George Best: An Unadulterated Genius
"I think I've found you a genius." - Man Utd Scout Bob Bishop
These words, sent by telegram from Manchester United scout Bob Bishop to manager Matt Busby, were the beginning of a whirlwind decade for George Best, who was discovered by Bishop at the age of 15 playing for his local boys' club in Belfast. Within five years he had become a talisman for a united team desperate for European success. For fans of soccer too young to have seen him play, Best is the sort of legend that fathers and grandfathers talk about whenever they hear the names Ronaldo or Messi thrown around in conversation about all-time greats.
"You never saw Bestie, there's never been one like him," they might have said, before chaining you to the couch to watch a documentary on him.
The thing about Best, though: while many tales of athletes of yore are somewhat mitigated when you actually watch highlights, Best's legend only grows. On the ball, if not the greatest, he was certainly the smoothest. Watch him dribbling through opponents, and one might easily be fooled into thinking he's not running, but somehow floating. For modern football fans, combine the pace of Gareth Bale, the finesse of Messi & the power of Ronaldo, you get George Best.
Nicknamed as “El Beatle” or 'fifth Beatle' by the media, in an interview with BBC he was asked “You, Keith Moon or Oliver Reed. Who was the biggest hell-raiser?” and pat came the Belfast Boy wonder’s reply
“If you consider how the other two ended up, they must have done a bit more hell-raising than me! I’m the only one still alive”
A razor sharp wit, killer instinct and an orgasmic personality raised quite a few eyebrows and dropped a lot of dresses.
The phenomenon of George Best Pop Star began with a single match. By 1966, Best, still only 19, had become one of Manchester United's key players. Eight years earlier, one of United's greatest teams, known as the Busby Babes, had its run tragically cut short when a plane carrying them crashed in Munich. Eusebio, considered Europe's finest player by many at that time. In the 1960s, away games were almost impossible to win. The travel was far more taxing, the refereeing far more biased, and thus Busby instructed his players to remain cautious and try to preserve the slim one goal advantage that carried over from the first leg in Manchester. George Best had other ideas and he took just 12 minutes to go past Benfica and that included 2 goals of which 1of them is regarded as number 3rd in FIFA’s greatest solo efforts. His good friend and Manchester City player Mike Summerbee, said of the performance,
"When you're a genius like George Best, it comes to the forefront one day. In that particular game, people sort of stood back and said, 'hang on.'"
While Best's play on the field continued to improve, his fame off of it rose exponentially. He represented an unprecedented opportunity for advertisers. A quiet, shy, and youthfully handsome figure, Best's talent, his love of partying, and the increasing power of celebrity in the media made him one of the most visible stars in the United Kingdom. Soon, Best was pulling in upwards of £100,000 a year through a staggering number of endorsements. The kid was everywhere, stumping for the Best clothes, the Best clubs, even the Best sausages. He started being followed around the clock, his house surrounded by media and adoring fans.
In May 1968, only a week after his twenty-second birthday, Best scored the goal that finally won United the European Cup, with another legendary individual effort, in extra-time. He was Europe's most famous footballer, and became the youngest ever Player of the Year. Best scored a promising 4 goals in 17 appearances in his first full season (1963/64) and at the age of 18 in the 1964/65 season he scored an impressive 10 goals in 41 appearances. A great return from a player that had so much potential on show. The thing with George Best is, he was literally the complete player. Right foot, left foot, headers, tracking back, tackling - he could do it all. He was also the provider of some excellent through balls and the scorer of great goals. Most noticeably his greatest asset was his sublime dribbling ability that only a few players (Garrincha, Cruyff and Maradona) are born with. Best’s career never reached the heights of the 1967/68 season, both performance wise and in goals. The demise of the genius would also coincide with the demise of Manchester United who would be relegated in the 1973/74 season – a mere six years after being crowned European Champions. There where iconic moments later in his career such as the goal against Sheffield United in the 1971/72 season, where Best beat a whole host of players before rifling the ball past the keeper. His celebration would become an iconic memory of a sheer genius.
Best's rise to stardom came at a time when celebrity did not necessarily entail the intense scrutiny it does today. But perhaps that scrutiny would have served him well. Perhaps the overwhelming love of George Best stopped people from placing sufficient weight on the uglier side of his character—choosing instead to emphasize the idea of Best as footballer, partier, and heartthrob. His womanizing remained largely tabloid fare, but only in service of glorification: he dated two Miss World contestants. Legend has it that Best and one of the Miss Worlds once won thousands of pounds at the racetrack. Back in the hotel, they ordered champagne. The waiter arrived in the room to find best, the Miss World, and stacks of cash. Remembering Best's early days, he asked the footballer, "Mr. Best, where did it all go wrong?"
Probably his most iconic quote answers the bill perfectly-
"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."
Some of the questions he answered in an interview:
How would you have reacted if you had scored against United to send them down, like Denis Law?
Probably in the same way – I would have been absolutely sick about it, but I wouldn’t have been in that position as I could never have played for City! I know it was different for Denis as he had played at Maine Road before and he wanted to stay in Manchester where his family was settled. But Denis is a united fan at heart – he supports the club and his daughter, Diana, works there too. He tries to laugh it off, but he’s still gutted about that goal.
• Is there anyone who you think was a better footballer than you?
In a recent survey of Manchester United fans, I came runner-up to Eric Cantona as the club’s greatest ever player, but I think that was just the kids talking. If you had asked an older generation then I probably would have won. I have always been mentioned in the same breath as Cruyff, Pele and Maradona, and that’s without ever having played in the World Cup. It is a big compliment that these players themselves recognize me too. I remember seeing some footage of Maradona completely freaking out when they asked him how good I was, and then, of course, Pele said he thought I was the greatest ever player. I have always thought I was the best ever player – that’s the way you have to look at it. I have never looked at another player and felt inferior.
• When did you first realize you might have a drink problem?
Only last year. I knew I had a problem, but there is a difference between knowing and admitting, and I would never admit it. I finally realized last year when I had to go into hospital after they literally had to pick me off the floor. Now, every three months, I have an implant of drugs in my stomach that stops me drinking, so even if I wanted to I couldn’t. It actually gets easier as time goes by.
Probably the banner which is still flying against the Wind in front of the Stretford End is true:
Pele Good, Maradona Better, and George Best