This feature is part of The Fleeting Fraternity
EVERY MAN WANTED TO BE HIM and every woman wanted to have him. Few players are capable of not only existing, but thriving on the precipice of being a world class player on the field while living life on the edge off of it. George Best, a shy boy with a slight frame from Cregagh in the east of Belfast was discovered at 15 years of age in Belfast by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop who supposedly sent a telegram to the Red Devils’ manager, Matt Busby, stating: “I think you’ve found a genius.”
Manchester United certainly found something. The club didn’t know it at the time, but United may have come as close as a club can to capturing lightning in a bottle, and from 1963 to 1974 perhaps it did as the iconic footballing genius of Johan Cruyff stated: “What he had was unique, you can’t coach it.”
George Best combined elegant balance, strength on the ball, deadly finishing and the ability to slalom through defences as if the football gods exclusively afforded him superhuman skill. Seldom is the world of football graced by the embodiment of ability and toughness and in Best the world saw football’s Greek demigod, Achilles. He challenged the butchers of the game, mercilessly leaving them in his wake time and time again while riding the avalanche of challenges aimed at his kneecaps. But, like many of football’s tragic heroes, Best had a dark side and for every ounce of skill he emanated on the pitch, he seemed to consume as much in an alcohol-fuelled lifestyle; the only opponents he could not defeat were his own demons.
Best was groomed under the tutelage of Matt Busby and the leadership of Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, and by the time he was 17 – during the 1963/64 campaign – the Northern Irishman began to stake his place in the side for Manchester United, scoring six goals in 26 appearances. The next season, Best not only put his name firmly on the team sheet but also in the nightmares of opposing defenders as he began to excel in a marathon-long campaign, contributing 14 goals in 59 appearances.
His most prolific run of form was from 1965 to 1972 as he continued to score and set up goals for the Red Devils. George Best’s goals are remembered for their beauty and bold way he had to beat a man (or nine of them) before scoring, but it is his dribbling that truly dazzled the world. Although Manchester United got his greatest years and accompanying performances, Best embarked on a nomadic career as he plied his trade for Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs (twice), Fulham, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian, San Jose Earthquakes, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions and Northern Irish outfit, Tobermore United. Perhaps he chased adventures, challenges and money all over the world; the man loved his football and a lifestyle of pubs, womanising, and fast cars that football afforded him.
Best’s international career juxtaposes his illustrious club career as he was only capped 37 times for Northern Ireland and scored nine goals. His routine of pub visits, hung-over training sessions, off-field incidents and late-night gallivanting took its toll on his football form, resulting in sporadic call-ups. It’s frightening to think that by 1976, the Northern Irishman’s best days were well behind him. At the age of 30 he was past his footballing prime, but was well in the prime of his alcohol addiction.
As a nomadic footballer whose exit from Manchester United still stands in stark opposition to his dazzling performances for the Red Devils, Best was a shadow of the footballing genius he once was. In life, Father Time always wins but perhaps what is most vexing is Best’s ability, which was clearly on the decline, was his capacity to turn on the brilliance with just enough energetic and skillful play and haughty forcefulness to nutmeg Cruyff – just to prove a point in a World Cup qualifier.
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A 19-year-old Jimmy Nicholl recalled the scenes: “I remember standing back and watching him nutmegging Cruyff and nutmegging Neeskens.” Nicholl’s admiration for his teammate continued, “He’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best, and he’s playing for us.” British journalist, Bill Elliot travelled with Northern Ireland’s squad to play the Oranje, widely regarded as the best team in world at the time.
A commonly told account from The Guardian in 2005, as Best’s health was in decline, encapsulates his enigmatic personality. Elliot asked Best what he thought of Cruyff. “Outstanding”. “Better than you?” George looked at the journalist and laughed. “You’re kidding aren’t you? I tell you what I’ll do tonight, I’ll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.”
What follows is Elliot’s description: “Five minutes into the game Best received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly in-field, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff’s feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.
“Only a few of us in the press box knew what this bravado act really meant. Johan Cruyff the best in the world? Are you kidding? Only an idiot would have thought that on this evening.”
Recalling Best’s career and style of play, Patrick Barclay said: “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, I mean 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.”
Sir Alex Ferguson rightly noted the effect Best had on a generation flirting with change and oscillating between the societal rigidity of the and the tide of liberation sweeping all facets of life including music, film and, of course, football.
Football’s most talented players are dominant with respect to the era in which they played the game. However, watching Best run at the opposition without fear, fly down the wing with every intention of taking the game over, weave in and out of defenders and his refusal to go to ground, one can’t help but imagine if Best could be inserted into modern football he would still be as dominant.
Many a football purist still wrestles with the thought of what a sober George Best would have done to opponents, and to a greater extent, the world of football back then. The fact of the matter is Best played without the luxuries today’s footballers consider mainstays in life – proper nutrition and sport science, manicured pitches, lighter football boots, easily-deceived and forgiving referees, and a brighter spotlight – and still, he is one of the few players widely considered capable enough of being able to be devastating had he played today. Thinking about Best and the spotlight it affords players in the modern game might just be the one aspect that would be his undoing – if it wasn’t the alcohol, of course.
Read | Remembering George Best’s forgettable spell with Cork Celtic in 1976
For many, there has never been a more exciting player to have ever played the game. Few have the combined skill, toughness and personality of Best. Thick mud, atrocious and near-impossible playing surfaces never hampered his ability in the air, unreal acceleration and swagger to take on any opponent, not to mention a blunt refusal to dive amidst brutal tackling.
The era of hard, fast, physical football where the likes of Nobby Stiles, Peter Storey, Ron Harris, to name a few of the true hard men who literally tried to poleaxe George Best, make the Northern Irishman’s highlight reels truly breathtaking as he made football’s hatchet men look silly on marsh-like pitches with the ball glued to his foot. George Best exemplified the true art of dribbling in an era when the usual knock it past and outrun the defender would have sufficed. He mastered the ability to ride tackles, drift past defenders and score from seemingly impossible angles.
But there is more to Best than his attacking prowess, for the handsome Northern Irishman had an edge. As the iconic author and founder of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, once said: “The Edge … there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is, are the ones who have gone over.”
George Best took himself to the edge and went over again and again. He existed in the void of magic on the pitch and madness off it. Few men have the talent to embrace the talismanic responsibility of being a footballer, and even fewer still have the ability to live life in a perpetual cup final of over exuberance with a zest for being a trailblazer who lived every minute as though it was the 90th minute. George Best represents what the good and bad of footballing fame can do to a player.
Only a footballing necromancer could be a star, an addict and a true force in the game. Best, a man who burned as many bridges as he built, is a player for which the world is a quieter place without. For a man who never played in a World Cup or European Championship, Best etched his name in the minds and hearts of football’s masses. For all the stories about who Best was as a man and a footballer, his character on and off the pitch lives on as vibrant as ever. For all the wages he earned and celebrity status he held, most of it he lost to his unquenchable appetite for a destructive lifestyle. Best famously said: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
In 2005 at his public memorial service, the panning television camera caught a wind-torn and rain-soaked banner with the phrase: ‘Maradona good, Pelé better, George Best’ in block letters atop the silhouette of the Northern Irishman in red, flapping in the wind long after the crowds went home. The poet in us all might venture to say it was not rain but tears that soaked the ground, from the Best’s family home at Cregagh estate to the parliament buildings at Stormont, for his private burial ground at Roselawn Cemetery where one of football’s truly gifted players was laid to rest in the same plot as his mother.
George Best – the shy boy who at 15 suffered such a bout of homesickness when he arrived in Manchester that he ran back home after two days; the man who combined football genius and celebrity status and who battled the old foe of the bottle – had come home for good. Every man owes a death and although Best paid that toll, he is forever a legend. And legends never die