In this extract from Sir Bobby Charlton's autobiography, the Reds legend waxes lyrical about United's ‘Holy Trinity’...
I do not like to think of myself as a boastful person, but sometimes you have to be honest. You have to put aside false modesty. So I have to report that when people started reeling off phrases like ‘the Big Three’, when the names Law, Best and Charlton were linked so frequently and so naturally, it did come to me that I had become part of football history.
This was not something I stepped back to consider later, as a little dust gathered on a shoal of headlines. It was deeply thrilling at the time, with the excitement of the fans becoming a little more apparent each time we ran on to the field. For me, the records and the emerging of aristocracy in football had always been so fascinating from a boyhood watching the great names and keeping company with Jackie Milburn. It was something that would never pall down all the years.
Having put aside the frustrations of playing out on the left wing, I was more confident in my ability than ever before. The results for the team were increasingly solid, and this meant the expectations placed on Denis, George and me had rapidly become more an inspiration than a burden. We went about our football in contrasting ways, Denis sending sparks and flames up around him, George going on his amazing runs with trickery and courage that just welled out of him, me with my liking for the bold pass and the big, swirling shot. We had one abiding thing in common. We loved to score goals. About the town and the country you had the growing sense that football fans had a feeling they just had to see us play. If they didn’t, they might miss George finding a full back to his liking, or Denis producing flashes of lightning, or me profiting again from Jimmy Murphy’s advice to hit the ball hard and early when I was in scoring range.
We brought different qualities to the field, separate abilities, but as each game passed they seemed to become a little more complementary. Of course there were times when George disappeared on his own flight of fancy, when somebody like me might scream fruitlessly for him to pass, but then the chances were that when he was in that vein he would do something utterly unforgettable. It's also true, as he claimed, that I too could be selfish. It can be a fine dividing line between confidence and inspiration and a failure to understand the needs of the team, and for three or four years no doubt the most important point was that all three of us were able to deliver the best of our talent.
What the fans loved most about Denis Law, I believe, was his incredible aggression and self-belief. There were times when he seemed to define urgency on a football field – all that some of his most brilliant interventions lacked were puffs of smoke – and always there was the gleam in his eye, and the courage. They never made a big centre half who could induce in Denis even a flicker of apprehension. If I had to pick a single, dominating aspect of his character, apart from the tremendous commitment which marked his play and set him apart, it would be his sheer Scottishness. I know all Scots aren’t the same, but I do love the way so many of them see a love of their country as something at the heart of their existence, and how it has always been so passionately expressed on the football field. Often there is a show of toughness, and quite a bit of bluster, but you don’t have to be so perceptive to see that at its core is deep pride in their people and a tough view of the world. When Nobby and I were helping England win the World Cup, Denis made a point of playing golf. Whenever we played Scotland, Denis made sure to kick us both and call us ‘English b******s’, within the first minute or so of the match. It was as though he had been obliged to make a statement and, having done so, could then get on with the game.
To be honest, George’s first performance for the team, in a league match against West Bromwich at Old Trafford in September 1963, does not linger in my mind. I’m sure he showed some nice touches, but the overall impact was not overwhelming. It was when he returned to the team a few months later, against Burnley at Old Trafford, that you began to see all that he would be. We'd been beaten badly at Burnley a few days earlier, and the Old Man was determined to shake up the team. Bringing back the seventeen-year-old George was his boldest stroke and it paid off gloriously. Long before the end, I felt pity for my friend John Angus, the Burnley right back. John was not so much overwhelmed as tortured. George was like a kid’s dribbling dream that day. The crowd was stunned, then rapturous, and when it was happening I recalled a conversation I had had with one of the coaches at The Cliff training ground a year or so earlier. He had said, ‘We have a lad in the reserves who is bloody good. He’ll be playing alongside you guys soon enough.’ I made the slightly cynical reply, ‘Well, they say that about a lot of young players.’ I didn’t watch George play in the reserves because I reckoned that, if he was as good as he was being described, I would be getting a close look at him soon enough. You could see it all in the game against Burnley – the speed, the balance, the nerve, the close control. Supporters like nothing better than a winger beating a full back to the point of humiliation. That day they received full value for their tickets.
So often, living with George was a glorious existence, and it started with that amazing performance against my Geordie friend John Angus. It was staggering to think he was still just 17. There were so many passages of play like that, most famously when he destroyed Benfica three years later in the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, and all of them reminded you that apart from anything else George Best had a constitution that was hardly believable. This was no doubt the reason that the Old Man mostly – until the very end, when George’s behaviour made the situation untenable if the club was to retain any pretence of discipline – took a lenient view of so many of the transgressions. For me, certainly, an important factor in my decision not to get involved in any of the often heated debates within the club was that at the peak of his success George never fell short of what you would expect from one of the world’s outstanding footballers.
He set a standard that people talk about even now, and I suspect this will always be so, as long as there is film of him, because what they see is something that, for all the talented players of today, they do believe is no longer available. They don’t see anyone who is quite like George Best. I spent quite a large part of my life explaining how it was to play with Duncan Edwards, and now it is the same with George. One day, of course, there may be another Duncan, another George, but the bar was raised so high by those players, that when someone like a young Ryan Giggs or Rooney or Ronaldo step forward, unfavourable comparisons are invariably made, and those who remember George, and the dwindling number who recall Duncan, are quick to defend their idea of what they think of as football perfection.
When I heard that the club had commissioned a bronze statue of George, Denis and me, to stand outside the ground on Sir Matt Busby Way, I told George’s father Dickie that nothing could fill me with more pride. For just a little while, there in the hospital room in London [during Best’s final hours in 2005], the three of us had been united for one last time. When Denis and I walked away down the corridor we didn’t need to say that, along with George, we had left behind the greatest of our football times.