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Sunday, January 08, 2006

The best of George Best

It was as if George Best only felt truly comfortable in his own shoes when they were his playing boots during his professional career. That itself carries its own sadness considering how the game that made his name also played its part in his own desperate battles as he found it hard to cope with at first the weight of expectation from football fans the world over and then the adulation that followed him at every corner when he had a lifetime of retirement ahead of him at the young age of 27. He found solace in pub corners.

To dwell on Best the player, you have to accept Best the person, but his character for someone so shy and withdrawn at times was so complicated that only those that he trusted, and knew him implicity, could get to grips with. It's easy to say that for an introverted character that the bottom of the glass provided him with the answers and confidence to survive a world where football fan or supporting non believer knew who he was and wanted a piece of him, but nobody knows the real answers such was his complexity. Safe to say that Best was as well known in the UK as anyone, and though loved or pitied in equal measures by some, United fans, whatever his mistakes, loved and respected a genius; a genius that deserves respect.
In the world I doubt there's a corner of it that didn't worship Best. Nobody had received the adulation he did when he set Old Trafford alight, and without a textbook guide on how to avoid the perils, as Giggsy himself used, using the Best example to learn from, Bestie was on his own in many ways. If you grew up in the back streets of Manchester in the late 60s, your family consisted of a mum who wanted to mother him, a sister who wanted to shag him, a dad who wished he'd fathered him and a son who wanted to be him. Unique.

There are no doubt scores of Reds who are Reds because of Bestie. Thousands decided to make the walk down Warwick Road because of him. Either they themselves became captivated by his silky feet, or their mums and dads were and they passed the heritage on to them. People who loved or loathed football talk about ‘what it was like seeing George Best play’. Cabbies the world over say they had Best in the back of their cab one time because, true or not, he's the person they wanted to have in the back of their cab.

He truly was a ‘household name’. Best tamed the Lisbon Eagles and it wasn't just El Beatle that was born then, but a status and affection in the wider world that few footballers ever reach. Only Sir Matt, Bestie and Law carry that greater affection not just with Reds, but those not usually drawn to sympathy to anything United. But Best surpassed them all. No footballer has had this sort of send off, not many from any walk of life get it and tributes flowed in from the great and good; footballers, politicians, musicians, actors and, of course, actresses. Incredible. Fitting. When he died, all around the country those who can't stand football were sharing their own thoughts and memories of him. Because he was Eric, Giggs, Hill, Rooney and Keegan, Dalglish and Barnes rolled into one. We have only Denis and Eric left now to cherish in that way.

Here was a man that anyone who met him on a good day will know was funny, articulate and stubborn in equal measures. I'm not going to diversify into a debate about alcohol, and alcoholism. There are those who feel it's a disease and those who don't. You can't ignore Bestie's off field problems. They've been here long enough, and his recent history is sadly checkered with tawdry tales and violent outbursts, both by him and to him. That's what alcoholism can achieve at the sharp end, but anyone who knew Best well will testify that he knew what he was involved with. He followed his path fully aware of its consequences, even after the initial liver transplant had given him the most serious of wake up calls. The drink may not have caused him to enter hospital one final time as he failed to respond to treatment, but it was the overall reason.

The sad part of it is you don't want to see your heroes die young. Especially suffering for such a long time in intensive care, painfully pictured at deaths door in tabloid photos that I never want to see again. Those pictures alone would make any United fan, young or old, weep for the tragic waste of a future that doesn't see Bestie growing old, gracefully or otherwise. Those Reds too young to have seen Bestie play probably are aware how deep the emotions are for those who did see him but his presence and ability is gnawed into all of our consciousness. Young Reds know, from statistics, just what he achieved in such a short space of time at the club. But stats alone don't convey his greatness, his impact, his lifting of an already good team into a great one, the final spectacular piece of the jigsaw. Best arrived in an era that suited him perfectly. Best was the ultimate 60s icon. Living the dream.

I think United fans who knew how influential he was in taking our popularity into another dimension, even surpassing all that Sir Matt had achieved, loved George unconditionally.

I grimaced at some of the stories of the here and now, the arrests, the allegations, but always looked optimistically that we wouldn't go down that road again, that his appearances on SKY Sports, where he always championed United, and his close circle of loyal friends, would see him sort himself out. But of course, both he and I knew that was never going to be the case. The bottle, from birth, default, addiction, blotting out the pain of losing his mother so young or just plain selfishness had its grip.

But that's not what I remember. Meeting him a few years back, even with a bottle of wine early in a morning on the way to a game, I saw a man who'd given so many United fans not just pleasure but purpose that I just wanted to touch him to know that what Reds had seen all those years ago was true. And it can't have been easy knowing that we all felt we owned a piece of Georgie. Wherever he went he couldn't escape 4 the fact that he was a Manchester United legend. And it was, I suspect, both an honour and a burden in equal weight.

As a Red put it at Charlton: ‘Bestie is as he always has been” and why a future without George, at such a relatively young age, hurts me so. Seeing Denis, the original and true King leave his hospital weeks ago in tears had me weeping myself. Law looked old. I don't want my heroes to grow old. When I imagine Best now, I don't remember the bearded man that young Reds identify with, it's George, fingers holding onto his sleeves, with the ball magically chained to his feet. Here comes Chopper Harris with a lunge...and no he doesn't as Bestie has left him on his arse.

Bestie's humour only came through in small bursts on SKY, but anyone he knew says he was as sharp as nails. After the tabloids - always hounding, always failing to let him just be - chased him for yet one more story, he answered the phone and the voice said: “I am from The Sun”. George replied: “I am From Earth now fuck Off!” Then, of course, come the classics. “I always had a reputation for going missing - Miss England, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World....” “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” One football journalist once wrote that: “Kevin Keegan isn't fit enough to lace George Best's drinks let alone his boots such is the difference in class between the two”. The only real regret I'll have about him is that the film about his life and times at United - Best - didn't deserve to have his name on it, it was that poor.

There are those that are quick to judge Best. Say he threw it all away after reaching the top. Spoken by those who have never reached the heights that Best did. Instead of acclaiming all that he did achieve, they question that which he didn't. I find that sad. Of course it would have been great if he'd have stayed, if the problems hadn't escalated but let's be thankful we had what we did. He may not have been able to last at United as long as he could have. But give thanks he was there as long as he was, and when it mattered the most. The game was different then. David Meek: “People say he wasted his career. Nonsense. He was hunted down by defenders for 11 seasons starting at 17. He paid his dues alright”.

Best is a footballing idol. The world over people when you mention Manchester United say “George Best”, then “Bobby Charlton”. They don't say ‘drinker’ or ‘miserable git’, they remember someone who could ‘dribble his way through a minefield, turn on a sixpence and shoot’. Those that don't even remember the footballer knew who George Best was and he had an aura around him that showed in a world full of wannabees and nevergonnabees, here was the real deal. Though it's often said, there will never be another.

I sometimes think that Best didn't want to out-think the drink. He didn't enjoy the adulation of being George Best per-se, constantly filmed, followed, photographed and sought attention from if he liked it or not. He once hinted at a darker side to that attention and adulation. “It's the same anywhere, especially if I'm travelling with Manchester United. No matter where you go in the world, it seems to be all Man United fans.” Of course we did it with good intentions, but it can't have been easy.
“Sometimes I feel like a one-man zoo.”. That doesn't condone the darker and at times nastier sides to his personality that the drink brought out, but those that criticise Best the person often have a ring of self righteousness about them. Once he'd left gracing a football pitch, what choices did he have open to him? He even said the reason he left the Nou Camp in 1999 at 1-0 down was to avoid being mobbed at the imminent final whistle. Paddy Crerand talked once: “Do you know what he was really? A little Irish kid who had a great gift to play football. If we'd have left it at that there would not have been a problem. But we said, ‘Do this, sell that, model this, sign that’ and when he couldn't stand it any more he ran away. He couldn't cope and who on earth could?”

His sister, Barbara McNarry said a few years ago that: “My brother George is an alcoholic. He suffers from a disease. What is being reported as being 'interviews' with George are the ramblings of an alcoholic. I'm not trying to condone those ramblings, or to condone the behaviour or to condone the violence. That is George Best the alcoholic. It is not the George Best we, his family know and love. Nobody chooses to be the way George is. He knows if he goes on drinking, it will kill him. That in itself says something about how hard it is for him to stop. If you knew you were dying you would stop if you could. George can't. I feel our voice has to be heard, that people need to know that George Best has a family who love him and care about him and who hurt just like any other people.”

George once joked during his transplant and the serious illnesses that he fought: “Some of the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I thought that I’d get a message out that I’d been taken by helicopter to hospital. Then all the press would rush to my home and I’d have a big banner hanging outside saying April fool!”. God I wish that were the case now.

His passing has left a massive void. His name alone was enough to create memories and magic in mind alone. His presence in our team was what dreams are made of. A genius. Flawed? Aren't they always. As a player, he may well have had faults but the gift that he had was faultless. And as a person? Probably he was flawed but he had a human kindness that rarely got a mention until his illness. But what will people remember? What will his legacy be? Best the genius in that classic United shirt or Best the alcoholic? I know which it is for me. And millions of others.

Of course it's usually what players do on the pitch that is all that matters to us but Bestie's high profile meant we've had to follow his post United years every step of the way. The good, the bad, and the ugly as one of the titles of his book stated, when other United heroes have never had their laundry aired in public. That doesn't excuse some actions but Best did have a unique profile. Many of us have always fought for him, willing him to win the many battles he's faced. And gutted that he's lost this last one now. It's why his passing upset United fans so profoundly.

The classic Bestie song ends that we should ‘acknowledge true genius, George Best’ and that's what the world over will be doing now. And what everyone of us should be doing. We do it because though he was heroic on the pitch we didn't try, as others would over time, to put him on a pedestal off it because away from the game he showed a human side - full of frailties - that he didn't show on it when he was super human.

But most of all in a world full of sadness, he made us happy. He made us smile. As Sir Matt put it better than anyone could, as was his way too. “We had our problems with the wee feller, but I prefer to remember his genius”.


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