Why do grown men weep for little boys who do not grow up? Do they weep for themselves? In a lifetime following football I can remember few more inspiring moments than watching in disbelief as George Best mesmerised club and international team-mates and opponents at Old Trafford and Hampden Park.
His first manager, Matt (later Sir Matt) Busby, treated the young Best with benign neglect and occasional crisis interventions. There is still uncertainty as to whether he did issue the famous injunction that the young Irishman was not be coached, but apart from arranging for him to be looked after by a club landlady and encouraging him later to get a girlfriend who would be less trouble than the married woman he was dating, another intervention which backfired, Busby maintained a considerable distance from his young genius. The tightly organised youth system put in place by (Sir) Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, and the cotton-wooling of Ryan Giggsin his youth was a direct reaction to the laissez-faire of the Best/Busby era.
Best’s genius caused frustrations in a team game. He wrought great anguish in Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, indeed the latter put his goalscoring decline down to the increasing prowess and selfishness of Best. Law would get into dangerous positions in the penalty box but George was off doing his own thing on the wing, which often ended in outrageous goals for the alchemist.
Hugh McIlvanney wrote:
With feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands, his control of the ball under the most violent pressure was hypnotic. The bewildering repertoire of fients and swerves, sudden stops and demoralising spurts, exploited a freakish elasticity of limb and torso, tremendous physical strength and resilience for so slight a figure and balance that would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple.
The Best quotations, by or about the player, have reached Shanklian proportions, ‘I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.’ Or Kevin Keegan being described as not fit to lace George Best’s drinks. It is asserted too that Manchester United had to modify their training routines to prevent Best monopolising the ball. When they introduced two touch routines he used the second one to knock the ball against an opponent’s shins, collected the rebound and was off again.
Jim Baxter of Glasgow Rangers and Scotland said, ‘He was the finest footballer I ever saw, and I include Pele …’ Best’s team-mate and England internationalist David Sadler reflected,
He was definitely the greatest player I’ve ever seen. I’m talking from experience, on the basis of what I saw every day, in matches and in training, and I would say you could have put George in just about any position in our 1968 team and he would have been better than the person who was playing there. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it, but at that time Tony Dunne was probably the best left-back in Europe, and George could have done the job better than him. In Nobby Stiles’s position he would have been quite capable of getting the ball, because he was a tremendous tackler, and when he got it, he’d have used it better than Nobby. He could head the ball better than me, and probably as well as Bill Foulkes, and he could do everything Bobby Charlton did and more. People say Pele didn’t tackle because he didn’t have to. George didn’t have to, but he did. You couldn’t beat him on a football pitch There was nothing a player could do to defeat him, mentally you couldn’t kick him out of the game because he’d bounce straight back and tackle you twice as hard.
Michael Parkinson, comments in the Electronic Telegraph around 6 July 1998
That is as good a definition of genius as I have ever come across. In the overwrought, delirious atmosphere of modern football, where mediocrity is lauded and the commonplace celebrated, it is important we are reminded what great players look like so we might recognise them when they come along. We forget. After all, it’s been a long time since George Best.
The George Best record for Manchester United was extraordinary. The current United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson talking about one of his present-day stars, Ryan Giggs, said:
He’ll never be a Best. Nobody will. George was unique, the greatest talent our football ever produced, easily. Look at the scoring record – 137 goals in 361 League games and a total of 179 goals for United in 466 matches played. That’s phenomenal for a man who did not get the share of gift goals that come to specialist strikers. George nearly always had to beat men to score.
George Best’s life was touched by tragedy. His mother died an alcoholic, though her severe drinking began after that of her son, and might be related to his trajectory. The son’s alcoholism did not seem to be genetic.
Edited versions of this article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser, 28 November 2005, p. 35 and in Australian and British Soccer Weekly on Tuesday 29 November 2005 and on the Football Federation of Victoria website at <http://www.footballfedvic.com.au/> on 28 November 2005.