“It used to annoy me when people thought something I did was a fluke! I remember once playing against Ipswich and I scored direct from a corner. Now I used to practise that. I used to be able to stick them in the net direct from the corner spot nine times out of 10.
Next day in the press they're saying it's a lucky bloody goal. Anyway, about two weeks later we're playing them in the Cup and in the first five minutes we get a corner. I took it and thought, 'I'll show you another bloody fluke'. It scraped the angle [of bar and post] on the wrong side.
If it had gone in, I was going to walk up to the press box, bow and walk off the field. Mr. George Best, entertainer extraordinaire, has made his point and will now retire.” – Best
That was what George Best was all about – a beautiful boy who played the beautiful game on a level, and in a manner, few people could comprehend.
‘Discovered’ at age 15 by Manchester United’s senior scout Bob Bishop (whose telegram to United Coach Sir Matt Busby read - “I think I’ve just found you a genius”), Best would go from being a homesick, shy Northern Irish kid to becoming the first true rockstar of the game in a career (and a life) that couldn’t have been more dramatic if scripted by George R.R. Martin.
The Belfast Boy
FA Youth Cup winner at 17 and League winner a year later (both United’s first since the tragedy of Munich ’58), Best had established himself as a pivotal piece of Busby’s grand masterplan to resurrect the Mancunians from the ashes of that tragic crash. The great Scotsman would build a team that produced a brand of dashing, attacking football full of youthful verve and swashbuckling panache. A team that would make the United side of the late ‘60s one of the most exciting football teams of all time. And no one epitomized that spirit of flamboyance quite like ‘Georgie’ Best.
With an impishly handsome face framed by the most magnificent muttonchops, beaming eyes glinting with mischievous intent and long hair fluttering in the wind as he ran, the ‘Belfast Boy’ was a sight that was guaranteed to bring crowds to their feet (regardless of their affiliation). With a love of dribbling (and seating defenders on their backsides) that bordered on the selfish and a bravery that bordered on the foolish, he was ever willing to take on (and take out) defenders and change the flow of the game with one shake of his hips.
He was a dancer, full of body swerves and twinkle-toed sashays, gliding over challenges. His immense, and not immediately evident, strength allied with the acceleration of a diving Peregrine falcon making him virtually unstoppable.
This strength we talk about manifested itself physically in his gravity defying ability to stay on his feet (defenders often took the standing leg right from under Best who never wore a shin-pad in his life, and he would simply keep going) and mentally in his incredible ability to keep going no matter how much abuse his poor legs endured.
Best was as close to perfect as an attacking footballer could get – equally comfortable with either foot and equally able to either blast a howitzer from distance or daintily chip the goalkeeper. He also possessed a wonderful heading ability for a lanky man that stood just 5’9” and an incredible eye for a pass. His footballing brain worked on such a high level that sometimes these passes would end up reaching nobody simply because nobody else could see that the pass was on!
Besides all this, he pressed opponents non-stop (something that was borne out of simply being the fittest player on the pitch), he was unexpectedly skillful in the tackle and he had an all-round bravado that got him the ball with which he created such magic in the first place.
He was arguably, the greatest ever from the British Isles to kick a football around. But can he seriously be considered amongst the greatest the world has ever known?
Better than the Best?
We love comparing things and we love comparing people even more. Often, it feels like acknowledging greatness requires a stamp that says “X is better than Y and Z”. And more often than not, people defend and support these claims of who is better than whom with statistics. For footballers, they are usually goals scored, assists provided, miles covered or – if you want to go particularly “in depth” - goals to minutes played ratio or passes played to distance covered ratio or something even more obscure.
So, in the spirit of the inanity, let’s talk numbers first. Best scored 247 goals in 641 appearances, Johann Cruyff had 324 in 568, Diego Maradona 272 in 515 and Edson Arantes do Nascimento had an astonishing 757 in 812 (yes, yes, Pele had 1268 goals by the time he hung up his boots – but I’m not including every kickabout the man had in his backyard here – only official/competitive game numbers have been included)
The great Brazilian won two World Cups and a million domestic trophies with that marvelous Santos team. Cruyff was part of arguably the greatest losing World Cup finalists of all time (’74 and ’78) apart from being the hub of the great Ajax team that dominated Europe in the early ‘70s. Maradona won one world Cup (almost single-handedly), nearly won another (almost single-handedly again) and was the undoubted genius around which every club he played for was built (and became successful).
‘Bestie’ and his beloved Northern Ireland never even qualified for a major tournament. So in comparison to his contemporaries - trophies, goals, whatever statistic you want to drum up - Best clearly didn’t live up to his surname, did he?
As if any of those numbers account for the number of people whose hairs on the back of the neck stood up as we saw Maradona dribbling his way through teams like an ancient warrior savaging a path through an opposing army, or the number of people whose hearts stopped as Pele – graceful as a gazelle – let the ball run past him and the goalkeeper and then ran around the confused goalie in an ultimately futile attempt to score.
As if any of those numbers could tell you about the “ooohs” and the “aaahs” that ran through the crowd as Johann Cruyff, seemingly going nowhere, engineered just the bit of space he needed with one of his famous turns, or the ripple of excitement that would course through the stadium when George Best got the ball at his feet and started on one of his jaunty, mazy runs.
Comparing them in terms of trophies won is even more inane – how can anyone seriously begin to consider comparing Northern Ireland and Brazil, Argentina or Holland? Manchester United with the respective clubs: now that makes more for more rational reading. And Best does seem to lack a trophy or two in that department (when your trophy cabinet - a cabinet that includes a European Cup, two League titles and a Ballon d’Or – seems lacking, you know you are in illustrious company)
“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered” – Best
And that is because, romance and rose-tinted glasses aside, it has to be said Best never really became the kind of player he could have become at United. That is saying something considering the man single-handedly ended Benfica’s unbeaten home record in a 5-1 defenestration by a United team that was supposed to have played cautiously. It led Busby to exclaim two goal hero Best must have had cotton in his ears during the team talk.
That was before he dragged United to its tryst with destiny in the ’67-68 European Cup and a date with Benfica (he had proved the difference in the previous rounds against Sarajevo and Real Madrid as well) and the marvelous solo run (followed, typically, by dummying and rounding the keeper).
For you see, all of this – his greatest moments, those aforementioned trophies – all of them came before he turned 22. A career spent chasing greatness and abandoned by the man himself; his addiction to alcohol and women – leading him on a downward spiral that saw him crash and burn unlike any of his contemporaries.
“If you'd given me the choice of going out and beating four men and smashing a goal in from thirty yards against Liverpool or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been a difficult choice. Luckily, I had both.” – Best
While Cruyff wrote his name in footballing history with his pioneering exploits with ‘Total Football’ (as a player and a coach) and Pele and Maradona immortalized themselves with their exploits on the grandest stage of them all, with television nowhere near the force it is today, Best had to be content with showcasing himself in front of British audiences (and the occasional European one), on the quagmires that passed off as football pitches in his prime. Not that he minded of course.
He was a genuine rockstar, a symbol of the swinging sixties – carefree, brilliant, colourful and ever so bold. And he was worshipped with a cult status wherever he played (as evidenced by the Portuguese media calling him ‘O Quinto Beatle’ or simply ‘El Beatle’). The man captivated anyone who saw him, his charm, good looks, wit and brilliance on the field (amongst those, an 8-2 demolition of Northampton Town containing six Best specials standing out especially) endearing him to nearly everyone.
He had his detractors, of course (something nostalgia rarely permits you to see). And it has to be said that the man rose to greatness, not because of what he did off the field but despite it.
While the Best of United is relatively more chronicled and much more popular – the Best of the Northern Irish team not so much. Arguably, three (of the 37) matches he played for his beloved nation serve up perfect anecdotes that go a long way in decrypting the legend of Best – a legend that led Pele to exclaim he was one of the “greatest” he had ever seen, Cruyff to go ahead and say what Best had was “unteachable” and El Diego to state (with trademark panache) that Best was his “inspiration”.
First up was a single-handed demolition of a very good Scottish side in ‘67. It was a display of pure awesomeness, which had Scottish right back Tommy Gemmell plead with his left back John Ure to switch positions as he simply couldn’t handle Best – a plea that was promptly ignored. This was Best in his prime; winning matches and destroying opposition morale all by his lonesome.
In the second, against England (’71), Gordon Banks, arguably the best goalie in the world at the time, was made to look like a lumbering amateur in a way only George Best could have done. Best was idling like a bored little rugrat as Banks prepared to punt the ball upfield. As the Englishman tossed the ball into the air and in the instant he draw his leg back, Best toe-poked the ball upwards.
As a befuddled Banks looked around for the ball, Best nodded it into the empty net, only for the referee to disallow the goal (wrongly) for dangerous play. Typical Best again – flirting with the law, using imagination only he could possibly hope to summon.
The third and arguably greatest anecdote is one that is brilliantly recounted by the Guardian’s Billy Elliot – “In 1976, Northern Ireland were drawn against Holland in Rotterdam as one of their group qualifying matches for the World Cup," wrote Bill. "As it happened I sat beside George on the way to the stadium that evening.
“Holland - midway between successive World Cup final appearances - and Cruyff were at their peak at the time. George wasn't. I asked him what he thought of the acknowledged world No1 and he said he thought the Dutchman was outstanding. 'Better than you?' I asked. George looked at me and laughed. 'You're kidding aren't you? I tell you what I'll do tonight... I'll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.'
And we both laughed at the thought. "... Five minutes into the game he received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, 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."
The Belfast Boy (22 May 1946 – 25 November 2005) – Forever the Best!
Authors Note – I haven’t ever seen George Best play (being born in Kerala in the late eighties does have that one drawback) and neither have I met anyone who has. We Malayalees have seen a lot of football, but pre-Premiership, that’s mostly been World Cup footage – talk to my dad, granddad or anyone else that age about Diego Maradona, and see their eyes light up).
But somehow that doesn’t seem to matter. Somehow, the videos, the books, the articles, the quotes and the anecdotes are able to bring Georgie Best to life – even now, even in death. His legend transcends time.
Long may that legend live on.
You don’t need to have been on the terraces at Stretford End or the streets of Belfast to sing:
At Number 1 is Georgie Best,
Number 2 is Georgie Best,
Number 3 is Georgie Best,
Number 4 is Georgie Best,
Number 5 is Georgie Best,
Number 6 is Georgie Best,
Number 7 is Georgie Best,
Number 8 is Georgie Best,
Number 9 is Georgie Best,
Number 10 is Georgie Best,
Number 11 is Georgie Best,
We all live in a Georgie Best world,
Gerogie Best world, Georgie Best world.