Red Idols: George Best
John Lennon once said of Elvis, “Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything”. The same can be said of Georgie Best. Thirty years before Cantona, Giggs and Beckham, 40 years before Rooney and Ronaldo… before anyone did anything, Best did everything.
Growing up in Belfast, he was the skinny, football-obsessed boy whose shoes fell apart because he couldn’t stop kicking a ball. He even slept clutching a ball, in his back box-room, beneath posters from Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly pinned on his wall. The boy who was turned down by several scouts because they thought he was too small would soon prove he was head and shoulders above everyone else.
In fact he was a giant. Unnaturally gifted, he glided across the pitch like Peter Pan with double-jointed ankles, twisting the opposition inside out at will, often doubling back to do it again just for pleasure.
In a few short years, George Best unconsciously redrew our relationship with footballers, the first global football superstar. Like Muhammad Ali, the only comparable sporting figure of his generation, he transcended sport.
Nicknamed ‘El Beatle’, after dismantling Eusebio’s Benfica 5-1 in 1966, Best was the first footballer to become a cultural phenomenon. He played and lived life in glorious technicolour, when most of his teammates and the world around him still seemed in black and white.
His colossal teammate Bill Foulkes was still a miner for two years after he made his United debut, only jacking it in after he became an England international. Best could not be living a more different life.
Within a couple of years of making the first team, he was on Top of the Pops, owning nightclubs and fashion boutiques, and driving around in a Lotus E-Type. No player before had captured the public's imagination off the pitch as well as on it quite like Best.
He was as big a cultural icon as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, epitomising the sudden emergence of a youth pop culture in the 1960s that would define and shape the rest of the twentieth century.
Long before Eric declared, “I am not a man, I am Cantona”, Best was the original otherworldly spirit, a man who played the game of football, and the game of life, by his own rules.
Best was also key to spreading the Red gospel far beyond Manchester, turning the world into a Red planet. He was the final piece in the jigsaw of Busby’s last great team.
He made The Holy Trinity complete and set United up for the best of times. After Best emerged, United enjoyed the club’s most successful four seasons to date, winning two league titles (1964/65, 1966/67) and, most poignantly, a decade on from the sorrow and loss of Munich, the European Cup in 1968, when Best dribbled through on goal and round the keeper before rolling the ball into an empty net.
Still only 22, he won the Ballon D’or that year. Much of the romance that is integral to the enduring global appeal of the club, the ‘Manchester United way’ that is built into the fabric of Old Trafford, was indelibly forged and cemented in those years, with George added his own brush strokes with a flourish.
The legendary sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, who sadly died in 2019, described Best as having ‘feet as sensitive as pickpocket's hands… his control of the ball under the most violent pressure was hypnotic. The bewildering repertoire of feints and swerves, sudden stops and demoralising turns, exploited a freakish elasticity of limb and torso, tremendous physical strength and resilience for so slight a figure, and balance that would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple.'
Most football fans are romantics at heart, United fans more than most, and naturally gravitate towards those who are capable of performing at the very highest level on the pitch while still exhibiting flaws and vulnerabilities in their personality.
Best personified this. Despite being a god on the pitch, the maverick who could do things by instinct that other footballers could only dream about, he was still hampered by neuroses.
While everyone else wanted to live in a Georgie Best world, the childlike footballing genius at the eye of the storm was the one man who sometimes wanted to escape the pressure of the Georgie Best world.
There was no guidebook to how to handle this level of fame. No precedent. No-one at Manchester United, even Busby, knew quite how to handle this. Off the pitch, Manchester was changing, from an industrial city to a pop city, and Best was the personification of this on the pitch.
In Morrissey’s acerbic autobiography, Best is one of the few individuals the former Smiths singer speaks highly of, being drawn to Best’s rebellious streak and refusal to conform. Compared to other ‘arbitrarily illiterate’ footballers, Best is ‘clever and witty’. He is the ‘shocking new’.
‘It is the physical and facial glamor of George Best that gains him so much love and hate, for everyone has what he has. My father takes me to see George Best play at Old Trafford, and as I see the apocalyptic disturber of the peace swirl across the pitch, I faint. I am eight years old. Squinting in the sun, it is all too much for me, and I remember my father’s rasp as he dragged my twisted body through the crowd and out into the street, causing him to miss the rest of the match.’
Manchester United, so much to answer for.
As Oscar Wilde once put it, football ‘is hardly suitable for delicate boys’. Ian Brown, lead singer of The Stone Roses, whose song ‘This Is The One’ is played before every match at Old Trafford, was another young Red transfixed by Best, and in the late 60s would hang around outside his Edwardia shop.
“When I was seven or eight we used to go into town and he had a boutique on Bridge Street next to the barber. That was one of our haunts, hanging outside his boutique, waiting for him. I remember him pulling up in a yellow Lotus Europa with a blonde. There was a sweetshop round the corner and a few times George got us kids a bag of toffees like Fruit Salads and Black Jacks and said, ‘You can't hang here all day, lads.’”
Best was the first to admit he had his demons: "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.”
Even movie star Elizabeth Taylor was moved to sympathise with his plight, sagaciously telling the Observer in 1972: "It's a hell of a thing for a lad from his background, of his educational standard, whose life was just football. To become an international name, to have girls chasing after him as if he was a pop star or something… it takes a miracle not to become confused.
"At one point, when he was thinking of quitting and he didn't know where to go or who to look to, Richard and I almost sent him a letter to say, 'If you feel like getting away from it all, would you like to come and stay with us, a couple of old pros in the art of getting away?' But we thought maybe he'd think we were nuts and it would be an imposition. He's obviously very vulnerable, and I think a lot of his bravado is covering up a deep shyness. Overnight stardom is a bloody difficult thing to cope with."
By the early 70s, Best later admitted: “I’d lost all my enthusiasm for football. I wasn’t looking forward to games any more because I didn’t want to go out and get stuffed 4-0 by teams who wouldn’t have held a candle to Manchester United two or three years earlier.”
Very few players have been able to hold a candle to Best since. He did say of Cantona, "I'd give all the champagne I've ever drunk to be playing alongside him in a big European match at Old Trafford.”
Doubtless he would have loved playing alongside the ginger prince Scholes, and having said he always looked for Paddy Crerand’s name first on the team sheet, he’d have appreciated having Robson or Keane alongside him.
Shortly before he died, he said of the teenage Ronaldo: “There have been a few players described as the new George Best over the years, but this is the first time it's been a compliment to me.”
United have been blessed with some iconic, and many great footballers down the years, but when it comes to pure, natural talent, he still stands apart.
Charlton legend, Law King, George Best. Giggs virtuoso, Scholes genius, George Best. Cantona dieu, Ronaldo phenomenon, George Best.
“They'll forget all the rubbish when I've gone and they'll remember the football,” George himself said. “Pele called me the greatest footballer in the world. That is the ultimate salute to my life.”
This article, written by United fan and journalist Luke Bainbridge, originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Inside United, the club's official magazine.