This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 22/05/20
Maradona good. Pelé better. George Best. You’ve heard it countless times.
You’ve also heard the fable of his discovery. "Boss, I think I've found you a genius," proclaimed scout Bob Bishop to Manchester United manager Matt Busby of the prodigious 15-year-old back in 1961.
George Best was much much more. He was the gold standard, the template, however crude that outline may have later become. The jewel in that 1968 European Cup-winning team. He has been the benchmark for every exciting, dynamic Devil to have followed in his wake: Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, ‘Was he better than George?’
You’ve heard the long-heralded story when, on 7 February 1970, George Best got a staggering six goals as United ran out 8-2 winners at Northampton Town in a memorable FA Cup tie, one of only two Red Devils ever to hit that standard in a single match.
You all know him as part of that Holy triumvirate, each a Ballon d’Or winner, immortalised in the staring statue in front of the Theatre of Dreams on Sir Matt Busby Way that tourists from all corners pay homage to and fans instinctively salute. On the far left as you look up, his arm around his best mucka Denis Law’s waist. His former gaffer, opposite, stares down on him.
Best experienced once-in-a-generation reverence, rarely experienced by a British footballer. The formula was virtually the best and worst elements of Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham. You might not know that sales of Cookstown Sausages rocketed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in Georgie’s pomp at Old Trafford, after he consistently told television viewers that the brand’s products are "the Best family sausages".
Following his death in 2005, a memorial was placed outside the pork factory in the County Tyrone town joining the plethora of tributes that followed from his passing, aged just 59. There’s of course the statue in the centre of his homeland of Belfast, and in September 2006, a year after his death, Belfast City Airport was renamed in Best's honour as well as a plane that completed a flyby over Old Trafford.
You’ve also heard that when he wasn’t dazzling on the pitch, the twice-married, twice-divorced Belfast Boy was probably dining with a Miss World.
Or Joan Collins. Best’s teammate Patrick ‘Paddy’ Crerand - also a member of that illustrious United era won the English League title twice, the FA Cup and had unprecedented success in Europe under Busby - would later recount the tale of Best’s escapade with the future-Alexis Carrington.
“[TV presenter] Michael Parkinson was a big United fan,” Crerand would regale in his after-dinner speaking, “He had a TV programme running in Manchester and he wanted me to go on it. I said as a joke I would only go on if he got Joan Collins.”.
“One night Michael phoned me to say he’d booked Joan Collins. I went on the show, she was a lovely lady but she wanted to meet George Best. So I took George to the television centre, introduced them and never saw either of them again!”
Two games against Chelsea in the 1970-71 season brought the beauty and the beast in Best, via a series of events just under two years before his acrimonious departure from the club.
October saw a League Cup clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford, a game in which Best danced a merry jig around the Blues despite flying, flailing and ferocious tackles - mainly from Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris - with the United man gazumping the goalkeeper to cooly slot in a 2-1 win.
Matt Busby, having initially stepped down in 1969, was back in the chair by the December for a short-lived second spell, retaking the reins from his self-appointed successor Wilf McGuiness. But less than a fortnight into the New Year two months after Best’s brilliant display, United had to cope without ‘El Beatle’ with Chelsea the opponents again in a First Division fixture.
Though a goal apiece from Alan Gowling and William Morgan eventually allowed the Red Devils to walk away from Stamford Bridge with the spoils, Best had ghosted the game having not even turned up in west London.
He was by now 24-years-old, knee-deep in a hedonistic quagmire. A symbol of the swinging sixties who hadn’t yet escaped the decade. Best had missed the train down to London along with the rest of the squad on Saturday January 9, purportedly due to a phobia of railways, though more likely with more misadventures with alcohol.
He later caught a service to the capital. However, fornication took favour over football. Though Best admitted that games against Chelsea were the highlights of his seasons, Best’s attention had been diverted by the young Irish actress Sinead Cusack. Cusack had recently starred in a film with Peter Sellers, was later married to actor and voice of Scar in The Lion King, Jeremy Irons, and was the sister of Niamh, the actress who memorably starred in Heartbeat apposite Nick Berry, and as Beatrix Potter in the early 1990s series ‘The World of Peter Rabbit And Friends’.
That weekend in January ‘71, after the train journey down south, Best wasn’t in SW6 lacing up his boots. He was ringing the doorbell of Sinead’s flat in Islington for a ‘lost weekend’ with the Gaelic beauty. He wouldn’t emerge for four days.
Best explained in his autobiography titled Blessed, “Chelsea was the fixture I loved playing more than any other. Big club, big players but it didn't interest me at all although I did fancy a weekend in London.
"Here I was, one of the world's most famous footballers and I just decided not to play an important game and instead went out on a date.
"It's hard for me to explain what state of mind I was in to do such a thing.
"I just felt the whole world was on top of me when I woke up and realised I had missed the train.
"I had arranged to see Sinead after the match so I saw no reason not to go through with that part of my plans."
Of course, the press would eventually get wind of the set-up and, in scenes later reminiscent of the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts smooch-fest Notting Hill, besieged Sinead’s modest flat.
"She had been expecting a quiet weekend," Best said, “But instead she became a prisoner in her own home for four days...People started turning up outside the flat chanting my name. When I turned on the TV to take our minds off it, we were forced to watch updates of our situation on the news.
"It was surreal.
"Poor old Sinead couldn't understand it.
"She must have thought she was harbouring a mass murderer."
Best would later be fined two weeks’ wages by his furious club and manager, and by the conclusion of 1972, Best would have left Manchester United under a cloud, but the reverence for the OG number seven is felt through the terraces and harmonised in the Stretford End to this day, his endless quotes continuously eulogised. "In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol,” he once said.
"It was the worst 20 minutes of my life."
The tragedy and self-infliction of George Best has been well documented. He was an almost peerless, eye-catching comet of a player, attractive but in the wrong circumstance, ultimately destructive.
Despite his extra-curricular activities, Best had always hoped his legacy would prevail. “I know that at the end of it all people will remember me first and foremost for what I could do on the field,” he commented to an documentary interviewer.
“Hopefully people will always remember the football side of it and why the crowds came.”