Fourteen years ago tomorrow, my footballing hero died.
When obsessively and intently I followed his career as a boy in Co Down, Northern Ireland, not once did the thought cross my mind his passing would come at such a young age - he was 59 - or that I would learn of it sat amongst bunch of computers and colleagues in a busy aerospace office in Montreal.
I wrote the following piece earlier this year to mark what would have been his 73rd birthday, and make no apology for rolling it out again, today, the eve of the 14th anniversary of his untimely death ...
George Best was sheer glamour. Every woman wanted him, every man wanted to be him!
He was the first pop-star footballer, spawned by Britain’s Swinging Sixties, and the case study held up years later by Alex Ferguson as ‘how NOT to handle your star footballer’.
Not that the man who went on to become a Knight of the Realm didn’t appreciate George’s outrageous talent, he did, but he was also determined to learn from Manchester United’s past mistakes, as he guided the fledgling careers of Giggs and Beckham, Scholes and Butt.
Manchester was a happening place in the sixties as it became again in the early 90’s when United finally re-emerged, to become once again the best in the land. Fergie didn’t want his new starlets falling into the same traps that demonized George twenty-five years before.
The stories of disappearances, mayhem, womanizing and booze ensured I knew what the phrase, ‘wayward genius’ meant, probably before a seven-year-old should.
But he was still my hero, and he was still a genius.
The great Matt Busby, the father-figure of modern Manchester United, said Best could beat a man in more ways than he had ever seen. He was right.
He glided over pitches that in those days were mud-heaps, he rode tackles that would horrify today’s modern players, who would never get away with what defenders were allowed to in the 60’s and 70’s.
He was balletic, he danced, he was greedy. They couldn’t get the ball off him, yet he was also the best passer, tackler and header of a ball in the team. They never tried him in goal, but he’d probably have been tops between the posts too.
I recall one of Scotland’s greatest-ever and a close friend of George’s, Denis Law telling me as we sat having a beer in a London hotel lobby in 1992 ....
“He was brilliant of course, but at times he would infuriate me. I’d be in the middle taking up great positions losing my marker calling for the ball. George would beat another defender. I’d have to lose my marker again, and I would. I’d call for the ball again. Still George was mesmerizing opponents. I’d be calling him everything. “Cross the bloody ball! George, for fu ..... ahhh, great goal, George!”
In his Manchester United days I never heard George talk about being an entertainer. He never really did that until after he went to America to play in the old NASL, where they had a different perspective on the sport.
I think by then it suited his waning powers to declare he’d always considered himself an entertainer. He was still a gifted footballer, but he was no longer playing the serious stuff and gone were the days when he had a more than reasonable claim to be the world’s best.
And in England, footballers played to win, not to entertain. Before the demons took over, George certainly played to win and he did it his way. Busby said, “Don’t coach him.” So they didn’t.
When his focus was on football he was the best in the world. Protection from referees for gifted players was still a thing of the future. Law told me, “Bestie’s legs were black, blue and red after most games, like I’ve never seen before.”
Standing just 5 ft 8, Best was as brave as they come. Going down easily was never an option. In fact he took it as an insult to go down under a rough challenge, and if he did, his retaliation would be to get the ball and tease his guilty enforcer still further.
Best didn’t take on players to entertain. He did it because he could, he was peerless at it, he could feel the electricity from the crowd as he drifted past one opponent after another. The ball would go to Best, immediately there would be a buzz around the stadium setting off a natural instinct to run at defenders. It was simply his way of showing Best was the best.
A German film-maker came to Old Trafford one afternoon. There was no commentary on the film. Coventry City were the visitors. I know that because of the sky blue shirts and shorts that flailed under Best’s magic. The camera was on the player for the whole 90 minutes. That was the movie. Just George Best.
He advertised everything, from eggs to after-shave. I remember eating Cookstown sausages until they were coming out my ears, because George kept saying on TV, “Cookstown - The BEST family sausages.”
He had a supporters’ club all of his own, which needed a full-time secretary and staff just to open his fan mail, the majority of which came from the fairer sex, and had suggestions unprintable here.
In those days only clubs had fan clubs, not individual players. He had an agent - no-one else did. He missed the riches that modern football brings now, but he still made, and squandered, a fortune!
He lived his life in a goldfish bowl. There was no escape.
George Best made his Manchester United debut in 1963. When he first went to Manchester, he didn’t like it and returned to Belfast, homesick after just two days, but Busby wasn’t long getting in touch with his father Dickie, who brought him back.
That was 1961, Best was 15 and not old enough to become a professional, so United got him a job as an errand boy with The Manchester Ship Canal. He trained two nights a week as an amateur at the club.
United won the English title in 1965, then again in 1967 and embarked on the run that would make them European Champions. But it was in the 1965/66 European Cup campaign when things went into overdrive for George. United had been drawn against the great Benfica side of Eusebio in the quarter-finals. Benfica had recently won the competition two years in succession and lost two finals. United had never gone further than the semi-final, but won a tight encounter 3-2 at Old Trafford in the first-leg.
Busby gave strict instructions before his nervous side went out for the 2nd Leg in Lisbon. “Play it tight, let’s ease our way into the game. They’ll come at us from the off. We must be resolute, weather the storm, and find a goal.”
It didn’t help the nerves after Busby’s speech, that Paddy Crerand broke a mirror when warming up with a ball before going out. Seven years bad luck!
Best was freakish in that he came across shy in interviews yet felt no nerves when it came to plying his trade. He mustn’t have been listening to the boss’s pre-match oration either. Play it tight? Thirteen minutes in, and he’d scored twice. Best and his team-mates went on to torment Eusebio and co that night, defeating Benfica, until then infallible at home, 5-1.
George Best was still short of his 20th birthday.
The Portuguese media dubbed him O Quinto Beatle (The Fifth Beatle), after Ringo, George, Paul and John. And on the team’s return to England, Best was photographed in his new sombrero with the headline, El Beatle. Overnight he’d become a crowd and media favourite and, when before he made headlines only on the sports pages at the back, all of a sudden he was front page news as well.
Just over two years later and four days after turning 22, Best and Manchester United finally won the European Cup for the first time, defeating the same Benfica 4-1 after extra time at Wembley. He was named Football Writers’ Player of the Year in England, and European Player of the Year in Europe, at the time the youngest-ever recipient of both awards.
Things went on the slide at Manchester United after that success. Best often said after leaving the club, “It was like the club had done what it set out to achieve. It was an aging team, the boss was getting old, and it was like there was nothing else to go for. But I was still young. I wanted more.”
United recruited poorly, or didn’t recruit enough, and the younger players coming through at the club were simply not of the standard required.
Best went missing more than once and made a few comebacks that were ultimately unsuccessful in a struggling team that were glad to have him, despite his deteriorating fitness.
Most of what happened next, the post Manchester United career if you like, of one of the world’s greatest-ever players has been well-documented worldwide. I don’t need or wish to dwell on it. I prefer to remember him ‘for the football’.
I went home to Belfast for the funeral in 2005. Seemed the right thing to do. It felt like the closing of a chapter in my life too, and it was good to be with long-time friends who understood.
Standing in the November rain at Stormont Buildings in Belfast along with 25,000 others (an estimated 100,000 had lined the funeral route) it was impossible not to recall the good times as the service was relayed to everyone outside. It was even more impossible not to shed tears as the cortege rolled past us down ‘The Mile’ and on out to Roselawn Cemetery where cremation took place.
Minutes of applause were held at stadiums all around the UK. Tributes poured in from all over the globe. That other Manchester United genius, a bard of the meaningful statement, Eric Cantona gave a eulogy to Best: “I would love him to save me a place in his team, George Best that is, not God.”
George would have approved.
I’ve often wondered how, with his chronic fallibilities - not turning up for dinners, or for matches, letting people down in various other ways, appearing drunk on TV, weaving a tangled love life, which involved wives, mistresses, a few Miss Worlds and a plethora of one-night stands - George was able to retain the love of a nation. He remained an icon to millions right up to the end, a unique collective that genuinely mourned his passing.
I suppose above all, it was his glittering brilliance as a footballer, and perhaps that people could relate to his fallibility and troubles. He was also devilishly handsome, highly intelligent, and when not succumbing to alcohol, simply a good lad.
Sinatra did it his way, Johnny Rotten did it his, and George Best, the son of an east-Belfast shipyard worker, most certainly did it in his own particular chaotic and inimitable way. It went from grace to panache, beauty and brilliance to darkness, to battling the demons that lay at the bottom of a bottle.
To many of us, he was simply ‘The Greatest’ and we love him just the same.