On this day in 1946, George Best, the son of Dickie and Anne Best was born in a Belfast Hospital. The pointless argument will forever continue as to who is the greatest footballer of all time and for me, George Best is up there with Pele, Maradona, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Stefano, Cryuff and others in elite footballing company.
As stated though, it is pointless to nominate the “greatest” because it is not possible to compare players from different eras. As English Premier League pundit Andy Gray once suggested, could (Lionel Messi) “do it on a cold winter’s night at Stoke”. How would Pele have coped on the mud bath at The Baseball Ground home of Derby County and without modern training and sports science, would Cristiano Ronaldo be the almost perfect physically structured footballer that he is? We wonder too, would Maradona have been as effective and had such masterly ball control and touch had he worn 1930’s vintage clodhopper football boots and had to play with a heavy, laced waterlogged leather ball?
Between them, Messi and Ronaldo have won numerous Ballon d’Ors, the ultimate individual award for a footballer but they have also been fortunate to have played in club teams, consistently bristling with very talented players. As their success at international level has not matched that of when playing with their club teams, could it be argued that they owe much to their talented clubmates as it is certainly easier for an individual to impress when surrounded by class players? Likewise Alfredo Di Stefano at Real Madrid had an outstanding supporting cast, including the Hungarian “Galloping Major”, Ferenc Puskas. We need to concede that there is no level playing field to rank the numerous great footballers from any period of football history and therefore there will never be consensus.
Right ! As I have now established unequivocally that the greatest footballer of all time cannot singularly be determined, who is the player that I would most want to watch if I was down to the last 90 minutes of my life – my last two halves of football on this earth? My choice would be today’s birthday boy, George Best. This opinion is not based solely on the skill factor, although George and all the others mentioned earlier had it in abundance, but measured by the player’s excitement factor, poise, style, audacity and the ability to do the unexpected, in short, entertainment value. George Best was an entertainer, a showman and if you paid your admission and George was on the park, entertainment was guaranteed.
George’s career took off in 1964 almost simultaneously with that of The Beatles. If you were watching Manchester United at Old Trafford at that time, as soon as Best received the ball, instantly thousands of girls erupted into shrill screams and screeches. In the mid nineteen sixties, this type of behavior was usually reserved for four mop top musicians from down the road at Liverpool and a number of blossoming copycat pop bands. Before the soprano voiced crowd could faint, the slight, dark haired leprechaun in football boots had taken off, often through the Manchester mud, on a mazy run. The Irishman would glide past opponents, skipping over ruthless challenges with the grace and balance of a footballing Rudolf Nureyev. On many an occasion, Best would beat a defender and go through the exercise again, teasing his opponent for having the temerity to try and tackle him.
Though a modest and shy man off the field, on the football pitch George Best was forever the showman. He once beat an opponent by gently playing a one – two off the back of another defender lying injured on the ground. With time running out in an FA Cup tie for Manchester United against Burnley, George’s boot came off but he continued with one boot, laying on a pass for an equalizer with his stockinged foot and then supplying the pass for the winning goal. All this while playing without his left boot !
English first division football in the nineteen sixties was a tough gig. Hatchet men such as Chelsea’s Ron (“Chopper”) Harris and Leeds United’s Norman (“Norman Bites Yer Legs”) Hunter took no prisoners and were given more than enough leeway by referees. Best never shirked any challenges and took delight in showing his mastery of the toughest defenders of that time. Though not playing as an out and out striker, the Irishman proved to be not only a great goal scorer (he was Manchester United’s leading marksman for five consecutive seasons) but indeed a scorer of great goals.
George Best saved much of his audacity for goalkeepers. With a flick of George’s slim hips, he would have goalkeepers, clutching at thin air as he shimmied and strolled around them. Shooting for goal would have been the safer, more orthodox option but orthodoxy was not part of the George Best modus operandi. Two of England’s greatest custodians, Peter Bonetti of Chelsea and Gordon Banks of Stoke City were just two to succumb to the Best trickery. Never a dull moment with George.
George’s boldness and torment of goalkeepers peaked in May 1971 playing for Northern Ireland against England at Windsor Park, Belfast. Again, the goalkeeper was Gordon Banks whose kicking technique was to lob the ball with his hand into the air prior to clearing it downfield. Alert to Banks’ method, as the England goalkeeper released the ball, Best nipped in and flicked it goalward away from bemused Banks and then nodded the ball into the net. The “goal” was disallowed most likely because the referee just did not see the incident and to this day Irish supporters claim that they and George Best were robbed of a goal created by the supreme invention of their footballing idol.
It is unfortunate that so many of George Best’s goals were not filmed but in 1969 when Manchester United beat Northampton 8-2 in an FA Cup tie, the TV cameras captured all ten goals, with George Best scoring six himself. George completed his double hat trick by dummying around Northampton goalkeeper Kim Book and walking the ball into the empty net as the bemused Book sat in the muddy goalmouth.The pinnacle of George Best’s football career came just six days after his 22nd birthday in the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley Stadium against Portugal’s Benfica. Blessed with utmost self confidence and seemingly devoid of nerves, with scores level at 1-1 in extra time, a long clearance by Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney was flicked on to Best thirty five metres from the Benfica goal. Instinctively George slotted the ball through a defender’s legs and with only goalkeeper Henrique to beat in the most prestigious match in world club football, rather than drive the ball into the goal, as calm as you like, Best opted to skip around the stranded goalkeeper and stroke the ball into the net. This goal sunk Benfica and United scored twice more to secure their first European title.
One of George Best’s most memorable goals was scored in January 1971 against one of the best British goalkeepers and international team mate of Best, Pat Jennings. Playing against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford, Jennings punched a clearance in the direction of Best who was lurking just inside the crowded penalty area. The Manchester United wizard cushioned the ball on his chest and in one motion lobbed it gently over four Spurs defenders, including Jennings into the net. Goals don’t come much better or more audacious than that.
George Best was the complete footballer. He had incredible footballing ability and above all else, cheek. George was not just the player, he was the performer. Much loved throughout the football world, the handsome, quiet Irishman charmed fans as readily as he charmed female company. Ultimately, fame and alcohol brought Best’s illustrious football career and later his life, to a premature end but I will always be grateful that I was able to witness the career of a magical footballer. Is he the best player of all time? Who knows? But as former Manchester City manager Malcom Allison once said “George Best was special – all the others were just footballers.”
Happy birthday Georgie.
© David Jack
22nd May 2020