On an ordinary Sunday in 1983, a small Perth soccer club fielded one of the sport’s superstars.
- George Best was 37 and in the twilight of his career when he played a game in Perth
- Witnesses say his appearance drew at least 2,000 spectators to the ground
- Best scored a goal to help his team Osborne Park Galeb to a 2-1 victory
And for one game, dreams were fulfilled, with thousands flocking to see it.
Osborne Park is a small suburb in Perth’s north and Osborne Park Galeb was the local club, playing in the WA state soccer league.
Halfway through the season, the club got an offer it could hardly believe — Northern Ireland superstar George Best was coming to Perth, and Galeb could have him for a single game.
Bert Kirkpatrick, who was 28 at the time and a midfielder for Galeb, remembered hearing Best was coming.
George Best was on tour in Australia when he pulled on the jersey for Osborne Park Galeb. (Supplied: Frank Green)
“I think it was only a week or two weeks before he arrived,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
“I believe he was offered to the club as a guest player, and of course they snapped him up.
“But I don’t recall that there was much build-up to it.”
Best, 37, was on a tour of Australia, and had just played in Adelaide as he tried to wring the last few drops out of his playing career.
Some 15 years earlier, he had been one of soccer’s first celebrity players and a prodigy for Manchester United.
From Belfast to ‘The Fifth Beatle’ and a nomad tour
Best’s scintillating skills saw him plucked out of poverty in Belfast and jettisoned into public life in the swinging sixties.
He was dubbed “The Fifth Beatle” and had a huge wage and a modelling contract.
“The media attention that he got at that stage [in the 1960s], particularly from females, was just out of this world,” said Mr Kirkpatrick said, who grew up in England.
“I remember being at school and all the girls were going just crazy about George Best.”
Manchester United star George Best (bottom row, third from right) with the Galeb team. (Facebook: WA Lost Football)
Best had a supernova career in Manchester, winning the English First Division title three times along with a European Cup in 1968.
But plagued by alcoholism and off-field issues, Best left the club in 1974 to begin a nomad tour that took him to North America, Asia and eventually Perth.
Galeb’s match was against Melville Alemannia. The teams were fighting to avoid relegation, but the excitement of sharing a pitch with one of their heroes seemed to overwhelm both sets of players.
“For all of us, something we hadn’t expected [was] to be playing with somebody you idolised,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
Best proved he still had the skills that had made him a star.
“It was unbelievable,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
“I mean, he obviously wasn’t the same player that he had been in his glory days at United.
“He always seemed to have time to do what he needed to do with the ball … he was very much a team player.”
A packed ground, apocryphal tales and Best’s best
Galeb drew thousands to the game.
Soccer broadcaster John O’Connell was one of them, covering what became a headline event.
John O’Connell says there were 2,000 people at the ground to watch Best. (ABC News: Evan Morgan Grahame)
“All the players for Galeb, who had probably 20 or 30 people [normally] watching them on matchday, all of a sudden the ground was packed. [There] must have been 2,000 or more in the ground,” he said.
“The atmosphere was electrifying … but the Galeb players all of a sudden are looking around thinking ‘Phwoar gee, am I the man or what?'”
Apocryphal tales have floated out from the match. One of them says that Best, fed up with the Galeb players showing off to the crowd, ran up, pinched the ball from one of his teammates, dribbled down the pitch and scored.
Mr Kirkpatrick has his doubts.
“No, I don’t believe that actually occurred … to me he was very humble, he didn’t big-note himself in the dressing room,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
Frank Green, who refereed the game, agreed Best was far from a ball hog.
“In the game of soccer, it’s not the player that’s got the ball that’s really the person that creates all the opportunities, it’s the people that are moving into space, decoys, and running off the ball,” Mr Green said.
“That’s where his skills really were.”
In the end, Galeb won the game 2-1, with Best scoring one goal and setting up the other.
No sign of the playboy lifestyle — and then he was gone
After the game, Galeb put on a function for Best and the team, but all those hoping to catch a glimpse of his legendary boozing and socialising left disappointed.
Best was teetotalling at the time, and had gone to extreme lengths to suppress his addiction.
“I believe that George had some drugs implanted in his stomach to help him overcome the alcoholism,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
The sobriety would not last, and the addiction led to Best’s early death in 2005, aged just 59.
His vices form almost as large a part of his legacy as his skills on the pitch.
“You could say George was a bloke you wouldn’t want to bring home to meet your mother,” Mr O’Connell said.
And then, just like that, he was gone
Galeb won the game 2–1, with Best scoring one goal and setting up another. (Supplied: Frank Green)
The thousands that turned up to see Best did not return for Galeb’s next match. It was back to the two-dozen regulars.
“It was pretty much [our] one bumper crowd,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
The rest of the season was unremarkable for the club, which finished mid-table, but the memories of the day Georgie Best came to town are preserved in a special corner of the minds of those who were there.
“It’s definitely a vivid and very welcome memory,” Mr Kirkpatrick said.
“George was one of my heroes.”
Best (middle) was one of soccer’s first celebrity players and a prodigy for Manchester United. (Supplied)