By Ryan Cargill.
In 1974 George Best played his last game for Manchester United at the age of 27, citing that he had fallen out of love with the game. He left a timeless legacy, but it could have been so much greater.
Never has a footballer had such a positive effect on society than Best. Born on the 22nd of May 1946 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Best went onto to become the most loved and adored footballer the country has ever seen. The only problem was that he always had the potential to self-destruct.
In whichever light you choose to view Best, he saw his profession as a hobby, not a lifestyle. He gave into the temptation that we see all too regularly offered to sportsmen even in the present day.
Today, the idea of role model is a fundamental aspect of becoming a professional sportsperson. Every public movement and activity is monitored by the media, who keep their eyes peeled for any slip-up or mistake. Too often the person under the spotlight is all too happy to take the bait.
In 1968, Best scored to help United defeat Benfica in the European Cup Final and lift the illustrious trophy for the first time. This elevated his status to the level of superstar, albeit at the young age of 22.
Best had been the fulcrum of the first English team to win European footballs premier prize. The world stood up and took notice of the boy from Cregagh; the world was completely at his feet.
Never before had a British footballer received such global admiration.
Famously described as the ‘fifth Beatle’, Best made playing football appealing to people who normally wouldn’t have battered an eyelid at sport. Appearing in numerous television commercials and fashion magazine covers put Best on a par with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
At the height of his fame, Best had everything. Copious amounts of women, money and unfortunately, alcohol. The latter infamously leading to his demise.
Tragically, picking up his European Cup winners medal was to be the peak of what should have been a lengthy and glittering career.
Best didn’t have the protection of courts and the law that present day sportsmen have. The alleged injunctions that superstars John Terry and Tiger Woods recently have had placed on their alleged misdemeanours were unheard of in the 60’s and 70’s.
One thing is for sure, had Best played professionally into his 30’s like present day Man United evergreen Ryan Giggs, he would have had the platform in which to be known as the best player of all time.
In his defence, unlike his rivals for that honour, Best never had the opportunity to show his talent on the greatest stage of all, the World Cup. While Pele had Brazil, Diego Maradona had Argentina and Zinedine Zidane had France, Best had Northern Ireland, a small country that sometimes punch above their weight, but are considered minnows generally.
Best had a bit of Pele and Maradona in his game. He had the capability to skip past five defenders only to then round the goalkeeper to score.
Could Best’s fall from grace in football been due to the idea that he found the game too simple and not a challenge any longer?
As Best’s love of football diminished, his fondness for alcohol increased, as one of his former United managers Wilf McGuinness stated “If only he could have gone past nightclubs the way he went past defenders, he would have played much longer.” [i]
At the time, as a man in his mid-20’s, it isn’t difficult to understand why Best chose the route he did. He was the David Beckham of that era, the man Britain couldn’t get enough of.
Best famously said: “In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life.” This sums up Best’s attitude at the time, he realised that everyone wanted a piece of him and he revelled in it. [i]
Best attracted intense media coverage which put great pressure on his football career. He spent a lot of time at parties, drinking, and dating actresses, models and beauty queens. He also opened a nightclub and several fashion boutiques with Manchester City player Mike Summerbee. These, however, were not a success.
Throughout this period, Best continued to be in the public eye and for the first time he was receiving negative press.
Sir Matt Busby, his manager at United at the time, is remembered as being a disciplinarian but not to the extent of present day manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Busby gave Best the freedom to enjoy his life off the pitch, as long as it didn’t affect his attitude on it.
By this time, Busby had allowed his squad to age and the respected youth system was no longer producing the quality it once was.
McGuinness and, later, Frank O’Farrell both found Busby’s legacy too much to carry on and United continued on a downward spiral before Tommy Docherty arrived at Old Trafford determined to stamp his own style and authority on the club.
Throughout this period, George Best had been deteriorating to the same extent as Manchester United. It was barely noticeable in his performances on the field though, especially as his character was now largely surrounded by doubt and disregard, and he remained United’s leading scorer for six successive seasons between 1967 and 1972.
His social life had started to spiral out of control. By the time of Docherty arrived at Old Trafford, Best was already drinking heavily, missing training and inevitably became a sitting duck as Docherty looked to make wholesale changes, albeit at a time when Best should have been the first name on any club’s teamsheet.
As a result, one of the greatest players ever to grace Old Trafford departed in tragic circumstances at the age of 27.
His fall from grace owed much to the fact he lived to excess off the pitch with endless stories of drunken binges, romps with some of the most beautiful women in the world and a non-enthusiastic approach to the game that became his trademark.
Rather than remember George Best as the gaunt, lifeless character alcohol moulded him into, he should be regarded as a fundamental part of creating the platform of history for a club who have now become the biggest in the world.
His teammate during his career at United, David Sadler remembers him as saying “I would say you could have put George in just about any position in our 1968 team and he would have been better than the person who was playing there.”
“You couldn’t beat him on a football pitch. There was nothing a player could do to defeat him mentally. You couldn’t kick him out of the game because he’d bounce straight back and tackle you twice as hard.” [i]
This is something that bears no comparison to present day football. Every game, we see players fall over having barely been touched. We cannot say this about Best; the manner in which he evaded Chelsea’s hardman Ron “Chopper” Harris to score one of the best goals of his career speaks volumes for the man’s bravery.
If he got taken down, he would make it a priority to dribble around that exact player the next time he received the ball. Taking into account the slender build of Best, it is beyond belief how he could skip past defender after defender without getting hurt. We see athletes today, despite spending five days a week at the gym, calling physios on to the field to receive treatment for little more than grazes.
On reflection, he was the first modern day footballer with the levels of disregard for authority displayed by many of today’s stars. This derived from appearing in the newspaper every day, staggeringly high wages and a belief that he was above the law in anything he said or done.
Best did not have the protection that present day players have, both on and off the pitch. Football was monumentally more physical in the 60s and 70s and the law was not constructed in such a way that allowed for money to cover up misbehaviours.
Nowadays, most weeks we read that idolised sporting stars have committed crimes and infidelities, yet cannot be identified.
Athletes have realised that one piece of negative press in the current climate could mean the end for their reputations.
The emphasis of the media on sport is so great that Luiz Felipe Scolari gave it as his prime reason for not becoming the England manager in 2006; he stated “If that is part of another culture, it is not part of my culture. I am not the coach, and will not be (England’s) coach.
“I don’t want this situation involving England because in two days during which I was not coach, I never agreed to anything, my life was invaded. My privacy was totally under siege.”[ii]
It shows how at times how the media can besiege high-profile celebrities to such an extent that it influences their actions and decisions.
Although Best was in the spotlight on a daily basis, the media were initially full of praise for him until they began to suspect possible flaws.
Much respected sports writer Henry Winter sums up Best perfectly: “What began as a fairy-tale ended as a cautionary tale. The distressing images of Best in his later years cannot disfigure the enduring recollection of him in his thrilling pomp, gliding past a wrong-footed opponent, the path to goal opening up invitingly”.[iii]
We may say the same about Wayne Rooney, John Terry or Tiger Woods in the future but George Best was the first high profile sportsperson to become the victim of his own success and many have followed suit since.
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• http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2006/apr/28/newsstory.sport3 [ii] • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/columnists/henrywinter/2368754/Blessed-with-talent-only-gods-bestow.html [iii]
• George Best – ‘Blessed – The Autobiography’ (Ebury Press – 2002)
• ‘Scoring at Half-Time – The Adventures off and on the Pitch’ (Ebury Press – 2004)
• George Best – Genius, Maverick, Legend (DVD, 2001) [i] • Best – The Movie (DVD, 2000)