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After a media vigil with an intensity normally reserved for the passing of monarchs and presidents, George Best finally died in a London hospital just after midday on Friday, an event predicted for several days by his doctors and for some decades by his exasperated admirers. He was 59.
Best was the finest footballer of his generation – certainly in Britain, probably in Europe, possibly in the world. Pele, himself often regarded as the best footballer ever, said Best was the greatest he ever saw, as did Diego Maradona.
Best was an individualist whose ability ranged from the sublime to the outrageous: an unbiddable man who could make the ball do his absolute bidding. He played for Manchester United for just over a decade between 1963, when he turned professional as a 17 year old, until 1974 when relations between him and the club finally went from difficult to impossible.
In football terms, Best is most remembered for a couple of matches: United’s amazing 5-1 win away victory over Benfica of Lisbon in the 1966 European Cup quarter-final, a tournament they failed to win after Best got injured; and the final also against Benfica two years later, when United did win a competition that had eluded English clubs from its inception. Best’s goalscoring genius was instrumental in both games.
The man himself preferred to remember a rather more routine league game against West Bromwich Albion, and the most staggering of all his performances probably came in a cup tie at lowly Northampton, when he scored six times in an 8-2 win. (“Six of the Best”, said the headlines.)
But the facts of his achievements aren’t really the point. There is a blur in the memory that covers the smoke-and-mirrors trickery of his ballplay; there was a blur as he vanished past opposing defenders; and, above all, there was a blur for him as his life disappeared in a haze of alcoholism.
Best came into a black-and-white footballing world and left it in glorious colour. When he arrived at Old Trafford, the club were barely recovering from the Munich air crash of 1958 that destroyed the first great team created by the manager, Sir Matt Busby. The footballers’ union had only just smashed a wage ceiling of £20 per week, a pittance even in those days. The players had Brylcreemed hair and often travelled on buses in a Britain that was only just escaping from the
conformist world of
the 1950s into a culture
dominated by the Beatles.
Then along came the footballing Beatle. He looked like one (George Harrison, really), performed like one and behaved like one. The adulation was a little heady for a shy boy from east Belfast.
His background meant he could play international football only for Northern Ireland who, even with Best, could never get a sniff of the World Cup finals. That denied him the challenge and focus that would have come from playing in the great England team of that era which won the World Cup of 1966, and actually got better thereafter – though what Best and England’s formidable manager Sir Alf Ramsey would have made of each other remains imponderable.
Busby just about controlled Best, more often than not, but after Busby retired in 1969, the player increasingly found the birds and booze far more alluring than the training ground. The final bust-up with United came in 1974, followed by nearly a decade of short-lived and increasingly desperate comebacks for such teams as Fulham, Stockport County, Dunstable Town, Brisbane Lions, San Jose Earthquakes – and Ford Open Prison (eligible due to drink-driving and assaulting a police officer).
It wasn’t all bad. Best himself loved to tell the story of the room service waiter who brought breakfast to a bed that contained Best, the current Miss World, a magnum of champagne and several thousand pounds won from a night at a casino, and asked sadly: “George, where did it all go wrong?”
But, though he was a highly intelligent and charming man, he slowly became a hopeless drunk rather than a convivial one. In 2002 he had a liver transplant, swearing blind that this time he really was giving up alcohol. Best was back on the white wine spritzers almost instantly. Hardly anyone could bring themselves to criticise him, which may have been part of the problem.
Still, the overwhelming emotion yesterday was one of sadness. As soon as the news came through, fans born long after he left United for ever began bringing wreaths to the ground in the modern British post-Diana manner.
In modern times, English football has become a natural home of gifted, often self-conscious, eccentrics with elements of Best’s skill and personality: Eric Cantona, Paul Gascoigne, Roy Keane, David Beckham. Best made them possible. He was the first, and the greatest. In the words of the football writer Geoffrey Green: “He was a son of instinct, not of logic.”