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Best remembered

November 27 2005

Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace

Farawayeagle pays tribute to George Best..

I woke up at 1a.m. on Saturday morning. I don’t know why really. I’d only gone to bed at 11p.m. and was pretty tired after a week of suffering a severe stomach infection.

I should have slept like a baby, ‘til morning. Finding it hard to get back to sleep I switched on Sky to be confronted with the banner headline “George Best Dies.”

I’d been expecting it for the last week or so, since his relapse, but the finality of the caption left me with a feeling that I had lost a friend or a family member. Stupid really – as I had only ever spoken to George once, during his “talk fest around the clubs” period.

The emotion that hit me, truly amazed me -- as I watched the newsreels and listened to the tributes pour in and watched the beginnings of his fans paying their respects.

George was my boyhood hero, growing up just 20 miles down the road from Belfast in the little seaside town of Larne.

In the early sixties, I used to go up to play football regularly at Larne FC’s Inver Park, with a couple of my best friends. My mate Alex who was a bit stockier than the rest of us was always more like Bobby Charlton as he rammed his famous blockbuster shots towards goal.

Michael who had an unkempt shock of blonde hair believed fervently that he was Denis Law. He grasped his shirtsleeves as he played, with elbows like daggers and he had the Law salute down to a tee.

I – in a feat of unrivalled stupidity -- thought I could be George Best. I tried to lob the keeper, to nutmeg anyone who came to cripple me and I even worked on this little side-flick pass thing, that I believed, in my demented case of self-delusionment, would have graced Old Trafford.

Such was the inspiration George gave to to a whole generation of kids growing up – all over the world. In the last twenty four hours I have read similar stories on the internet from as far afield as Nigeria, South America and Japan.

But for “Norn Iron” kids like us, he was extra special. He was one of us. In our immaturity of the time, we thought -- they could throw all the stupid paddy jokes at us – but we have George, and that’s all that mattered.

We really had no idea at the time the immense changes that were going on in the world -- living in our little backwater – watching The Beatles, The Stones – the TV images – initially in black and white - seeping through to us, of the “Swinging Sixties,” Carnaby Street, the John Perfumo /Christine Keeler scandal. The memories trip easily from the brain – too many to mention.

We were living through a major cultural revolution and George Best had landed at the beginning of it, as a 15 year old boy who had never been away from his family in his short life.

But George was made for the sixties. He was good looking, charming – in a shy way -- and he had a raw talent that quickly put him up there with all the great talents emerging in the entertainment industry at the time.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were starting out, the germination of what was to become Monty Python was taking place, Telstar was in the news and around the same time a certain 007 hit the big screen for the first time.

They were exciting and innovative times – but also so far from the norms of early post-war Britain, that no one had a game plan. So much was so new.

Before George Best footballers were just a dull annex to the world of entertainment. The stars of the time like Stanley Mathews and Johnny Haynes and the likes of his teammate Bobby Charlton, were nice men, but for young people, as dull as a wet weekend in Brighton. The extent of their image profile was the stiff pictures that turned up on football cards. George on the other hand – he was the business!

These were the days when an agent was still the guy who sold you a house. Crystal Palace Chairman, Simon Jordan would have loved it! George signed his first professional contract for 17 pounds a week – and he thought he was rich!

The football memories of George’s career have been well documented, and I don’t want to dwell on them in detail here. Way too many to mention.

But two stick out for me, as I think back.

The first was listening, late night, on an early spring evening under my bedcovers, to a little transistor radio -- as George and Manchester Utd ripped Benfica apart in Lisbon, by 5-1, in the second leg of the 1966 European Cup quarter final. I watched the game later on TV, but strangely, it’s the radio commentary that still lingers. The magic of European ties in those days can only be understood by those of us lucky enough to have been around then.

My second highlight is something that I have never witnessed again on a football field in 40 odd years of following the game. I saw one player virtually take on a whole team in Northern Ireland’s 1-0 defeat of Scotland at Windsor Park, Belfast in 1967. I had to pinch myself at times to make sure he had 10 other NI players on the field with him.

I don’t believe I have ever seen a better performance by any single player than on that day. I still remember walking down York Street, in Belfast afterwards, floating on air.

When I got the Saturday Night later on in the evening, I think I read the report countless times to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming. As a football fan I feel truly privileged to have been there that day. I really wish I had held on to that newspaper.

But the sad decline that set in after he eventually lost the will to play for Man Utd is a complex, depressing story and as with most things in football reporting -- a mixture of fact, fiction and the bizarre.

Just as we from Northern Ireland had worshipped George when he was our hero – we suffered when the dream began to fall apart. We thought he could do no wrong – after all, he was George Best.

We wanted him to go on forever. But it was not to be.

Man Utd was going into decline as the end of the Busby era was closing. George found it harder and harder to motivate himself to play with the kind of lesser players that were being brought in. Then Busby left, to be replaced by the well meaning Wilf McGuiness and later the totally insipid Frank O’Farrell.

Maybe if Busby had stayed longer and started to seriously rebuild the team -- or the rumour of Jock Stein taking over had materialized things might have been different for George. It didn’t -- and he continued to turn to the bottle to seek refuge from his problems.

His drinking in the early days had been a few beers to give him “dutch courage” with the girls -- but by the time his Utd career began to unravel he had been sucked in by the football drink culture of the time and the club circuit that had become his home away from football.

It became an easy refuge for a man who had never had a real home, since leaving his family behind all those years before. Drink became the solace, the relief – his place to hide.

It’s interesting now to hear people say he didn’t care about his decline and having a go at him about his famous one liners relating to his drinking. However, I can understand these comments very well, as there is a certain type of Northern Ireland black humour that has you deal with your demons, by joking and trying to make light of them.

The trouble is, combined with drink, this kind of humour leads to self delusionment, equal to my attempts as a boy to be George Best. Like many alcoholics George took a long time to admit to himself that his drinking was more than just having a few to relax and unwind.

Perhaps this lying to himself was made all the easier by his successful attempts to rehabilitate himself enough to play for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham and Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian and San Jose Earthquakes between 1975 and 1981.

The magic was still there to varying degrees but there is no doubt that the drink was still causing most of his off field problems.

George’s detractors like to to call him a waster because “he didn’t reach his full potential.” Maybe he could have achieved more at the top level, had been able to cut his umbilical cord to Manchester Utd.

But in truth by the time he walked out of Old Trafford on the 5th of January 1975 he seemed to have already lost that competitive passion for the game that had burned bright for so many of the previous 12 and a half years after he joined Utd in August 1961 as an amateur.

Selective memory of some commentators has his contribution to the game end here -- but in truth he went on giving pleasure to a lot of fans for another seven years during his time in America and his brief stints at Fulham and Hibernian. For many it was their only chance to see this footballing legend in the flesh.

However, that doesn’t count for some football fans -- who almost ignore his contribution to football, in favour of regurgitating every negative story they have ever heard from the tabloid press.

People who have a go at him for failing to overcome his alcoholism should think long and hard before judging him. Maybe some should even have a long look in the mirror.

“Other people beat it. Why couldn’t he,” they snarl. “Why didn’t he listen to his friends and family,” they say? “He had all these chances and he threw them away.” “He didn’t care.” “He was a selfish sod, who just wanted to get a new liver so he could continue drinking.”

It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and and dish out the pearls of wisdom. None of his detractors had to walk in his shoes every day.

But the problem was -- George Best wasn’t other people. Like many extremely gifted people he was a very complex human being. The comment of Phil Hughes as he walked away after the interviews outside Cromwell Hospital was very telling. “He’s gone to a place where noone can hurt him,” he said. Phil was probably George’s oldest friend and perhaps one of the few people who knew the “real” George Best.

This comment indicates to me that George had that great vulnerability that so often comes with greatness. He knew he had had let people down, many times and probably hated himself for it.

He enjoyed being loved for the pleasure he had given so many through his gift-- but I’m sure he was equally aware of all of those who despised him for the violent, uncaring drunk they saw him as. He won many battles in his life, but that is one he will now never be able to conquer.

So dependent on alcohol had he become, at one point, that in his biography “Blessed,” he said, “The thought of never drinking again terrified me. That is a terrible insight into the dilemma that he struggled with for probably half of his life.

Maybe only those who have been through an addiction can truly understand why he couldn't defeat it.

How will history remember him? I suppose like most history, it depends who writes it. Those who saw him at his peak will recognize him mainly for his footballing talent with regret for his failure in his desperate battle with alchoholism.

Those who didn’t, will divide into two camps – the ones who will never forgive him his failures and and those who think -- yes he disappointed and let a lot of people down – but he lifted a lot more people up.

George Best is from a generation of footballers where winning wasn’t the only criteria to judge success by. Winning with style, was equally important.

I will never forget the pleasure he gave me as a football fan, nor his charm, his wit and his charisma. Can I forgive him his human failings? Yes I can forgive them – but I won’t deny their existence.

Thanks for the memories George

All the Best

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