George Best: He Played for Aston Villa You Know, I Know, I Was There

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

In 1985, the sport of football was not what you could call in good shape. A combination of escalating terrace violence, economic malaise, and frankly, poor quality football played in decaying stadiums had left the national game in deep trouble. Attendance figures were dropping through the floor.

May 1985 would see the situation get even worse but in the true spirit of the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” tragic events in Yorkshire would lead to a true one-off.

George Best would play football for Aston Villa.

As Villa’s 1984-85 season petered out into mid-table mediocrity, there was little to shout about. We’d lost our last home league game of the season to Luton Town by a single goal and were playing away at a Liverpool with one eye on The European Cup Final on the last Saturday of the league season. Not being that bothered about the game and with Dennis Mortimer’s Testimonial looming on the Tuesday, I’d decided not to go.

Saturday afternoon would be spent glued to the radio.

11th May 1985

We didn’t have Jeff Stelling back in those days, so I was taking part in the tradition of the time, switching between George Gavin on BRMB and whoever was in charge of the goals klaxon on Radio WM (probably Tim Russon) and tellingly on this day, Sport on 2 because they always mentioned Villa a lot more if were playing the red half of Merseyside. The telly was switched to the Oracle teletext service to keep up with the latest scores.

Towards the end of first half, a Radio 2 reporter announced that there appeared to be smoke and a few flames coming from the stand at Bradford and the game against Lincoln had been halted. It was fairly unusual for the BBC to mention Bradford at all, so it must, I reasoned, be a significant happening. As it was just before the interval I was, as a matter of course, turning off the teletext to catch the half time reports on the BBC’s Grandstand and ITV’s World of Sport. Yorkshire TV’s cameras were at Valley Parade and World of Sport quickly abandoned their half time reports sequence to show the unfolding scene.

There only seemed to be a few flames at first, but just as commentator John Helm said that it looked serious, the small fire became a major conflagration. As fans began streaming onto the pitch, the roof caught a blaze. In less time than it takes to make a soft boiled egg, the whole of the roof was ablaze, raining fiery debris down on those making their escape. Helm put into the words the terrible thoughts of those us around the country witnessing agape as the tragedy unfolded and people began to emerge from the stand, some white with burns and even, in some cases, still on fire.

The speed and fury with which the fire claimed the stand and with it the lives of dozens who had just gone out to cheer on their football team was truly frightening. Bradford had just gained promotion and this was supposed to be a day of celebration. The joy had turned to abject horror in little more than the blink of an eye.

For us football fans, used to standing or sitting in many ramshackle stands no better or safer than the one whose destruction we were gaping at, there was a real feeling of “there but for the grace of god go I”.

It really hit home.

It was devastating. Horrible. Gruesome. Tragic. And one more word. Avoidable.

Yes avoidable and anyone who knew anything about how football was being run and fans were being treated knew it only too well. If we’d been cattle the RSPCA would never have stood for it.

Villa lost 2-1 at Anfield that day but I’d never been less interested in how my team had got on in my life.

As the extent of the afternoon’s events began to become clear, the football family was dealt another kick in the teeth. A twelve foot wall had collapsed during severe crowd trouble between Birmingham City and Leeds United and a 15 year old boy had died as a consequence.

It’s probably difficult for those who weren’t around at the time to understand just how dire things had become for the game but it really felt at the time as if football was dying too. The events of that horrible day felt like nails in the coffin.

This was, of course, the era of Band Aid and so the reflex response of a shocked public to the fire was to start fund raising. Gerry Marsden would resurrect his hit “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. The football world responded with benefit matches, but it seemed such a game featuring Villa would be unlikely

With Villa Park booked for Dennis’s game in midweek and with many potential opponents still having League fixtures to fulfil, it seemed we wouldn’t be getting a game at all. The Express and Star had other ideas and it seems to have been their drive that got the game to happen. Saturday was a no-no as this was FA Cup Final day and the cup was treated with the utmost respect in those days. It was still the jewel in the crown of the football calendar.

14th May 1985

The Mortimer testimonial took place on the Tuesday. Many of us were of the opinion that these sort of friendlies were all rigged and a high-scoring draw was on the cards. Wrong!

With so many England regulars playing for their clubs that week though, the England XI of fringe players must have seen it as an opportunity and took the game seriously and we got thumped 4-1, Peter Withe getting ours and our very own Paul Rideout scoring against us! Garry “Bruno” Thompson found the net twice with Sunderland’s Nick Pickering getting the other one. A crowd of 5,451 turned up to see it and word started to get round that we were playing a game for the Bradford fire fund after all, against West Bromwich Albion and that one George Best was going to turn out for us.

“Yeah. Right” was the reaction of many of us.

At this stage of his life, George had managed to pick up a reputation for being less than reliable and for being three sheets to the wind on TV chat shows so most of us took George’s potential involvement with a pinch of salt. Mister Dependable he wasn’t.

17th May 1985

The attendance at the Mortimer match probably influenced the decision not to open the Holte End and so it was that on Friday 17th May 1985, most of us in the crowd of 5,663 were packed into Trinity Road Stand. Despite its beautiful brick façade, much of the Trinity’s structure was wooden, an irony that wasn’t lost on us on the night.

So hastily had the game been organised that there had been no time to print a proper programme so a four page newspaper type document from the Express and Star provided the pre-match reading material. Players who weren’t taking part in the game were mingling around the refreshments stands and I clearly remember really struggling to decipher Tony Morley’s thick accent. By this point, Tony was plying his trade for the opposition.

Then came the team news: Kevin Poole in goal, full backs Gary Williams and Tony Dorigo, Evans and Ormsby at the heart of defence, Ray Walker, Stevie McMahon and Sid in midfield, Peter Withe alongside Paul Rideout up front and in the number eleven shirt… oh yes! George Best!

Legend has it that the only stipulation George made was that Villa provide the footwear. Incredibly, one of the most skilful players ever to grace the planet no longer owned a pair of football boots!

It is absolutely true to say that George wasn’t in prime physical fitness, being just shy of his 39th birthday at the time, but all the skill was there and his every touch was greeted with yelps of delight from the assembled Trinity Road throng. The first half may have been goalless, but it was joy to watch the ball control, brilliance and cheeky back heel passes of a true maestro at work.

He made Albion’s awestruck players look ordinary, which probably didn’t do much for their self esteem bearing in mind that they’d just been relegated.

I was certainly awestruck, so much so that I couldn’t find it in my heart to sing the old classic “Georgie Best. Superstar. Looks like a woman and he wears a bra.” Mind you, the emerging middle-aged spread and the full beard made the song somewhat redundant anyway.

In the second half, we even got some goals to cheer. Paul Rideout combined well with Steve McMahon who put Villa one up as a consequence before a corner from Mister Georgie Best himself found Allan Evans and we were coasting.

Or at least I thought we were.

Albion stormed back into it, Steve Mackenzie scoring a penalty before Tony Grealish levelled it. Garry Thompson continued his week of being a thorn in Villa’s side by putting the Baggies ahead.

George managed an hour in a Villa shirt and what a wonderful hour it was, but it was the player who came on for him, Didier Six, that netted Villa’s equaliser. The game finished 3-3. We’d got the high scoring draw we’d expected on the Tuesday.

It was a true honour to witness a player of George’s calibre wearing a Villa shirt and the night would also prove to be the last chance of seeing Peter Withe, Paul Rideout and Didier Six in their Villa colours.

The local press reckoned we raised about £10,000 for the disaster fund on the night.

It was a special night, one to treasure, but we should never forget the reason we were there… and if football people thought things couldn’t any worse, the Heysel Stadium disaster was less than two weeks away.

56 people died in the fire at Valley Parade:

ACKROYD, John Douglas 32 Baildon

ANDERTON, Edmund 68 Bingley

BAINES, Alexander Shaw 70 Bradford

BAMFORD, Herbert 72 Bradford

BULMER, Christopher James 11 Burley-in-Wharfedale

COXON, Jack Leo 76 Bradford

COXON, Leo Anthony 44 Halifax

CRABTREE, David James 30 Bradford

CRABTREE, Harry 76 Bradford

DEMPSEY, Derek 46 Morley

FIRTH, Muriel 56 Baildon

FIRTH, Samuel 86 Bradford

FLETCHER, Andrew 11 East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire

FLETCHER, Edmond 63 Pudsey

FLETCHER, John 34 East Bridgford, Nottingham

FLETCHER, Peter 32 Gildersome

FORSTER, Nellie 64 Bradford

GREENWOOD, Felix Winspear 13 Denholme

GREENWOOD, Peter 46 Denholme

GREENWOOD, Rupert Benedict 11 Denholme

HALL, Norman 71 Bradford

HALLIDAY, Peter Anthony 34 Bradford

HARTLEY, Arthur 79 Bradford

HINDLE, Edith 79 Bradford

HINDLE, Frederick 76 Bradford

HODGSON, Moira Helen 15 Oakenshaw

HUDSON, Eric 72 Bingley

HUGHES, John 64 Bradford

HUTTON, John 74 Bradford

KERR, Walter 76 Bradford

LOVELL, Peter Charles 43 Bradford

LUDLAM, Jack 55 Bradford

McPHERSON, Gordon Stuart 39 Bradford

McPHERSON, Irene 28 Bradford

MASON, Roy 74 Silsden

MIDDLETON, Frederick Norman 84 Bradford

MITCHELL, Harold 79 Bradford

MUHL, Elizabeth 21 Leeds

NORMINGTON, Ernest 74 Shipley

ORMONDROYD, Gerald Priestley 40 Bingley

ORMONDROYD, Richard John 12 Bingley

ORMONDROYD, Robert Ian 12 Bingley

POLLARD, Sylvia Lund 69 Bradford

PRICE, Herbert 78 Shipley

ROBERTS, Amanda Jayne 20 Bradford

SAMPSON, Jane 18 Leeds

STACEY, William 72 Sleaford, Lincolnshire

STOCKMAN, Craig Albert 14 Bradford

STOCKMAN, Jane Ashley 16 Bradford

STOCKMAN, Trevor John 38 Brighouse

TURNER, Howard Malcolm 41 Bingley

TURNER, Sarah Elizabeth 16 Bingley

WARD, Simon Neil 18 Shipley

WEDGEWORTH, Robert 72 Guiseley

WEST, William James 78 North Hykeham, Lincoln

WRIGHT, Adrian Mark 11 Bradford.