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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Bestie by Clive Tyldesley

by Clive Tyldesley

What can you say when you lose someone you loved, but never knew? Only a fan would understand. To tumble under the spell of a great sportsman, a gifted singer or a stunning actress is proof of being. You cannot truly enjoy life until you have fallen for someone you cannot tell. George Best was unique in far too many ways for his own good but I want to remember him only as the finest footballer I think I ever saw. Don't argue with me, don't reason with me, not now. The romance he brought to millions of lives is not up for negotiation.

All manner of romantic pictures will be painted of this tinker, thriller, soloist, chief. His character will be assassinated and glorified, his story will be told from both sides. Footage will be shown of him in the grip of drink and dream girls, but I just want to see him in the grip of genius. Show me his goals. All of them, over and over again. Remind us all just how good he was. Tell my son why I dreamt of being George Best when I was the same age he is now. Spare me the analysis, give me something of my hero back. Return George's magic to him.

It all comes down to that famous, infamous story of him sitting on the bed of London's finest hotel suite with the reigning Miss World, and the room service waiter delivering the vintage champagne before innocently asking: "George, where did it all go wrong?" European Cup winner, European Footballer of the Year, English champion, English Footballer of the Year. Well, you could say where did it all go wrong for Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne and the rest? George won more medals than them and just about as much as a Belfast boy could win. Let's not pretend he under-achieved. He could have won all those trophies and awards again, and it still would not have been enough for some. True greats leave us wanting more.

And yet Best's career was more about memories than medals. My first memories were fleeting glimpses caught between the heads of taller Stretford Enders. Television archive never reproduces the sudden speed of his darting runs, the change of gear and direction. He would glide effortlessly like an eagle selecting its prey, then soar and swoop with blurred acceleration. His head seemed to tilt slightly to one side, and his lithe body lean into the gravity he constantly defied. Like a slalom skier swaying between the gates, he could twist and turn through acute angles, and yet still be perfectly balanced to accelerate into the next manoeuvre.

Only these were not flexible poles stuck in the snow at regular intervals that Best was sweeping past, these were hairy-armed defenders hired to stop him at all costs. Once he launched himself at a chink in enemy lines, he gave no thought to incoming fire. He was as brave as he was brilliant, as single-minded as he was multi-talented. In the Frank O'Farrell team who topped the table until Christmas 1971, there was no better header, passer or even tackler than Best. He had everything. Yes, he knew it, but so did his opponents. He must have been terrifying to play against.

The accepted wisdom is that his mercurial football was somehow a function of his mercurial lifestyle, that Best would not have been the same player had he been ugly or shy. Why? OK, his timing was perfect. He arrived on cue to become the fifth Beatle, he lived like a Rolling Stone, he was stalked like an animal. Somehow, George had to find his place in the new order alongside a stately manager and captain, who had both lived through a very different fairytale. Clashes and collisions were inevitable. Rebellion was natural. He was never short of friends and admirers, or opportunities to stray. His lust for life may have been ahead of its time, but it was his ability in his profession that singled him out for special treatment. He was a good playboy, but an exceptional player.

So forgive me if my tribute to George Best is blinkered, but his football was all I ever saw with my own eyes. Along with Denis Law, Tony Jacklin, David Coleman and a few others, he was a true boyhood hero. A hero you love with your heart, without engaging your head to wonder why. The very best kind.


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