January 1964: Manchester United’s ‘Holy Trinity’ play together for the first time

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 4, 2018
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On this day in 1964 Manchester United’s ‘Holy Trinity’ of Best, Law and Charlton played together for the very first time in a 4-1 dismantling of West Brom. No footage exists of this historic event, but then again none is necessary as it plays out in our imagination anyway with the familiarity of a favourite film. There’s Bobby Charlton scampering and bounding and shooting with such ferocity it propels him into the air, enacting poses usually only drawn in seventies football comics. There’s Georgie Best, the young electric eel, with shins and ankles still unblemished because this is only his sixth professional appearance. The ball only leaves his side when he choices it to. And there’s Denis Law, even at 24 years of age looking like a cool uncle who knows all the mad characters in town happy to join in with a cul-de-sac kick-about.

It should come as a surprise to precisely no-one that all four goals at the Hawthorns on that bitterly cold January afternoon came courtesy of the magical trio with Law’s brace amounting to his eighteenth and ninetieth of a record-breaking campaign. By May ,the archest of poachers had sniffed, slotted, and headed home thirty goals from thirty league games and it would have been more were it not for a month-long suspension handed out for a fracas at Villa Park that resulted in a red card and the police advising the striker to exit the ground early for his own safety. Across all competitions the Lawman scored 46 goals that season, a feat that Rooney, Cole, Hughes, McClair, Pearson, Van Nistelrooy, or Ronaldo never managed to better. He was, by some distance, and if you excuse the pun relating to his Beatle-haired team-mate, the best.

The following year, as United won their first title since the atrocity of Munich, Law was once again the league’s leading sniper and this time his achievement was accompanied by a Ballon d’Or. Here we arrive at the first of the two stats that come anywhere close to matching in power the anecdotes passed down from previous generations and the countless clips available of the triumvirate dribbling in undribbleable mud, chipping in from outrageous angles, scorching long-rangers past gloveless hands, and turning to celebrate with a single arm raised, nonchalant and cool. Over the course of the next five years Law, Charlton and Best would each individually win what was then called the European Footballer of the Year.

Silence should follow here; a period of reflection for that to fully sink in. That’s like Messi, Ronaldo and Zidane all parading their supernatural skills in the same team.

Best’s goal against the Baggies was his solitary league strike that season. Eighteen, skinny and shy, it was only seven months earlier when his father Dickie nervously approached Matt Busby as the squad and backroom staff celebrated a FA Cup final triumph over Leicester. “If George isn’t going to make it, I’d be grateful if you could let me know within six months because I have a position held open for him back home in the printing trade”. The concerned parent was duly reassured and that September, in the corresponding fixture with West Brom at Old Trafford, the future phenomenon and cultural icon was first given a public airing. According to Busby the ‘little whipper-snapper’ wasted no time in tormenting his full-back: “From the moment he started to play in the first team George Best had pulses racing”.

What Best took from that game was perhaps the greatest revelation possible for any youngster thrown into a baptism of fire: it frightened him how easy it had been, and with homesickness fading and the realisation dawning that the ladies of Manchester found him cute his performances grew ever more influential. The call of the printing presses would evidently have to wait.

Bobby Charlton was 26 years of age in January 1964. He was two years away from becoming a World Cup winner and at club level he was a totem for a side that had rebuilt after a decimating tragedy killed eight of his team-mates and left Charlton himself in hospital for a week. The previous season’s FA Cup win had brought tears and pride and hope but the team had just about avoided relegation and that largely due to Law’s goals. Now though, things felt very different and in the emergence of this Belfast kid beating opponents for kicks we can only speculate what it meant to this private man to be playing alongside greatness again where once it was taken from him. It must have felt very special indeed.

Throughout the course of their Manchester United careers Best, Law and Charlton scored 665 goals between them. That’s the second stat. 665 goals.

An Irishman, Englishman and Scotsman walked into a club. If you believe a better trio of players have ever coalesced their genius, then the joke’s on you.

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