Terence McMillan was a Labour councillor, the mayor of Newham when it was first formed by the fusion of East and West Ham in 1965, and the modest stadium named in his honour near Canning Town hosted school sports and amateur football.
George Best was one of the most recognisable footballers in the world when he appeared there. It was a Sunday afternoon, two years after his final appearance for Manchester United and eight days before his arrival in Los Angeles to confirm he was joining the Aztecs in the NASL.
He was 29 and maybe looking for a bit of match practice. Although, equally, he probably just agreed to help a mate and fancied a kick-about and a few drinks when he agreed to pull on the East Ham United stripes.
His presence boosted the crowd for a game against West Ham to raise some cash for the hard-up London Spartan League club and launch Frank Lampard’s testimonial year.
Best had played only fleetingly since his exit from Old Trafford. There was a four-game venture to South Africa for the Jewish Guild in Johannesburg, before appearing for Dunstable Town, where Barry Fry, an old pal from their days together in the Manchester United youth ranks, had taken his first managerial job.
Fans paid just 45p to watch East Ham take on West Ham in a past and present match in 1965
George Best, Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves all featured in the iconic match
Best’s presence boosted the crowd for a game against West Ham to raise some cash for the hard-up London Spartan League club
Not only did Fry convince Tommy Docherty to release Best’s registration to play in two friendlies he also secured United as opponents in the first. Creasey Park was bursting at the seams. Thousands more were locked out as Dunstable won 3-2. Legend has it that Best gave back £25 of his £200 appearance fee to help the sixth-tier team buy new nets.
Best appeared in testimonials for Jeff Astle and Peter Osgood, made a brief comeback at Stockport County in Division Four — four games including the friendly against Stoke organised to help him settle in — and played three times for Cork Celtic.
‘George would play for nothing,’ recalls Fry. ‘When he played for Dunstable his car broke down on the way. He called from Knutsford services and said, “Baz, you’re not going to believe this…” I thought, “here we go” because he had a reputation for not turning up but he said, “Don’t worry I’ll jump in a cab”, and he made it.
‘That was George. He loved playing football and he loved helping friends. He was warm, generous, witty, intelligent and brilliant company.
‘He stayed with me in Bedford after the match and I drove him the next day to Michael Parkinson’s house where he used to spend time when he was lying low.’
Jimmy Greaves, 35 years old and then playing for Chelmsford City in the Southern League, turned out and scored a couple
Even in later years, when Best was a fading force, struggling with alcoholism, he made the turnstiles click. His final competitive games on these shores were with Bournemouth in 1983. By then, his determination to make kick-off had diminished.
Diligently, they fixed signs outside Dean Court ground warning, ‘George Best is not playing today’ when he failed to turn up. A crowd of 4,250 saw him play for East Ham in February 1976, with admission set at 45p. West Ham lost at Coventry the previous day, during a poor run of league form that almost dragged them into relegation trouble in a season when they reached the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final.
Still, nobody paused to wonder if permission from boss Ron Greenwood might be required. They regularly met for impromptu games in the summer near Hainault Forest before an evening in The Retreat pub. This, they decided, was no different.
Bobby Moore played, FA Cup hero Alan Taylor scored three and goalkeeper Mervyn Day two as the Hammers won 8-7. Jimmy Greaves, 35 years old and then playing for Chelmsford City in the Southern League, turned out and scored a couple. Trevor Brooking got the other.
West Ham United and England legend Bobby Moore also played in the match
Best left for the States and relished his first summer with the Aztecs before returning to spend a season in Division Two with Fulham, the opposition for Lampard’s main testimonial match, in the autumn of the same year.
Best and Moore both played in that game for Fulham in front of 16,597 at Upton Park. By the end of the year, Best was back into the Northern Ireland team and sparkled against the Netherlands, Europe’s greatest team of the era, in a World Cup qualifier.
With the ball, 1976 proved a good year for him. It all started at Terence McMillan, now home to Clapton FC of the Eastern Counties, and led to Rotterdam, where he delivered on a promise to nutmeg Johan Cruyff in a 2-2 draw. Looking back from an era when Cristiano Ronaldo is leading a procession of post-prime footballers to Saudi Arabia it is impossible to shake the feeling that they simply had a bit more fun playing football back then — and they really would not have swapped it for the money.
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