"If I had been born ugly, you would have never heard of Pele."
Of all the memorable George Best one-liners, and there were plenty, this one probably served as the most fitting epitaph. His tongue might have been in his cheek, but this inimitable Irishman knew how good he was and, at his best, few could compare. Skill, speed, balance and steely courage made the late, great Manchester United legend a spectacular sight to behold, and those who saw him in his pomp remain adamant that he knew no equal. Even Pele himself was said to have described this Belfast boy as the greatest player he had seen.
Yet in envisaging the obscurity that could have befallen O Rei, Best also acknowledged – intentionally or otherwise – the unavoidable ‘what ifs’ that accompany any reflection on his turbulent career. How could it be otherwise when a player of such extraordinary and exquisite talents walked away from Old Trafford, and from football, at just 27? Or when Best became as famous for his excesses off the field as for his dazzling displays on it?
As the man himself reflected in later years: "I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town." It should not be forgotten, though, that long before he became the first footballer to move from the back pages to the front, earning himself the moniker of ‘the fifth Beatle’, it was football that was Best’s first love.
Indeed, it was with an almost obsessive devotion and diligence that he practised the game during his youth, playing matches with a plimsoll on his right foot and a boot on his left to improve and perfect the latter. Sure enough, practice steadily made perfect and when veteran Manchester United scout Bob Bishop caught a glimpse of this slightly built youngster in a boys' club match in Belfast, he was transfixed. Bishop’s subsequent telegram to manager Sir Matt Busby read simply: “I’ve found you a genius.”
This message would have been taken with a pinch of salt at Old Trafford, but all doubts were removed when Best, 15, arrived for a two-week trial in 1961. Hopelessly homesick, he lasted just two days before insisting on returning to Belfast, but Busby had already seen enough and made it a personal mission to coax the youngster back on a permanent basis. Within two years, and just four months after turning 17, Best made his senior United debut against West Bromwich Albion, giving a performance that saw him singled out by the Manchester Evening News for his “natural talent” and “style”.
These words would become synonymous with Best over the coming years and, together with Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, he formed an attacking triumvirate that enabled the Red Devils to rule over England and, ultimately, Europe. Law described him as "the complete player" and, even at 21, it seemed he had the world at his feet. By 1968, United were European champions, and Best - having scored in every round and illuminated the final – had been awarded the Ballon d’Or.
The tragedy is that this elevated status and new-found fame also signalled the beginning of the end for the greatest British player of his generation. Soon, he was going into business, opening nightclubs and fashion boutiques, and it wasn’t long before a lifestyle dominated by drinking, gambling and womanising began to test the patience of his paymasters.
While Charlton and others at Old Trafford openly disapproved of Best’s off-field habits, Busby indulged his errant protégé and, for a time, the player’s brilliance justified such leniency. But it couldn’t last. Frustrated by United’s failure to replace the ageing stars of the 1968 side, Best returned to the bars and nightclubs, and his unauthorised absences became longer and more difficult to excuse.
The arrival of Tommy Docherty as manager brought a showdown that ended in Best’s sacking, with even Busby – by now in a directorial role – telling the press: "We want him out of our hair. We are at the end of our tether." Docherty initiated a brief truce that led to him returning the following year, but another fall-out quickly followed and, this time, the parting of the ways was final. Best, 27, retired from football.
His boots didn't stay packed away for long, of course, but the next stop after United and the 'Theatre of Dreams' was South Africa and a team by the name of Jewish Guild. The rot had set in, and while Best’s skills still had the capacity to dazzle, albeit increasingly rarely, he became a footballing nomad, turning out for scores of different clubs in locations as diverse as Cork, San Jose, Brisbane and Bournemouth.
People were desperate to see the old magic return, and there was even pressure to include the wayward genius, now 36, in Northern Ireland’s 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™ squad. Billy Bingham resisted, however, and Best – the last of whose 37 caps had come five years earlier – remained one of the finest players never to grace the game’s greatest stage.
Many have since earned comparisons, most frequently at Old Trafford, where Ryan Giggs spent his younger years shrugging off the tag of ‘the new George Best’. Alex Ferguson was quick to dismiss the likeness. “He’ll never be a Best. Nobody will,” said the Scot. “George was unique, the greatest talent our football ever produced — easily! At Old Trafford they reckon he had double-jointed ankles. You remember how he could do those 180-degree turns simply by swivelling on his ankles? As well as devastating defenders, that helped him to avoid injuries because he was never really stationary for opponents to hurt him.”
Tragically, Best wasn’t able to stop hurting himself. Despite receiving a second chance with a liver transplant in 2000, the drinking continued and, within five years, this spiral of self-destruction ended in inevitable fashion. He was just 59 when he died. There was frustration in some quarters, anger in others, but dominating it all was appreciation and enduring fondness for one of the game’s true greats.
For his fans, no-one compared. A banner that fluttered along his funeral route in Belfast said it all: "Maradona good; Pele better; George Best."
Date of birth: 22 May 1946
Place of birth: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Clubs: Manchester United (1963-74), Jewish Guild (1974), Stockport County (1975), Cork Celtic (1975-76), Los Angeles Aztecs (1976, 1977-78), Fulham (1976-78), Fort Lauderdale Strikers (1978-79), Hibernian (1979-81), San Jose Earthquakes (1980-81), Hong Kong Rangers (1982), Bournemouth (1983), Brisbane Lions (1983)
National team: 37 appearances (9 goals)
* 1 European Champions Cup (1968)
* 2 English league titles (1965, 1967)
* 1 European Footballer of the Year (1968)