"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."
George Best 1946-2006
George Best tells the story of the night his date was Miss World, the evening had been spent in the casino where his numbers had come up consistently. Eventually he retired to the hotel bedroom and ordered champagne. The waiter brought the champagne into a room in which George stood by a scantily clad Miss World while the bed was piled high with £20 notes.
As he uncorked the bottle the waiter said, "Mr Best, I have always wanted to ask you a question. Where did it all go wrong?"
That question sums up the enigma of George Best. The boy with more footballing talent than anyone who ever lived on this planet - sorry Pele - the playboy, the life and soul of the party but equally the one whose life was tragically cut short through the excesses of that life-style. Best said of himself, "I spent most of my money on booze, women and fast cars. I squandered the rest".
George Best is of my generation. I lived through his career. I saw him play in the flesh about 10 times and countless games on TV. As I write this, the memories come flooding back. His finest hour was the 1968 European Cup Final (before it was called the Champions League). Manchester United beat Benfica 4-1 to become the first English team to win the European Cup. Best scored the winning goal in extra time with his trade-mark take it round the keeper and side-foot it into the net. By that stage, Best had already helped United win the League twice.
George Best used to score direct from corners, bending it wickedly into the top corner. I saw him do it for Northern Ireland against Albania. Bobby Robson once described this as a fluke. A week or two later, George's United met Bobby Robson's Ipswich. A corner was awarded. Best put it straight into the net and then wandered over towards the Ipswich bench to wave to Bobby. Fair play to Bobby who stood up and applauded!
Other memories include United's away second leg European tie at Benfica, recently European Cup winners. Protecting a one goal lead from the first leg, Sir Matt Busby asked the team to keep it tight for 20 minutes. Best was't listening. Within those first 20 minutes he scored twice and set United on the way to a 5-1 win. Then there were his six goals in an FA Cup tie against Northampton Town. I was at Wembley in 1970 where he had a 1 on 1 with Gordon Banks. Banks covered the near post to make Best go across him, Best beat him on his near post!
Sir Alex Ferguson in a tribute referred to the 1967 Northern Ireland v Scotland game where Best was marked by Celtic's Tommy Gemmell, the best right-back in Britain at the time. I was in the crowd that day and I don't think Gemmell got the ball off Best once that day!
The genius of Best the footballer was in his dribbling. He used to beat defenders by his pace and change of direction, often jinking right, then left, then right and away, leaving the defender with what Pat Crerand used to call 'twisted blood'. He was not an out and out goalscorer yet he scored 28 league goals one season. It was the variety of his goals. As I said his trade-mark was to take it round the keeper, often leaving him on his backside. There was a lob volley against Pat Jennings, the one against Chelsea where he dispossessed Eddie McCready on the goal-line near the corner flag and chipped Peter Bonetti from an impossible angle. There were headers against Benfica, long shots with either foot, inside of foot, outside of foot...
As I watched Steven Gerrard in a recent Champions League Game have a 1 on 1 with the keeper and shoot from the edge of the penalty area and miss, I thought that Best would have take it right in and probably round the goalkeeper. There was no one better at that.
He had the cheek - and the ability - to try things. Like scoring direct from corners. In an international Gordon Banks was once preparing to kick the ball out of his hands with Best standing beside him. As Banks threw the ball up to kick it, Best flicked it over his head and put it in the net. It was disallowed but perhaps because it was too unexpected.
When a Fulham game was getting a pit dull, he went over and tackled teammate, Rodney Marsh!
Years ago Gerald Williams did a BBC Radio programme called A word with Williams. Best was one of his guests. In that interview he spoke about the loneliness and other problems of his time at Manchester United. "I have been saying for years that there is a need for someone to look after young professionals but I do not know one club that has ever done anything about it. I am talking about someone, not necessarily connected with the club. If you have a problem and it is a little bit personal you don't want to go and talk to a trainer or coach or a manager or even other player. You want someone who can advise you, someone away from the playing side, away from the club family itself. I think that is why so many players get into trouble - they have no one to advise them, they have no one to turn to when things go wrong".