The United Trinity: Three men who together reached footballing immortality
Forty-five years on from the final games this legendary trio played together, in the midst of an age where all talk is of Messi, Neymar and Suarez as the greatest attacking trio of all-time. Ronan Gaine tells the story of The United Trinity- Best, Law and Charlton.
The United Trinity introduced ‘sexy football’ to England, showcasing football wizardry for almost a decade on the same field, and today- 45 years on since they last played together- remain symbolic of what Manchester United stands for.
“Right away, you could see the great chemistry between them. Great players know how to play together. However tough the match was, you always knew Bobby could unleash one of his strikes from God-knows-where, Denis would make something out of nothing inside the box or George would just do something magical. What players they were.”
–Paddy Crerand (teammate)
The trio came together while United were rebuilding following the Munich air disaster of 1958, which claimed the lives of 8 players. Bobby Charlton, a member of the Busby Babes, a group of talented young players brought through the clubs academy by Matt Busby and assistant Jimmy Murphy, survived the crash and went on to become the most famous red of all, making 758 appearances and scoring 249 goals. He was the catalyst in England’s sole World Cup win in 1966, his performances that year for club and country earned him the coveted Ballon d’Or. However, no one man can take a team to greatness, and five years on from the Munich disaster Matt Busby sowed the second seed of the trinity by signing Denis Law.
The Scot proved pivotal as his goals saved United from relegation and earned them their first trophy post-Munich as they beat Leicester City in the FA Cup final. A top class finisher and despite standing at just 5’9” an excellent header of the ball. Law would go on to score 237 goals in just 404 games for United, he still holds a United record after scoring 46 competitive goals in a single season. An amazing return which won him the Ballon d’Or in 1964. Despite the great versatility of Charlton and the goals of Law, United were still missing the je ne sais quoi of champions. Enter the third and final member of the Trinity, Northern Irishmen George Best.
Best, even at 17 years of age, proved to be the final part of the rebuilding puzzle and his introduction to the first team alongside Charlton and Law saw the creation of the immortal United Trinity. Best added dribbling brilliance that nobody had seen before or since. Always one for the spectacular Best went on to score 179 goals for United across an 11 year spell. His dazzling performances earning him the 1968 Ballon d’Or. As the old saying goes, Maradona good, Pele better, George Best.
The Trinity lined up together for the first time together on 18th January 1964, giving the world a first glimpse of their timeless magic that would go on to re-write history and be talked about by generations of football fans to come. The trio would have an immediate impact too as each netted in a 4-1 victory. They would go on to score 37 goals in 20 games by the end of the 1963/64 season.
"I took the models of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best off the model pitch and put them in my left-hand pocket. Then I told our players: 'Don't worry about them, they can't play at all.' It was psychology, of course. Charlton, Best and Law were three of the best players in the world". Rival manager Bill Shankly on how he tried to psychologically build up his team for games against United and their magnificent Trinity.
The 1964/65, the Trinity’s first full season together, brought with it great hope and expectation from United supporters as they anticipated something very special starting at Old Trafford. The United Trinity had arrived, and as they produced one magical moment after another they quickly became one of the most feared attacking trio’s in world football. The Trinity, with their charismatic displays, helped United win their first league title post-Munich era in 1965.
The trio were great as individuals so together they were as close to unstoppable as it comes in football. Best’s greatest strength was his dribbling ability- speed, agility, balance and superb close control. Bobby Charlton was a player with great grace on the field, he combined two-footedness with fantastic long range shooting and passing. Denis Law was a fox in the box, one of the most natural finishers the game has ever seen and an excellent header of the ball, it was a surprise to see him miss inside the 18 yard box. The three together were as close to football perfection as it gets, completely justifying the name “The United Trinity”.
“Bobby, Denis and I never played together in finals because we had to give the others a chance!” George Best, joking about why the iconic trio never played together in a final.
Following on the league success of 1965, the Trinity would go on to reach the pinnacle of domestic and European football as individuals and as a team. After another league triumph in 1967 and European player of the year awards in 1964, 1966 and 1968, the Trinity finally fulfilled the dreams of Matt Busby and Manchester United by becoming European Champions for the first time in 1968. A clinical Charlton brace and a typical goal from Best helped earn United a 4-1 extra time victory over the mighty Benfica.
After achieving this unrivalled success, United approached the crossroads as the Busby era was ending and the Trinity, too, were fighting their own individual battles. Law with injuries, Best with alcohol and Charlton with time. The United Trinity was dismantled in 1972.
Denis Law is arguably the greatest player Scotland has ever produced, his goal tally for Scotland ranks him joint-top with 30 goals, while his goals for United have him third in the all-time list behind only Wayne Rooney and Sir Bobby Charlton. Although, surprisingly, his most famous goal was scored against United for rivals Manchester City. A cheeky back heel that would relegate United in 1974. Despite this, he is still known as ‘the King’ among United fans.
Charlton is an all-time legend for both England and Manchester United, having held the goal scoring record for both until being surpassed by Wayne Rooney in 2015 and 2017 respectively. He also held the Man United appearance record until being surpassed by Ryan Giggs in 2008, whilst also obtaining 106 international caps.
George Best was arguably the most talented of the Trinity, many fans that saw the maverick in action believe he is the greatest player of all time. Were it not for his personal struggles with alcoholism and women then maybe the whole world would recognise George as the greatest ever, like the legendary Pele did “George Best was the greatest player in the world”.
In total, the United Trinity netted over 500 goals while playing together for United. Three of United’s five all-time top scorers are the Trinity. The trio brought a joie de vivre to Manchester following the Munich disaster. Commemorated by a bronze statue at Old Trafford, acting as a benchmark to all future players, they must meet the standards the United Trinity set all those years ago. And while the Trinity came together at a time of uncertainty at Old Trafford, their legacy will forever be one of timeless brilliance.