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On a clear July night in 1989, George Best stepped out of the change rooms at Valley Road to play alongside his new teammates for Devonport City.
The people of Devonport, a small regional city on the northwest coast of Tasmania, turned out in force to see Best play. Over 1800 people filled a ground that for a regular season game would see only a fraction of that number through the turnstiles.
Best’s coach that night was Ken Morton, an Englishman who had arrived in Australia 10 years earlier. Morton and Best were teammates at Manchester United in the early 1960s.
“I joined Manchester United in ‘62-‘63 as an apprentice. George was already there in his first year. I signed on my 15th birthday, and straight away we went to Switzerland and Germany where I played my first games for United in the Blue Star Tournament. George was on that trip too.”
Morton and Best became friends during the seasons they spent together at United. “We’d played in the reserve team and the youth team together, and then George of course went on to bigger and better things.”
After a few years in the English leagues, Ken found his way to Tasmania in 1979, where there were a number of “import” players plying their trade. “The league had some quality players through that period and the local players improved playing alongside those imports.”
Morton eventually moved to Wollongong in 1981, where he was player/coach for Wolves’ first season in the national league. Coaching took him to many ports over the following years, before he returned to Tasmania and the club Devonport City, on Tasmania’s northwest coast.
A promoter brought George Best to Australia on a speaking tour in 1989, and Morton was asked if he was interested in bringing George to Tasmania.
Best’s first stop in his Tasmanian visit was Launceston, where he did some after-dinner speaking. While Launceston may have heard George speak, Devonport got to see him play. “The big coup for us was to get him to play a game. He’d stopped playing at that time because of his knees. I was delighted when he said that he would play for us,” says Morton.
Best would join Devonport City’s team for the evening to play against a Tasmanian XI.
It seemed like all of Devonport had turned out to see the game. “They were lined up all the way down the street to get in – it was unbelievable. George was given a hero’s welcome when he came out on the field.”
Tasmanian football writer Walter Pless had driven from Hobart to Devonport to see the game. “It was a glorious night, not a cloud in the sky,” Walter recalls. “We arrived at Devonport at dusk, in advance of the 8pm kick-off at Valley Road.”
Soon after kick-off, David Crosson, playing for Tasmania, tackled Best, and Best flew up in the air and fell in a heap. The whole crowd gasped.
Crosson was another Englishman, having played for Newcastle United in the early-to-mid 1970s before he moved on to Darlington then eventually Hobart in Tasmania. As Best lay on the ground, Morton said, “If he goes, there’s no game!”
Pless remembers the incident. “Best was just in another league – when Best was in his prime Crosson would have been left looking for him. But age and injury – and alcohol – had caught up with him, which left him slower and more vulnerable.”
The game went on, and the crowd were treated to some of George’s skills. Morton remembers plenty of flourishes on the field from George. “The speed may have gone, but the fluency was still there.”
Morton was involved in a later tour of Tasmania, featuring Best and Denis Law. At the game staged in Hobart, “players were taking off and dribbling, just showing off. I went into both change rooms at half-time and told the players it wasn’t about them, it was about George Best, he’s the one the crowd’s came to see. The Devonport game on the other hand was quite a good game, and the teams were evenly matched.”
Morton is enjoying a successful spell coaching at South Hobart and also runs the Ken Morton Soccer School.
“George was a super talented guy with magic in his feet and he could make the ball talk. His left foot wasn’t quite as good as mine, but his right foot was immense. I was proud and privileged to be a friend of his.”