Few diamonds are perfect. Most of them, no matter how valuable or majestic, come with some imperfection. Northern Ireland’s greatest ever sportsman, born seventy years ago today, was no different. In the words of former team mate Harry Gregg, he was “a diamond, with a little flaw there.”
It’s ten years since the all too early passing of George Best, and fans still regularly visit his grave, fondly remembering the genius of the man; reminiscing on his quirk and charm, and perhaps, most of all, lamenting how his eccentricity tailed off into self-destruction and tragedy.
Memories of Best’s funeral, a large state-like affair, where tens of thousands of people lined the streets and the Stormont estate in a nation-wide outpouring of grief, are now faint. TV personality Eamon Holmes led a service which the Best family had insisted be a non-religious affair. The service, like the man it celebrated, united the country. Protestants and Catholics standing side by side, a final gift from a man to a City that loved him. In the days after, the council had to take unprecedented measures around the graveside, both helping ensure that as many people as possible could visit it, and guaranteeing that its sanctity be protected. Now however, though the visitors still come, it is a more humble scene. Plot S295, beside mother Annie and father Dickie, and just nine graves away from where his grandparents are buried. A simple resting place, his legacy is perhaps as much oh what could have been, than what was.
George Best remains one of Northern Ireland’s most famous sons. In his early teenage years he was discovered by Bob Bishop, a Manchester United scout, who immediately rang then manager Matt Busby, with the simple message: “Boss, I think I’ve found you a genius”.
For a time, it seemed that simple. Once at Manchester United Best started quick and only got better. A magical on field relationship with Bobby Charlton and Dennis law created a special time in the clubs history, and in Best’s career; culminating with the magical night of May 29 at Wembley, the fulfilment of all Best’s potential, as he scored in a 4-1 win over Benfica in the final of the European cup.
Things, however, did not remain like this for long. It is the greatest tragedy of Best’s career – and a great footballing tragedy in general – that he only remained at the top of world football for six years.
Former team mate, Harry Gregg, laments that there could have been so much more. His talent was ‘a thing of beauty,’ Gregg said, ‘and we didn't get it all. He didn't get it all either.’
Sir Matt Busby, regarded as one of football’s greatest ever managers, had himself struggled to control Best, but when Busby left, the managers that followed struggled even more. Best lost focused, missed training, and spiralled out of control. Six goals in an FA cup tie against Northampton in 1970 is a performance that remains in the canons of footballing history, but it was a display that was an anomaly, rather than the norm, at the time. Days like this had become rare. At the mere age of 25 Best’s days at the top were over, and soon his genius, rarely found elsewhere in the world of football, began appearing in the colours of Stockport County, Bournemouth, Fulham and the San Jose Earthquakes; a small stage compared to his talent. He will be remembered as one of the greatest (Best by name, Best by nature), but former team mate, Harry Gregg, laments that there could have been so much more. His talent was ‘a thing of beauty,’ Gregg said, ‘and we didn’t get it all. He didn’t get it all either.’
The simple fact seems that he never put his football success on a pedestal above joy in other areas of life. Never hiding from the fact that a sportsman’s life was not a priority, he famously said: “In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life.” It was a glamorous descent. Fuelled by champagne he lived a life away from the training pitch and amongst beach bars, constantly, it seemed, in the company of Miss Universe contestants. The flaws that stunted his natural footballing brilliance, and brought him to a life of socialite binge drinking only seemed to add to his charm. Ex-wife Angie admits that he was a terror, but also insists she loved him to bits. For the public it was the same: it seemed the same life that endangered him could not stop him from being endearing. Although clearly with a dark side, he was always loved by the public.
He will be remembered as a footballer. Were there times when he will have wished he would go down as more of a footballer, remembered more singularly for his achievements on the fields, swapped infamous front page headlines for more famous goals? We will never know, and for those who loved him most, they will say this was simply never meant to be.