A rare brilliance that will never fade

He could shoot, dribble, pass, head and tackle. He symbolised a new era in society and for a time was football's supreme talent. As George Best approaches 50, Ken Jones recalls his genius
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The Independent Online
In a room referred to amusingly as my study, there is a painting of George Best by the distinguished artist, Harold Riley. Set against a crowded corner of the Stretford End at Old Trafford as it was in his heyday, Best is holding off a challenge from the Liverpool defender, Chris Lawler. Smoke hangs in the air giving him a wraith-like presence. It is a triumph.

Riley has Best to perfection: the dark Celtic features beneath an abundance of black hair, marvellous balance, powerful legs, supreme confidence.

When applied to Best, the word "great" ought to be in strong italics. If the Ulsterman is not the most thrillingly effective British footballer of all time, he is as close to it as we shall ever know. John Charles, the Welshman whose exploits for Juventus are still spoken of with awe in Italy, runs him close and a case can be made for such notables as Stanley Matthews, Denis Law, Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. But it is Best who still captures the imagination.

It is hard to believe that Best will turn 50 on Wednesday. As when Muhammad Ali and Pele reached that landmark in their lives, it sharpens an awareness of time's relentless passage, and for some of us older guys the bleak realisation of mortality.

The day Best finally disappeared from the game - his astonishing reflexes ravaged by booze, his zenith all too brief - it came home that we would never again see him accelerate past a befuddled defender, cut in and score, and then trot away while the crowd called the roll on yet another shattered reputation.

Best's feats are secure in the memories of all who saw them. The word that springs immediately to mind is exhilaration. "When George was playing alongside Law and Charlton, when they were at their peak, I don't think the Manchester United supporters fully realised what they were watching," Riley said. As a member of Manchester United's youth team in the 1950s - he chose a scholarship to the Slade over an offer to turn professional - Riley played alongside Edwards and thinks him perhaps the club's greatest- ever player.

"Because of the Munich tragedy we never learned how much Duncan could have achieved and I saw a completeness in him that I've never seen in any footballer apart from Pele," he said. "But that isn't to take anything away from George, who was quite brilliant."

Recently, Riley was asked to appear on a television programme that coincides with the week of Best's birthday. At first reluctant, he finally agreed to describe one of Best's goals - 178 in 466 appearances for United - selected from a collection of sketches. "In what I call my 'goal book' there is one that George scored against Chelsea," he said. "It isn't one of his more spectacular efforts, not one of those shots that often came when the rest of the team were cursing his refusal to part with the ball, not a gloriously brave header, but it highlighted everything George brought to the game."

After blocking Eddie McCreadie's attempted clearance, Best challenged again, turning the Scottish international back towards the goal-line. Keeping close, Best then intercepted a back pass and lobbed the goalkeeper. "In scoring that goal Best revealed tenacity, instinctive anticipation, speed, opportunism and accuracy, all the qualities of a truly great player," Riley said.

That he was is beyond all reasonable argument. Comparisons with one of Manchester United's present heroes, the immensely gifted Ryan Giggs, are pointless. "When I sketch Giggs I see a reed in the wind," Riley added. "Best's movements were more staccato and for a comparatively small man he was very dangerous in the air, so deceptively strong."

Ivan Ponting's excellent work Manchester United: Player by Player contains this sentence about Best: "George spent 11 seasons with United and for perhaps seven or eight of them gave so much pleasure, created so much that was beautiful and left so many undying memories that, certainly at this distance, it is churlish to cavil about short rations."

Sadly, Best would succumb to the frustration of playing in a spent team and the surfacing of genetic turmoil, his career undermined by one bizarre incident after another, the going-nowhere romances with actresses and beauty queens, the drinking sessions that led to alcoholism and eventually a prison sentence.

For an all too brief span, Best may well have been the game's supreme talent. He could shoot, dribble, pass, head and tackle; he was murderously quick; he was brave, bold, strong and disconcertingly cool. What more could you ask? Well, as Bobby Charlton (they were never close) once remarked, you could have asked him to turn up now and again. In a book we did together, Charlton said: "George became about as reliable as a rusty watch. If he showed up on time, it was an event. Sometimes he didn't bother to put in an appearance."

Football's first symbol of the pop age, Best's extravagant style, on and off the field, appealed mightily to a generation mutinying against traditional values and ideals but, within five seasons of being voted European Footballer of the Year in 1968, his first-class career was over. He was just 26 years old.

That was anathema to Charlton, who believes that Best's failure to establish himself fully as one of the game's great heroes contributed to a decline in British football. He thinks that Best would have lasted longer but for the effect that the Munich disaster in 1958 had on Matt Busby. "After losing a team, people he loved and almost his own life, Matt became understandably more philosophical, and George, who didn't look old enough to be out of school when he joined us three years later, was never really exposed to the discipline I experienced in my early days at Old Trafford.

"I could see the sense in allowing a player of George's genius to develop naturally but, once the wayward aspect of his nature showed itself, Matt should have been firmer with him. 'The rest will come in time,' Matt would say when ordering his staff not to tamper with George's progress."

It certainly did; not only memorable feats of skill and daring that added greatly to Manchester United's stature as one of the world's great football clubs, but the scandal, the bitter recriminations that would lead to a premature extinction of Best's career.

Charlton had little in common with Best beyond the colours of Manchester United. Seven years older, he had settled down to married life when Best gained the status of a pop star. It was all there: the Beatle haircut, trendy suits, pointed shoes, the white Jaguar; and the braceleted entourage of hangers-on who persuaded Best that conformity was for kicking into touch. "Sometimes during a pause in training I'd try to kid George about the previous night's activities," Charlton said. "I would invent the name of a night club, the Black Cat or something. 'How was it there?' I'd ask, but he never took any notice, just ran off."

Two of the most important elements in Best's game were blinding speed and exceptional change of pace. George Cohen, who was at right back when England won the World Cup in 1966, faced him on a number of occasions for Fulham. "Apart from being astonishingly skilful, George was very quick off the mark, which made him a handful in the penalty area. I don't think I ever came across anyone who managed to get so many steps into a short distance. I was quick and knew how to shunt wingers away from our goal. I could even do that with George and I remember Jimmy Langley, who was our other full-back at the time, having a particularly good game against him. But once George was allowed to use the width of the pitch, you could look out.

"In those days he had a tremendous appetite for football and would always tackle back if he lost the ball. Manchester United's forwards were never keen on doing that, so if you robbed one of them there was usually an opportunity to go at their defence. But if George lost the ball he was desperate to get it back, always there snapping at your heels."

In five seasons between 1966 and 1971, Best scored 90 league goals for Manchester United, an impressive strike rate that was augmented in cup competitions and when turning out for Northern Ireland. Many, like one against Real Madrid in the 1968 European Cup semi-finals, were classics of improvisation. Shadowed in from the right wing, Best used his bewildering change of pace to gain a yard or so of advantage.

Running at right angles to the goal, it was probably Best's intention to strike a low centre from John Aston cleanly with his left foot, which made the subsequent execution all the more remarkable. As the ball reached him it bobbled, something that would have caused the majority of players to miscue. Making the merest adjustment at top speed, Best half-volleyed a ferocious scoring shot.

It was an earlier European Cup tie, against Benfica in 1966, that established Best internationally. Going into it with a 3-2 advantage from the first leg at home, United's instructions were to keep things tight for 20 minutes. Before then they were leading 3-0 and Best had scored twice. United, providing Busby with what he called "one of the great moments of my life", won 8-2 on aggregate and Best was cheered from the field by Benfica's supporters.

Considering Alf Ramsey's supposed antipathy to wingers, it was once put to him that as manager of England he would not have selected Best. "A magnificent footballer," Ramsey replied. "I would have used him at centre forward."

Truth is that Best could have played anywhere. Happy 50th, George. It only seems like yesterday.