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The biggest regret for any of us who never saw George Best play, live, was exactly that, but also that the perfect broadcast record - now almost as good as being there - of his playing career which we now take for granted doesn’t exist and those of us who were aware of Best, the player, in the 60s and early 70s would very happily take the television record of him playing, despite never having seem him in the flesh.
Defining the qualities of the sportsmen and women who represent the best of their generation is now so much more straightforward, with wall-to-wall live coverage and analysis to accompany it. Other than the limited film coverage of the day, the words of those who watched George Best perform live, at his peak, do the man as much justice as any televised record we have.
Pele described him as the greatest footballer in the world, Joe Mercer, then manager of Manchester City, said, ‘It seems impossible to hurt him. All manner of men have tried to intimidate him. Best merely glides along, riding tackles and brushing giants aside like leaves.’
Best's sixth goal against Northampton Town in the FA Cup 5th round in 1970 involved dummying and wrong-footing the Northampton goalkeeper, Kim Book, resulting in Book falling flat on his bottom, before Best walked the ball into the net. Book said later, ‘I remember thinking George was going to go one way, but he dropped his shoulder and went the other, and by then I was already on the deck. He was just too good for me.’
The fact that Best played in five positions in his career for Manchester United, wearing five different shirt numbers, 7, 8, 9,10 and 11, is indicative of his talent. Providing that it was in a position that involved attacking the opposition, it didn’t matter where he played, left or right. In his one game at centre forward in 1969 he scored the winner in a 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday. Franz Beckenbauer considered him to be ‘One of the most talented players of all time and probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final.’
The comments of Johan Cruyff, whose skill astonished football fans everywhere in the 1974 World Cup Finals tournament in West Germany summed up Best most succinctly: ‘What he had was unique, you can't coach it.’
The sports players at the top in every generation have almost-superhuman pace, skill, balance, poise and two-footedness which all but those in the top tenth of one per cent dream about and go on striving for on the training pitch. Journalist Patrick Barclay: ‘In terms of ability he was the world’s best footballer of all time. He could do almost anything - technically, speed, complete mastery of not only the ball but his own body - you could saw his legs away and he still wouldn’t fall because his balance was uncanny, almost supernatural. Heading ability, passing ability, it goes without saying the dribbling, he could beat anybody in any way he chose. For fun he’d play a one-two off the opponent’s shins.’
In one of Manchester United’s games - against the national team - on their tour of New Zealand when Best was at his peak, he ‘Gave them all dancing lessons, as player after player queued up to try to tackle him.’ One run, starting from inside his own six yard box, included beating every player in the New Zealand team, ‘One after the other, until he reached the opposite end of the pitch and produced a perfectly floated centre for Charlton's head. His grace, agility and ball skills were only eclipsed by his unselfish passing.’
Best’s team mate, Alex Stepney, said that he would intentionally tap the ball on to the shin of the goalkeeper, who would be rushing towards him to narrow the angle, the ball would bounce back to him and he would score. The following season he repeated this trick against Liverpool at Anfield.
Diego Maradona, whose talent and personality have frequently been compared with that of Best, paid him one of the more fitting tributes: ‘George inspired me when I was young. He was flamboyant and exciting and able to inspire his teammates. I actually think we were very similar players, dribblers who were able to create moments of magic.’
Eric Cantona, intentionally or otherwise, introduced religion into the equation, as many who saw Best play live did: ‘I would love him to save me a place in his team, George Best that is, not God,’ and journalist Hugh McIlvanney in a similar vein, but more scientific than spiritual,
‘With feet as sensitive as a pickpocket's hands, his control of the ball under the most violent pressure was astonishing. The bewildering repertoire of feints and swerves... and balance that would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple.’
Duncan Hamilton refers to the fact that, there was ‘Scarcely any televised football’ when Best made his debut in the early 1960s, ‘So word of mouth or newspaper accounts alone preserved goals.’
‘Best’s style of play... lent itself to the tall tale, the far-fetched anecdote. He did things nobody had done before in little explosions of outrageous skill. And just as Best’s play was all about embellishment and improvisation, so the accounts of these very feats were exaggerated in the telling and retelling.’
Hamilton’s summing up encapsulates Best the man as well as the footballer, ‘No player has imposed himself so completely on the romantic imagination.’
As a teenager Best was able to perform the tricks for his own- and others’ amusement, including flicking a coin off the tip of his shoe into the breast-pocket of his shirt, but the fact was that he had this kind of ability when he was on the pitch as well.
One of Sir Matt Busby’s comments complements those of Duncan Hamilton perfectly when comparing a twenty eight year old Best who had recently left Manchester United and another of his players, Duncan Edwards, who died as a result of the Munich air crash, aged twenty one: ‘Every manager goes through life looking for one great player, praying he’ll find one. Just one, and I was more lucky than most. I found two, Duncan and George. I suppose in their own ways, they both died, didn’t they?’
Best summed up his personality type, common among those whose talents exceed others’ to such an extent, with throw-away comments that reflected genuine self-knowledge, ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered,’ and, ‘I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town.’
Born on May 22nd 1946 in Cregagh, East Belfast, Best’s intelligence was clear from early on, when, aged eleven, he won a scholarship from one school that played football to another that didn’t, he played truant as a result and returned to his original school.
Aa a teenager, Best’s local club, Glentoran, had rejected him for being too small, but at fifteen was noticed by a Manchester United scout, given a trial and signed by the club. Two days after arriving in Manchester Best returned to Cregagh through homesickness. His father and Matt Busby persuaded him to return and in 1963-64, aged seventeen, he made his debut both for the Manchester United under eighteens and for the first team, against West Bromwich Albion, in a 1-0 win. United finished the season as runners-up to Liverpool in the First Division, Best making twenty six appearances. Busby had seen early on the extent to which opposition players would try and prevent Best from playing his natural game and incorporated ‘fierce, sometimes brutal’ drills in training to prepare his player.
A league title followed in 1964-65, Best’s first season as a regular, Manchester United beating Leeds United to first place on goal average and international near-rock-star acclaim was achieved with Best’s two goals in the European Cup away game against Benfica in 1966 and the Portuguese press giving him the nickname ‘The fifth Beatle’.
Another title followed for Best and Manchester United in 1966-67, with Best playing all but a handful of games in league and cup competitions and 1967–68 the European Cup win, which included Best’s winner, described by many as his finest goal, at Old Trafford against Real Madrid in the Semi Final, and being presented with the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award, its youngest-ever recipient, aged twenty. Best had scored twenty eight goals in the season. One more game remained, against Benfica in the European Cup Final at Wembley.
Best, Kidd and Charlton’s extra-time goals brought Manchester United victory, 4-1, and being awarded the Ballon d’Or soon after added substance to an extraordinary year.
United finished eleventh the following season, 1968-69, and Matt Busby announced his retirement. Best finished the season with twenty two goals in fifty five games, and twenty three goals in 1969-70, including his six against Northampton in the FA Cup.
Busby returned as manager half way through the 1970-71 season, one in which Best’s discipline was being questioned, including suspensions and missed training sessions.
1971-72 brought him twenty seven goals in fifty four games and he finished as the club’s top scorer for the sixth consecutive season. The following year Best was transfer-listed but having announced that he would retire from the game for a second time, resumed training with the Manchester United squad in the last weeks of the season.
He finally left the club in 1973-74, aged twenty seven - in a season that saw Manchester United relegated to the Second Division - having scored 179 goals in 470 club appearances.
Brief careers at all of Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian, San Jose Earthquakes, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions and Tobermore United, including retiring and returning to some of these clubs, reflected his addiction to the football drug which he seemed unable to kick. In August 1982, he appeared for Scone Thistle to help him pay off an income tax bill.
Best retired from football in 1984 at the age of thirty seven.
He was capped 37 times for Northern Ireland, scoring nine goals.
Following his death on November 25th 2005, aged fifty nine, Belfast City Airport was renamed George Best Belfast City Airport on 22 May 2006.
An addictive, accepting-nothing-short-of-perfection from himself sums up Best’s personality type. His world didn’t ‘fall apart’ when Manchester United declined as a team, it was as if with the European Cup victory in 1968 and the individual awards that accompanied it that season Best felt he had had enough, achieved what he set out to do. The other side of the coin of the perfectionist personality was that despite scoring the first goal in the win over Benfica, Best felt he had played poorly and after the match he drank to excess so that he couldn’t remember most of what took place in the two hours of the game.
Celebrate the history of George Best's career with this limited edition signed autobiography called Blessed