Death of a legend

November 28, 2005
By Derek Rae
(Archive)

While driving through the snowy backroads of Breda in southern Holland on Friday afternoon, I heard news to match the grim wintry picture being painted around me.

Empics / PeterRobinsonGeorgie: Simply the Best. But never able to prove it on the biggest stage.

The host on Netherlands Radio 1 confirmed that George Best had passed away. We all knew it was only a matter of time, but still I couldn't help feeling overwhelming sadness; and not because the snow was turning into a particularly menacing form of ice.

Let me make it clear that I've never met George Best: not once have I been in his company. But that's hardly the point.

For people like me, of a certain age, Bestie was the footballer we all wanted to be in the early Seventies. I remember the fights we used to have in the school playground over him, ahead of five-a-side games. It simply wasn't good enough to be Denis Law or Jimmy Johnstone - magnificent footballing talents and both Scottish to boot.

No, Georgie Best was the greatest, the superstar of his time, a player capable of performing super-human feats of skill on the pitch. We were too young and too naïve to know anything of his off the park weaknesses. Besides, it was his ability to decide a football match single-handedly that intoxicated and excited us.

Best came along just at the time when television sets were becoming standard features of British living rooms. People who watch me on ESPNSoccernet Press Pass every week might find it hard to believe, but I'm not ancient enough to remember him in 1968, when he helped Manchester United become the first English team to win the European Cup.

Only later in life did I have the chance to watch videos of his performance against Benfica. Even more captivating, was his virtuoso display against the same Portuguese club two years before.

In any case live televised matches back in the Sixties and Seventies were rare. What we did get though, were regular servings of George's greatest moments on the burgeoning football highlights programmes on the BBC and ITV. It was impossible not to be spellbound by the range of Best's strengths.

For George Best, the dribbling, the litheness, the nutmegging, the scoring when it looked impossible, it all came so naturally. To put him into perspective, Bestie for me was Cruyff, Dalglish and Ronaldinho rolled into one.

Perhaps the renowned British talk show host Michael Parkinson is correct to argue that being so innately gifted as a footballer ended up working against him on a personal level. Very often it seems bright people get bored all too quickly.

It's inevitable that as we reflect on Best's life, we view him as a double-edged human being. The excessive drinking, the womanising, the years of waste will always mean that for some people, there will forever be an asterisk placed against the son of a Belfast shipyard worker.

Some of you will remember Best's 'now you see him, now you don't antics' during his time as a World Cup pundit. It was anyone's guess during coverage of the 1982 competition whether he was going to turn up at all in the London studios.

Then, there was the infamous interview on the Terry Wogan show in 1990. Previously, George Best had been viewed as a flawed genius, a sympathetic figure who was a bit of a lad. Now here he was, completely sozzled, live on the BBC during peak viewing time. The Wogan appearance did little to enhance his public image.

But we forgave Bestie because we recognized him for what he was; one of the greatest footballers of any generation.

At the World Cup Finals in Italy that same year, I had the privilege of sharing commentary on BBC Radio with another of my boyhood heroes, the afore-mentioned Denis Law. Bestie's name came up in conversation hundreds of times in Turin, Genoa and Rome that summer.

Denis, himself one of the all-time greats, worshipped him as an individual player and a teammate in the Manchester United collective. You could spot the tears in the eyes of the former Scotland forward when interviewed recently upon leaving the bedside of his old Manchester United comrade.

On Friday as I trudged through the Breda snow and the wind began to freshen, my mind flashed back to 16 April, 1980. Why that date? Best had signed for Hibernian a few months before. Finally, with the arrival of spring in Aberdeen, Georgie came to our ground.

While most of us were there to support the Dons that afternoon, there were more than a few, who wanted to be able to say that they saw George Best in action. By then, the great footballer had put on a few extra pounds, but we knew we were watching a legend.

I would prefer to remember George Best the footballer, as opposed to George Best, the pop star, the 'fifth Beatle.'

As an artist on the pitch, few will ever come close.

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