A thirst for tributes to football at its Best

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The Independent Online
George Best turned 50 last week, as anyone who has not been holidaying on Uranus recently will know, and Britain's television producers found his golden jubilee irresistible. BBC2's Best Night, an entire evening of booze, birds and beautiful football, was the most comprehensive, but Sky chipped in with George Best at 50 - a Tribute, and Channel 4 paid homage in The Greatest.

Best Night offered plenty of lovely moments between periods of inactivity, rather like its subject's performances for Manchester United. Michael Parkinson narrated the opening documentary, encapsulating the delights to come in a phrase: "George Best wasn't just a footballer, he was a mini- series waiting to happen."

The highlights of that series are the footballing clips: Best kicking the ball out of Gordon Banks's hands, Best befuddling Benfica, Best skipping through a Chopper Harris tackle that would have levelled a house. Best's dribbles justified the name: they were mouthwatering.

But we also got the other legendary clips: "El Beatle" in the outsize sombrero, Best filling a tower of champagne glasses (what balance, what poise, what thirst), Best doing the frug with a micro-skirted dolly bird. Eddie Hindle, a former flat-mate, commented deadpan: "It wasn't difficult for George Best to form an attraction with a young lady." On an evening of superlatives, the understatement of the century. And lastly the image of the fall: Best on Wogan, swaying, desperately smiling, nutmegged by the booze.

And that was just the first programme. Next up was Jim White's Manchester United Football Family Tree, which wisely, if cheekily in this context, had very little to do with George Best. The villain of the piece here was not the Demon Drink, but the Demon Doc, Tommy Docherty. His method of disposing of surplus players was the subject of some dispute: Docherty seems convinced that "I always told the player to his face what I was gonnae do". The players concerned were adamant that the first they knew of their impending departures from Old Trafford was through the media. Willie Morgan, one victim of the Doc, said: "There is a word to describe him, but I don't want my kids to hear it."

Dave "Statto" Sexton was replaced by Ron Atkinson, memorably summed-up by White as "Flash, brash and tandoori-tanned". The secret of Big Ron's relatively successful reign at United was revealed by Bryan Robson. "At the club," he said, "little things were always done for you. Bathrobes, flip-flops, that kind of thing." Perhaps this is the key to Middlesbrough's disappointing performances last season: the wrong shade of bathmat for Branco, maybe; lint on Juninho's loofah.

Bathroom imagery persists in the reign of Alex Ferguson. The irascible manager is known to his players as "The Hairdryer", not because he has a secret past in the Aberdeen coiffure industry, but because of the ferocity and face-to-face proximity of his post-match tantrums. A terrified Peter Barnes once hid in the team bath for half an hour to avoid getting the curlers-and-conditioner treatment.

The Best Team was supposed to be a discussion of George's personal fantasy side between him and a bunch of laddish pundits in the Phene Arms, the great man's local. True to form, though, he failed to show, and we were left with the LPs. It was like Waiting for Godot rewritten by Nick Hornby.

Best did show up, though, for his interview with Parkinson. Looking like a dissolute teddy bear, he ran through the highs and the lows. The most startling revelation had nothing to do with Miss World or missed training sessions: it was that a scout from Leeds United had watched him play at the age of 15 - and left after 20 minutes without signing him up. How different the story might have been, not least for fans of Leeds.

One approached Sky's George Best at 50 - a Tribute with trepidation. How long would they hold out? Not long. Seven and a half seconds into the programme, Richard Keys uttered the dreaded words "Simply the Best", and Tina Turner blared over the dribble-clips. It was the televisual equivalent of premature ejaculation.

The show was a bit of a mess. There was some home-movie footage ("After the dog, probably, after the dog will be George. That's him!"), plenty of plodding linkage from Keys ("It was during the Sixties that the fresh- faced Best took the football world by storm," etc), and a bizarre fascination with Best as chef (Keys: "Mike Summerbee, did George ever run anything up of a culinary nature in that flat that you shared?" Summerbee: "No"). The conclusions reached were lame. Keys asked Summerbee: "Why do we love him so much?" Summerbee thought for a moment, then suggested: "Because he's a nice man."

Oops, nearly run out of space to discuss The Greatest. Let's take a leaf out of Willie Morgan's book: there is one word for the programme, but this is a family newspaper.