BY KEITH MENARY
It’s getting on for midnight and the beers are flowing, the laughs are coming thick and fast and you and your mates have sorted out the world’s political, social and economic problems over half-a-dozen pints of Stella and a few packets of cheese and onion. But one issue has you stumped. That intriguing football question that can never be answered but which keeps being asked:
Who was the greatest footballer of all-time?
The debate starts off: Pele is thrown into the mix early doors, followed quickly by Maradona, Puskas and Di Stefano; Zidane, Cruyff and Beckenbauer get a mention, as do Messi and Ronaldo from the modern game. From the British Isles? There’s surely only one candidate: George Best.
November 25th 2015 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of the legendary Manchester United and Northern Ireland winger and this offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the boy from Belfast and ask was he worthy of the hype – was he really the greatest footballing product of the British Isles, or was he an overrated fancy dan? Was Best simply the man who created a template for footballing underachievement that has been slavishly adhered to by skilful British prospects ever since the early 1970s?
Arguably, George Best was the prototype for the modern football superstar, with a glamorous swagger on the pitch and a showbiz profile off it. For a young football fan today, reared on 24-7 football-related sensationalism, YouTube clips of Messi and Ronaldo, and Sky Sports-induced hysteria after every defeat, it’s hard to explain exactly how stunning George Best was. Supporters of a certain vintage will get misty-eyed at the mere mention of George Best the footballer, a snake-hipped forward beating opponents while displaying breath-taking poise and elegance, before despatching the ball into the net from an array of impossible angles. Others will get maudlin over the sense of loss he evoked as he slipped away from the top at the ridiculously young age of 26.
I make no bones about it – despite being too young to watch him at his peak, George Best has always had my vote as the greatest ever, based on his impact and the respect he engendered among fellow professionals. But that’s not to say I have been wholly uncritical.
For a start, as a pre-teen, mad about Nottingham Forest and their podgy little genius, John Robertson, George Best was simply irrelevant. He wasn’t in the game in a meaningful capacity in the 1980s and he lived his life on the front pages, rather than the sports section, and that meant he wasn’t on my horizon. I couldn’t understand why old-timers kept going on about this mythical figure who was playing in North America when the real game was in Europe.
I started to change my mind as I saw the clips: riding career-threatening lunges from Chopper Harris, slaloming past half-a-dozen Sheffield United defenders and cheekily nodding the ball out of Gordon Banks’ hands; the gravity-defying turns, the bursts of acceleration and the ferocious desire to win the ball and maintain possession, which certainly set him aside from other willowy wingers and skinny flair players.
But what sealed it for me was a goal he scored against Spurs in 1971. When I first saw it, I couldn’t grasp how anyone could score such a goal from such a position. Words barely do it justice: as the ball falls to Best he’s facing four Spurs defenders, plus the formidable frame of Pat Jennings. Anyone else would chest it down and look to play a pass or take a touch and then have a blast at goal, or even try to play for a penalty. But Best lobbed the ball so deftly over Jennings and co that the Spurs defenders were left floundering, looking to the sky and wondering where the ball had got to, before realising it was nestling in the back of the net. Amazing stuff.
And that was it for me. And yes, I know he never played on the highest international stage. I know he retired before the traditional prime years of 27-30. I know he lacked the career stats of a Pele, the tactical nous of a Cruyff or the leadership skills of a Beckenbauer. I know he hadn’t been credited with inspiring a World Cup win like Maradona. I know all of that. But for me, George Best will always be the number one.
The difficulty in dealing with the George Best story lies in the split persona: George Best the professional footballer, and Bestie, the professional geezer. If we talk about the former, then the stats actually reveal that he racked up 137 league goals for Man Utd in 361 appearances between 1963 and 1974, picking up two First Division titles and a European Cup along the way. Throw in cup games and that rises to 181 goals in 474 games. In 1968, at the age of just 22, he was voted the Football Writers’ Player of the year and European Footballer of the Year. And forget about the myths of turning up for games half-cut: you can’t stay at the top level in any field if you aren’t putting the work in. At the top of his career Best was a supreme athlete who plied his trade with minimal-to-zero protection from referees on stamina-sapping mud-heaps for over a decade. His career stats are hardly those of a fly-by-night wastrel – this was a proper career at the top.
Bestie, on the other hand, was a different beast altogether. Whereas George Best ripped up the rulebook and opened up an entire new vocabulary for football, which encompassed a lexicon hitherto more familiar in discussing art and literature, Bestie was the ugly side of celebrity, mired in dismal sex scandals, debauched drinking sessions and lurid headlines that haunted him all the way to his final days. Bestie achieved notoriety for being sent to prison on a drink-driving charge in 1984, for appearing drunk on the Wogan chat show and for his tired quips about spending a wad of money on wine, women and fast cars and squandering the rest. Bestie was alleged to have been abusive to women, to have been an absent and disinterested father, and a philandering husband. Quite a rap-sheet, it has to be said.
But Bestie the geezer-about-town shouldn’t be allowed to detract from George Best the footballer, because Best was catapulted into the world of stardom and celebrity and left to deal with the hangers-on and bullshit artists without any preparation whatsoever. Nobody in football could really help him, because nobody had ever witnessed anything like it before. In one of his many books, Best tells of the days when he lived in a futuristic house in Bramhall that became a mecca for coach parties of gawping tourists who spent hours peering through his windows, taking photos and reducing him to the status of an exhibition in a gallery-cum-zoo. This was a world beyond the ken of an industry which had only just lifted the £100-a-week maximum salary, and there was nothing in the way of agents, PR advisers, PAs, counsellors and minders, which a young superstar of today would be surrounded with in order to ensure that nothing got in the way of his primary purpose on the football pitch.
And consequently, from the time he left Manchester United to the time of his death, the George Best narrative was set in stone – a boy from Belfast with God-given talent who threw it all away. But if there’s one thing about football that’s different today, it’s that we live in a postmodern era of fractured, shifting narratives. Nothing is set in stone and it’s too simplistic to look at someone like George Best and write him off as a flawed loser from the past; it’s too simplistic to imagine that the game was easier in the past, so his achievements were without merit; and it’s too simplistic to believe that the value of a player lies solely in his medal collection and his ability to play into his mid-30s then quietly collect his pension. Forget Bestie, George Best deserves a better legacy than to be considered a failed contender who threw it all away. Instead, he should be remembered for the heroic feats he performed on the pitch, the joy he brought to supporters across the globe and the glimpse he offered of a more beautiful direction for the British game.
My views on Best have twisted and turned over the years, like the great man himself used to do on a regular basis all those years ago. Early doors, having been switched on to him by seeing a clip of that goal against Spurs, I listened to my mum and dad telling me about seeing Best play for Man Utd against Chelsea in the 1970s and the mesmerising effect he had with each feint and shimmy; I watched all the interviews with ex-teammates and opponents who all sang his praises as the greatest natural talent of all time; I read every book he put his name to and got the videos; and I even travelled from Birmingham to Belfast unaccompanied at just 16 years of age to watch him in his testimonial match – at the height of the Troubles, that is – so I could say I’d seen him seen him play a full ninety minutes.
My understanding and appreciation of his career has been through a number of developmental stages. As an earnest student, I felt the frustration in reflecting that while he was slipping away from the game in the early 1970s, destined to become a peripheral figure, across the North Sea, Johan Cruyff was not only displaying breath-taking footballing artistry, but was also taking tactical responsibility and involving himself in the business of rethinking how the game should be approached. I resented Best for not having the wit to be more political and be more involved in the tactical debates of the day. I felt narked seeing him in interviews in the 1990s when he was revelling in the Bestie role and offering zero insight into how to approach and play football, thereby reinforcing the idea that the modern game was more about organisation and less about spontaneity, and that an off-the-cuff genius would be of little use unless he tracked back. It drove me mad that British football was mired in such a tactical straitjacket that anyone with flair was viewed with suspicion and distrust and was only ever considered the ‘icing on the cake’, as opposed to the actual bloody cake, and I placed the blame squarely at Best’s feet for the way in which he failed to engage with the battle for British football’s soul in the years when the likes of Charlie Hughes reigned supreme in coaching circles.
And as an insufferable bore in my black polo-neck years, I even mused on how it is that British football seems to be fixated on imbalanced and exploitative gender stereotypes, with flair players taking on the peripheral, decorative female characteristics, while the real work is left to the men in the midfield and the defence; the blokes who put in a shift, who keep the shape and who give 100%, as opposed to the delicate wingers, the temperamental strikers and the capricious number 10s. And how George Best seemed to be the ultimate victim of this way of thinking.
These days, I’ve outgrown the polo-necks (thankfully) and I’ve accepted that a footballer simply plays each game as it comes, largely oblivious to any anything other what happens on the training ground or in a match. I’ve gone back to the legend of George Best and just marvelled at how anyone could have such talent, such balance and such an ice-cool temperament. I appreciate how much he did to liven up the lives of football supporters throughout the world through his sublime artistry; I appreciate how much he did at the time to put Belfast in the news for anything other than murder and mayhem; and I appreciate how although everything in football has changed since Best’s heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s, nothing has really changed: football is still this magical game that can be 99% mind-blowingly tedious, frustrating, depressing, horrifying and miserable.
Yet it can also provide that 1% of sheer unadulterated joy that sustains you through all the shite you’ll endure before the next 1% moment. And it’s the players like George Best who do that and that’s why they should be treasured and revered and treated with the respect their footballing talents demand. Their individual talents and contribution to football make a massive impression on the twisting, turning narrative of our lives, and it’s why George Best is the greatest of all time for me, just as Diego Maradona, Paul Gascoigne, Jimmy Greaves, Jim Baxter – and so on and so forth – will be the greatest of all time for someone else.
YOU CAN FOLLOW KEITH ON TWITTER @rushgoalie