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When local football took on the world’s best

WHEN Local football took on the world’s best

To mark the World Cup, we’re share the incredible story of when George Best, arguably one of the greatest players to have ever touched a football, turned out for local club Dunstable Town, just minutes from Linmere. A story still remarkable almost 50 years later.

The greatest player to have never played a World Cup

When Gareth Bale captained Wales against the USA for their first group match of the 2022 World Cup, he left that small group of players known as the ‘best to have never played the World Cup finals.’ It’s an unfortunate list with several legendary talents, and right at the top is Belfast-born George Best. A player of unfathomable talent, who vied with Pelé throughout the 1960s and 1970s for the accolade of the world’s most gifted player. To many, Pelé was a close second.

Best moved from his native Belfast to join Manchester United in 1961, then a painfully shy youth player. Whilst his footballing skills were other-worldly, George was a naïve character who needed support, with fellow youth player Barry Fry, stepping into that big brother role to help him manage his life and finances. Fry’s playing career would be limited by injury. Best, however, would rise to the very summit of European football, winning the first division title, the European Cup and European Player of the Year in 1968.

Best’s success and good looks afforded him a glamorous lifestyle. A man of many relationships, fast cars and a flamboyant social life, Best was affectionately dubbed the ‘Fifth Beatle’ by the media. Whilst a man of many miracles, dragging Northern Ireland into international contention was beyond even his means, never achieving the pinnacle of the World Cup. Best continued his club career with Manchester United career into the 1970s without many summits left to climb. It was time for a change.

Barry Fry, George’s close friend and mentor from his early days, took over as manager of Dunstable town in 1974, a team playing in Division One South, then football’s 6th tier. Dunstable Town’s owners had big dreams, but very small crowds. Tiny in fact. For Fry’s first game, the gate totalled 35. The next game achieved 43, with Fry revealing he’d encouraged his own family to attend to make up those extra numbers.

“Attendances were so small, rather than announcing the team changes to the crowd, we’d announce the crowd changes to the team. We were about to finish at the bottom for the ninth year running, and I needed a gimmick.” (Barry Fry – Dunstable Town Manager)

The gimmick he had in mind was the one player every club in England would sell their soul for. At the time, Best had fallen out with Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty and was spending most of his time in his Manchester night club. Fry’s call arrived at the club the next evening and Best was more than intrigued. Best would never forget the support Fry had given him in his early years and was keen to help his close friend out. Tommy Docherty, Manchester United’s manager, didn’t share the same enthusiasm.

“Dunstable Town! What makes you think Bestie will play for ‘Dunstabubble’ when I can’t get him to play for Man United?” (Tommy Docherty – United Manager)

Eventually Fry’s persuasions worked, and Docherty relented. He even threw in the Manchester United reserve team to play Dunstable for Best’s first appearance.

George Best prowls Creasey Park, watched by thousands of fans and the old AC Delco Tower.

On Monday 5 August 1974, Fry’s wild ‘gimmick’ turned to reality. George Best donned the white kit of Dunstable Town and played the hallowed turf of Creasey Park, nestled close to the foothills of the Chilterns. Dunstable ran out as 3-2 winners against Manchester United reserves; a team including George Graham (who went on to legendary success with Arsenal).

The match saw temporary stands, with a tea bar operating out of a shed and countless spectators crammed onto a mound outside the ground. Official estimates suggested a crowd of 3,500, with some eyewitnesses claiming as much as 10,000.

“It was electric. Believe you me, that night at Creasey Park, the reception Bestie got was out of this world. Bestie was just one of the lads, with no airs and graces. I think we left Creasey Park at about 2am – they [the team] just enjoyed his company.” (Barry Fry – Dunstable Town Manager)

Best turned out for Dunstable Town on two more occasions, facing Irish side Cork Celtic and local rivals Luton Town, the latter to raise funds for Dunstable Town players. Best continued to reside in Manchester to manage his business interests and almost failed to make the Cork Celtic game, due to a break down.

“His (Best’s) car broke down and he was at Knutsford services (Cheshire). When I told everyone, they assumed he wouldn’t turn up, but he got a taxi from there to Dunstable (150 miles) and arrived 20 minutes before the game.” (Barry Fry – Dunstable Town Manager)

Best was taking a reported salary of £200 a week, of which he donated £25 to pay for new goal nets. The fantastic media exposure helped both tickets sales and attracting new players to the club. That following season saw Dunstable Town promoted to the next division, with 18 crowds of over 1,000 – a far cry from the 35 fans who turned out for Fry’s first game in charge.

Best would go on to play for several clubs over the 1970s and 1980s, including Stockport County, Hong Kong Rangers, Hibs, Fulham and (then) glamorous excursions to the US Soccer League in Los Angeles and Florida. He would eventually succumb to the excesses of his infamous lifestyle in 2005, at the age of 59.

The Holy Trinity Statue overlooking Old Trafford, Manchester.

Both Manchester United and Dunstable Town commemorate George Best’s legendary contributions to this day. Outside Old Trafford stands the United Trinity statue, with George standing amongst Sir Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law, providers of 665 goals between them and all 3 achieving European Player of the Year.

Creasey Park, now operated by the local council, plays host to both Dunstable Town and AFC Dunstable. After Best left Dunstable, the team attempted to cash in by adopting the white kit George wore in his appearances, before realising how much it cost to keep an all-white kit clean. The club, however, found other means to remember George, if not quite on the same scale as Old Trafford.

“The snack bar sells ‘Bestie Burgers’ and ‘Barry’s Fries’ in honour of George and Barry. I’m not sure how many people make the connection. There are still a couple of pictures from that (first) night behind the bar at Creasey Park, which visiting clubs remark on.” (Andrew Madaras – Dunstable Town Chairman)

Nearly 50 years on, the tale of George Best and Dunstable Town still carries an air of unbelievability. This was Elvis leaving Las Vegas to play a residency in a small-town English theatre. The most gifted player to have never graced the World Cup finals, left the biggest league club of his generation to play for minnows Dunstable Town and changed local history forever.

The team would like to thank Dunstable Town’s Chairman Andrew Madaras in his contributions to this piece. Andrew extends his welcome to the residents of Linmere and hopes some of you will find the time to come and visit the club, where this remarkable story happened.

Edited from the BBC News piece “George Best: How Man Utd legend left for Dunstable Town” (2021)

Linmere is designed to be a place for communities that embraces the natural environment, and where all generations can enjoy a great quality of life. This exciting new collection of leafy and walkable neighbourhoods, situated north of Houghton Regis Bedfordshire, located close to M1 Junction 11a. Nestled into verdant surroundings, its first homes completed and inhabited in 2021. The Land Trust will maintain and preserve these spaces on behalf of Houghton Regis Management Company.

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