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Friday, November 24, 2006

How Rooney and Ronaldo pics will look at OT on Sunday

We remember George Best. Never forgotten

With the anniversary of Georgie's sad passing this weekend, regular contributor Tom Clare recalls the Best of Times...

The Best Years Of My Life

Since George’s passing in late November 2005, I have been asked so many times by people who never ever had the privilege of seeing him play, whether or not all the stories that abound about his skill are true, or if they are just some exaggeration. It is so difficult explaining to them how brilliant George was. It is also nigh on impossible to convince young people today who only saw pictures of George in his later years, that not only was he a footballer extraordinaire, but also a man of such glamour that he would never have looked out of place on a Hollywood film set!

Football has always had it stars in the game, even long before George arrived in this world. However I think that it is true to say that George was the very first of the soccer ‘superstars’. The first time that I ever saw him though, you would have thought that he would never ever reach anything akin to that kind of status. In late 1962 I was a young trialist with Preston North End Football Club, and on a cold, miserable winter Saturday morning, I had been selected to play in goal for the North End ‘A’ team, against Manchester United. Home games for the North End juniors were played on pitches situated on the old pig farm at Fulwood, and the dressing rooms consisted of a couple of wooden huts that housed a couple of rooms for changing in, then along the corridor, a few rooms with ceramic baths inside – no shower facilities back then! Being a staunch United supporter, it was enough for me that I was turning out against United’s youngsters, and my nerves were on edge as I made my way from the dressing room and out onto that windswept pitch. The pitch had been rolled flat but was really only on nodding acquaintances with grass at that time of the year and after 5 minutes of play, it became a mud patch. In those days, there was little pre-match warm up and I took my place between the goalposts as our forwards fired in a number of the old leather footballs at me. As we lined up to kick off, I noticed this small, frail, waif of a boy, standing in the outside right position for United. He stood there waiting for the kick off, shivering in the chill wind, his hands gripping the white trim cuffs of his red shirt and it seemed as though he was in imminent danger of being blown away. For a boy of such frail build, it seemed that he had no right to be out there on that pitch, particularly as he faced some big lads in the North End defence who were not averse to being a little over physical. At that time I had no idea of this young boy’s name, but by the end of the match, after I had picked the ball out of the net six times, I made it my business to find out! Coming off the field I shook hands with United’s inside right, Barry Grayson, and asked him the name of the young boy who had just run our defenders ragged throughout that morning. It was to be the very first time that I had ever heard the name George Best.

Even today, I can still see him gliding over the surface of that mud heap that we played upon, the ball seemingly tied to his boot laces, and our big defenders struggling to get a tackle anywhere near to him. One or two tried to verbally intimidate him, but even at that tender age, he could look after himself and his temperament was unflappable. He had a huge appetite for the ball, and once he did have it, he hurt you. Little did I know that day that what I was witnessing and suffering, would also be witnessed and suffered by some of the best teams and defenders that the game of football has ever known!

My own aspirations to a career in League football came to an end at the close of that season when I was told that my trial period was unsuccessful; a huge disappointment for a young 18 years old boy. For young George Best though, the following season was his break through season into First Division football!

George made his debut against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford in September of 1963 some ten months or so after the game that I have mentioned. I was stood on the Stretford End that day and watched as he came out of the players tunnel and trotted towards what had now become the most vocal part of the ground. I had to smile as I listened to the fans stood around me, asking questions about this wee slip of a boy. Their fear was that he wasn’t physically strong enough to survive in the First Division. My own memories of that encounter at Fulwood were all too prevalent at that time, and I had no fears about him whatsoever! By half time those questioning fans had been given their answer! The rest is of course, history.

George did not arrive on this earth or at Old Trafford as the complete player. He made himself into the truly exceptional player that he was by working hard at his skills. He made himself into the two-footed player that he was by practicing to the point where he became uncertain as to which was his stronger foot - a lesson that I wish that some of today’s so called superstars would take heed of! It gave him all the options that he needed to beat an opponent on either side, and in and around the penalty box, where he was a deadly finisher with either of those feet. He just loved the feel of the ball, and once he had it, he didn’t give it away cheaply. George had that gift of exceptional speed off the mark, great stamina, wonderful balance, and the ability to stay on his feet and even ride the hardest of tackles. He had a huge great heart and appetite for the game, and he never ever shirked the challenge – in fact he relished it! He had an inherent self belief in his own ability and whatever that challenge, be it physical, mental or tactical, he met it head on. His control of the ball under the most violent of pressure was hypnotic and he was brave beyond belief.

He played the game in an era when forwards were not a protected species as they are today. The tackle from behind was very much a part of the game in his day. At that time, matches against teams like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester City, meant that forwards had the likes of Peter Storey, Ron Harris, Tommy Smith, Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter, and also Mike Doyle lying in wait and queuing up for them. There were also more defenders of that stature in the game at that time but they are too many to mention. They were a daunting prospect to have to face! A prospect that I think had some of today’s over paid, over pampered, and over rated players had to face, would see them suddenly affected by loose bowel syndrome and a withdrawal from the match!

I have so many memories of games that George played for Manchester United, and most fans would say that his finest performance was against Benfica in the Stadium of Light in Lisbon in 1966, during the European Cup Quarter Final second leg game. Leading 3-2 from the first leg at Old Trafford, Sir Matt had told the players before they went out for the game; “Play it tight for the first 20 minutes or so.” By the 20th minute of that game, George, by his superlative performance, had put the game beyond the Portugese team and United were 3-0 ahead! Coming in at half time, Sir Matt was heard to remark; “I see that you never listened to me!” It was after this game that George bought the famous sombrero and the pictures of him wearing it were flashed around the world – it was the birth of “El Beatle” and the start of his being a ‘superstar’ celebrity.

As I pick the back pocket of my memory however, my own view is that the finest performance of his career came at Windsor Park in Belfast wearing the green shirt of his beloved Northern Ireland against Scotland in 1967. On a quagmire of a pitch he tormented one of the best full backs British football has ever seen, and gave him the chasing of his life. Not only him, but also the whole of the Scottish team as well. That full back was none other than Tommy Gemmell of Celtic who less than six months earlier had become one of the famous “Lisbon Lions” for his part in Celtic becoming the first British Club to lift the European Cup. Best’s performance that afternoon was mesmeric and he destroyed a very good Scottish team who just six months earlier, had beaten England, the then World Champions at Wembley. If my memory serves me right, Northern Ireland won that game against Scotland 1-0 with George laying on the winning goal for David Clements.

There was so much written about George Best during his time on this earth. So called journalists who should have known better were always so quick to denigrate a man who, to those that really knew him, was a lovely, warm hearted, loving, generous, genuine human being. Of course, that side of George’s personality didn’t sell newsprint or make the kind of headlines that the media wanted. The real truth is that when you really got to know George, he was still unspoiled by all the fame and glory.

One of the better known and more capable journalists of the day, tells a story of just how unaffected the young George Best was in finding himself the very first British footballer to be treated like a showbiz pop star. The Brown Bull used to be a pub at the bottom end of Chapel Street in Salford, and during the ‘60’s was a favourite haunt of the United players after a game. After a certain European Cup tie played at Old Trafford, players and journalists had gathered in the said pub. Nobody had given much thought to dinner but, by the time that the after-hours session was in full swing, hunger was becoming a problem. At least that is until George went around taking fish and chip orders for everyone in the bar, after which he disappeared. Apparently, he returned some half-an-hour later, not merely with all the orders accurately filled, but also with plates, knives and forks for everybody. The waiter that night seemed less like a superstar than the appealing young boy who had worked small miracles with a tennis ball on the streets of the Cregagh housing estate in East Belfast. I could never envisage any of today’s highly paid players doing anything like this, be it for journalist or fan alike. Unlike George and his contemporaries, they have become far too distant and unapproachable.

George did have his problems in life, there is no denying that. He was a sick man and we all knew it. But as in the challenges he met on the football field, he also met the challenges of life head on – he didn’t hide, nor did he ever seek sympathy. There is no doubt that great sportsmen are immensely vulnerable when their gifts and the drama that they create begin to fade. They feel the rest of their lives may loom like a dreary anti climax. George was a very loving person. He loved his family, loved his wives and his son Calum, loved his country, loved people, loved the game of football and Manchester United, and had a huge love and zest for life. That he left this world too early is an understatement of huge proportions. The wonderful memories that he left us with are a legacy to the time when we were seeing the world’s most popular game played by a boy who was better than most that have ever played it throughout its long history. I just wish that today’s generation could have watched George play at least one game in the Premiership. On pitches that resemble a snooker table, with a ball so light, and forwards being protected as they are, I salivate at the thought of a young George running with the ball at today’s defences! I look back with great fondness on that Saturday morning late in 1962 at Fulwood, when I first saw him clutching the cuffs of his shirtsleeves whilst he awaited the kick off. I also feel privileged that I was around to watch him from the terraces throughout his career. The pleasure watching George play the game of football brought to countless millions of my generation can not be measured. The nostalgia floods back whenever I think of him, and the wondrous quality of nostalgia is that it is unchallengeable. Without doubt, the years in which I watched George Best play the game of football were the Best years of my life!

November 25th 2006, will celebrate the first anniversary of his passing.. I will shed a tear, raise a glass, and remember a true son of Northern Ireland, and a true son of the Manchester United family. Sleep on in peace dear George.

copyright Tom Clare, Red News 2006

Monday, November 20, 2006

Statue to George, Denis and Bobby

“The photograph shows the sculptor working on an unfinished preliminary sketch for the new sculpture of Manchester United’s famous 1960’s heroes George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. The bronze sculpture which will portray the three players at life size and a half (2.50m) will be erected on Sir Matt Busby Way during 2008”