…the rest I squandered €
“Tom Finney once said George Best was, by far, the best, most complete footballer he had ever seen, a view echoed by Bill Shankly. What was he like? You had to be there to appreciate the brilliance, the imagination, the balance, the commitment, the goals. Most of all, he had the belief.
In 1976, Northern Ireland were drawn against Holland in Rotterdam as one of their group qualifying matches for the World Cup. Back then the reporters stayed at the same hotel as the team and travelled with them on the coach to the game. As it happened I sat beside George on the way to the stadium that evening.
Holland – midway between successive World Cup final appearances – and Johan Cruyff were at their peak at the time. George wasn’t. I asked him what he thought of the acknowledged world number one and he said he thought the Dutchman was outstanding. ‘Better than you?’ I asked. George looked at me and laughed. ‘You’re kidding aren’t you? I tell you what I’ll do tonight… I’ll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.’ And we both laughed at the thought.
A couple of hours later the Irish players were announced one by one on to the pitch. Pat Jennings, as goalkeeper, was first out of the tunnel to appreciative applause. Best, as No 11, was last. ‘And now,’ revved up the PA guy, ‘Number 11, Georgie [long pause] Best.’ And out trotted George. Above him, a beautiful blonde reached over with a single, long-stemmed red rose.
Given his nature, his training and his peripheral vision there was no way he was going to miss her or the rose, so he stopped, trotted back, reached up to take the flower, kissed her hand and ran out on to the pitch waving his rose at the punters as the applause grew even louder.
Five minutes into the game he received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff’s feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.”
“When considering the qualities of players like Best, who operated at the sharp end, you have to remember the Sixties was the time when forwards were not a protected species. In fact, it was open season for defenders, who were given carte blanche to kick opponents.
British football in those days was no place for players of a nervous disposition. The fainthearted had nowhere to hide. At Highbury, Peter Storey awaited, at Chelsea, ‘Chopper’ Harris clattered all comers, Tommy Smith bossed Anfield and at Elland Road, if Norman Hunter didn’t get you then there was a fair chance Billy Bremner would, and there was always Jack Charlton on hand to mop up.
Best had his card marked in his very first game. It was against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford and he was opposed by a feisty full-back called Graham Williams, who spent most of the first half trying to persuade George he was in the wrong job. Best in those days had the physique of a knitting needle but he took Williams on, even daring to nutmeg him, which was the equivalent of signing his own death warrant.
Ever after, when Williams met Best, he would ask him to stand still so he could study his face. “I want to know what you look like because all I’ve ever seen of you is your arse disappearing down the touchline,” he said.
Like all great players, the foundation of his talent was his balance. His low-slung way of running allowed him to ride the roughest passage as if equipped with stabilisers.
His speed often took him away from trouble before it could hinder him, and his stamina ensured that he was still operating flat-out when the opposition became heavy-legged. Those qualities were God-given, but what he built on that foundation is an example today’s players might take to heart.
The most naturally gifted Busby ever saw. When he was at his most sublime, he was unstoppable and irresistible. After a virtuoso performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the crowd stood and applauded him off the field. His love of showboating often led to frustration among team members who would spend the afternoon running into support positions, only to watch Best being indulgent.
In training, he kept the ball for so long they introduced two-touch football. Two touches and you gave the ball away. Best took one touch, then played the ball against the shins of an opponent, taking the return and setting himself up for another two. So they introduced one-touch football. Again, he played the first touch against the team-mate’s legs, took the rebound and, like a pinball wizard, cannoned his way through defence to goal.”