressing room.

“At the end of my career, I was fortunate enough to work with George on Sky doing Soccer Saturday so I got to know him even better.

“He used to watch Chelsea games because he lived close by so our paths crossed after Bournemouth. It was great for me to be associated with someone who was such a legend of the game.

“I only played five games with him but, looking back, what a great thing to be able to tell your mates or your children – I played with one of the greatest players of all-time and that was George Best.”

This article originally appeared in the Manchester United edition of this season's MATCHDAY programme.

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