We at Manchester United Blog are deeply saddened by the recent passing away of one of Manchester United’s greatest legends: George Best
We are presenting here what we feel to be one of the most fitting obituaries written in honour of the great man, as published in The Guardian:
“If I’d been ugly,” said George Best, who has died aged 59, “you’d never have heard of Pele.”
His dazzling career for Manchester United and Northern Ireland might even have lasted as long as Pele’s had his romantic life not taken precedence over his football. Instead, his increasingly heavy drinking and womanising caught up with him all too quickly.
In his mid-20s, when he should ideally have been moving towards his peak, things went dismally awry. He had prematurely retired, and when he returned to play for Fulham and in Los Angeles, his girth had increased, the dynamic acceleration had gone and the game was deprived of his marvellous virtuosity.
Best was arguably the finest player produced in Britain since the war. A compound of almost every talent, the ultimate irony of his career was that although he shone so brightly in the European Cup, he would never appear in the World Cup finals.
This was doubly ironic in that, when it became easier for European teams to qualify with two rather than one team in the eliminating group going through, Best had vanished from the game. Behind him, he left an infinity of memories.
Where to start? The sensational goal he scored at Old Trafford, against Sheffield United in 1971? Picking the ball up on the right, he headed diagonally across the pitch towards goal, leaving man after man in his wake, before shooting past the goalkeeper. Sheffield United fans have argued since then that an injury to a key defender facilitated the goal, but who else could have scored it?
More memorable still, perhaps, was the goal with which he turned the tide in the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley between Manchester United and Benfica of Lisbon.
United, initially ahead, had seemed to tire towards the end of normal time and looked in danger of losing. Scarcely had extra time begun, however, than Best had spun past a defender with devastating turn, tacked outside the goalkeeper and run the ball into the net. United went on to win the game with ease, 4-1, becoming the first English team to take the European Cup.
There were glorious goals in his 31 appearances for Northern Ireland. The Wembley match in 1970 when he spun away from his club colleague, the limpet-like Nobby Stiles, left him for dead and beat the England goalkeeper. He did it in Belfast, his native city, the following year against England’s Gordon Banks, whipping the ball almost out of his arms before scoring a goal that was dubiously disallowed.
Best wasn’t tall, he wasn’t large – yet there seemed nothing he couldn’t do on a football field. His ball control was exquisite. In a pub, he could flip up a coin and catch it in his breast pocket. By rights, he should have been negligible in the air, yet he could outjump a 6ft defender to score goals.
He began as a winger, equally at home on right or left (although chiefly right-footed), but developed into a player who could operate right the way across the front line or in midfield if it came to that.
Born in Belfast, he was hardly out of school when he was snapped up by Manchester United and arrived at Old Trafford with his chum, Eric McMordie. Both were so homesick that they were back in Belfast in a flash. McMordie eventually returned to play for Middlesbrough. Best was persuaded to go back to Manchester, and was eventually put in the care of a motherly and sympathetic landlady.
It might be fair to say that his parental legacy was a somewhat shaky one. Of his natural intelligence and ebullient humour, there was never any doubt. Those of us who knew him as a 17-year-old prodigy will remember his modesty and charm. The moustache and sideburns he affected in his earlier days with United might have been seen as a challenge to a more sedate older generation, but he never evinced the louche and loutish behaviour of stars as would follow him, such as Paul Gascoigne, with whom he was destined to cross swords.
His first division debut at Manchester United came in April 1963 on the wing. The following April, he won his first cap for Northern Ireland in Belfast, against Wales. In the 1964-65 season, he played a major role in United’s capture of the championship, scoring 10 goals in his 41 games. Another championship medal would follow in the 1966-67 season.
In all, Best played 42 games and scored another 10 goals. He would do still better in the following season, getting 28 goals in his 41 League games.
Was the finest game he ever played not the European Cup Final of 1968 against Benfica but the time he ran them ragged in Lisbon in the same competition in 1966? As Pat Crerand, the tough Glaswegian right-half who was Best’s protector in those days, put it: “Besty just went daft.”
But he did it in the most positive and coruscating way. After six minutes, he headed in a free kick by the United left back, Tony Dunne. When David Herd headed on a long kick from the keeper, Ulsterman Harry Gregg, Best dashed past a formidable centre back and scored again. Gregg must have been particularly pleased. He was wont to recall playing in a training game against the then slender and unknown young Best: “And he done me.” Which promptly happened again.
“This was our finest hour,” said the Churchillian manager Matt Busby as his United ran out 5-1 winners, although the cup eluded them that year and an injury to Best caused him to miss a tie against Partizan Belgrade, who were surprise semi-final winners.
Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton were the stars of a conquering United team, though the players tended to divide into camps; Celtic and English. There was never much love lost between Best and the more disciplined, conventional Charlton. Once, in a pub, Best threw eggs at a portrait of Charlton that hung on the wall.
In 1968, Best was deservedly voted European Footballer of the Year, and might have been seen to have reached his peak – a sublime compound of pace, courage, skill, balance and invention.
But off the field, his lifestyle became increasingly self-indulgent. He drank, he gambled, he had an infinity of girlfriends – among them two Miss Englands and, reportedly, a just married bride whom he took upstairs from a hotel bar while his team-mates plied her husband with drink.
Busby could do little with him, and that little was manifestly too late. Best would say later that when called into Busby’s office to be chastised, he would simply look beyond the manager and count the emblems on the wallpaper.
There was a particularly scandalous weekend when he refused to travel with the team to London for a match against Chelsea. Instead, he went down himself to north London and spent the weekend in the Islington flat of a well known actress, Sinead Cusack, while photographers massed outside.
In 1969 Busby retired, but controversially kept an office at Old Trafford, overshadowing his successors, the former left-half, Wilf McGuinness, and the ex-manager of Leicester City, Frank O’Farrell. Neither could handle a George Best now virtually in freefall, whatever his sporadic brilliance.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, although he continued to play wonderfully well for a time, the team was disintegrating around him. “My goals became all important, because others weren’t scoring them so frequently,” he said. “Instead of revolving around me, the team now depended on me and I lacked the maturity to handle it. I began to drink more heavily, and on the field my list of bookings grew longer as my temper grew shorter.”
Sometimes, you could hardly blame him. After United, in Buenos Aires in 1968, met Estudiantes de la Plata in the first leg of the so called Inter-continental Championship, Best admitted that, with a quarter of an hour gone, he simply ceased trying to play because the Argentines’ endless, largely unpunished, fouling made it impossible. In the return match at Old Trafford, his temper snapped and he was sent off.
What could be done with Best? O’Farrell, for a time, had insisted he return to life under the care of his old landlady, but that could hardly last. Best built himself a house outside Manchester, where women were wont to turn up at the door. Best did not turn up for training throughout the first week of 1972. O’Farrell fined him, telling him to leave his house and stay with Mrs Fullaway.
“When the bad times started, I couldn’t bear the thought of going out on the pitch,” Best said. “I used to drink so I didn’t t have to think about it. Which came first? The bad times then the drinking, or the drinking then the bad times? I’m still sure it was the thought of playing in a bad team, of not winning anything, of not having a chance to play in Europe that drove me to it.
“All right, you could say that if I’d trained and lived properly, United might have stood a better chance of doing well. That’s true, but I just couldn’t see myself doing it single-handed.”
Twice Best announced he would retire and twice he changed his mind – but the sustained breaks from training were fatal. He put on weight that he was never able to lose, and his spectacular pace disappeared. His last game for Manchester United was at Queens Park Rangers on New Year’s Day 1974. A spiteful crowd got on his back, and a great star was brought low.
Now it was downhill all the way. He played a few games for Stockport County and then, accompanied by his wife Angie, a devotee of jigsaw puzzles, he decamped to California to play for the Los Angeles Aztecs. When I visited him there, he was as cheerful and genial as ever. Running along the beach, he observed that people on it might say: “Who’s George Best?”
That was in the summer of 1976. Later that year he went back to England and, along with Bobby Moore, turned out for Fulham, playing 42 games in two seasons and scoring eight goals. He was inevitably slower, but still skilful and adroit.
Retiring, he became an after-dinner speaker and a television pundit. There were sad, drunken episodes, one of which saw him carted away in a police van, and briefly imprisoned. One woman after another did her best to care for him and reform him, but it seldom lasted long.
By March 2000, when apparent liver failure put him in much pain and in hospital, he was married to his second wife, 27-year-old Alex, from whom he was divorced in 2004. In July 2002, he underwent a protracted liver transplant operation in which, over 10 hours, 40 pints of blood were transfused into his body.
His glorious footballing days were far distant, but his allure remained.
He is survived by his son, Calum, from his first marriage.
George Best, footballer, born May 22 1946; died November 25 2005.