Ferguson homage to 20th-century icon who carried people's dreams

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The Independent Online

Best's family were told on Thursday morning by his consultant, Professor Roger Williams, that he would not be expected to live beyond 24 hours after he developed a lung infection while being treated at the Cromwell Hospital in London. Best, who had a liver transplant in 2002, was admitted on 1 October, and his father Dickie, 87, and son Calum, 24, were with him when he died. He will be buried in the same Belfast cemetery as his mother, Ann.

While Best's struggle against alcohol came to define his life after football, it was his achievements as a player that those in the game chose to remember yesterday. There will be a minute's silence observed at all Premiership and Football League matches this weekend. Supporters of Manchester United, whom Best joined at the age of 15 and played for until 1974, tied shirts and scarves to railings outside Old Trafford, and the tribute from the club was led by the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

The United manager, 63, whose own playing career coincided with Best's, said that the former Northern Ireland international had epitomised what it meant to be young in the 1960s and the optimism and freedom of the decade.

He added that for all Best's great skill, and his ability to dribble the ball and shoot, it was his sheer "courage" - his willingness "to pick himself up and ask for the ball again" - that he would remember above all.

"When he came on the scene, he carried every young person's dreams in the Sixties - it was a time of freedom and expression," Ferguson said. "It was the end of the war and there was a liberation of young people in those days and he carried their dreams. He was a phenomenal player.

"Some people are just born with a craft and leave an indelible mark on people's lives. The thing I remember, apart from his talent, was his courage. I can see him flying down the wing riding tackles from people like Ron Harris, Tommy Smith and Norman Hunter. They were serious guys - you didn't mess with them - and it was a time when you needed to be struck down by a tomahawk just to get booked, yet he rode all that. Every time he went down he got up again and just said 'Give me the ball'. That will stick in my mind for ever."

Ferguson picked out Best's performance for Northern Ireland against Scotland at Windsor Park in October 1967 when he gave the full-back Tommy Gemmell "the mother and father of all chasings", and cited his ability to perform on the greatest stage as "pivotal" in the success of the late Sir Matt Busby's team. "There were moments against Benfica and Real Madrid when he took United from being a really good team to greatness," Ferguson said.

Best was visited shortly before his death by his former team-mates Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, who both paid tribute to the player who, alongside them, was the star of United's first European Cup triumph in 1968. Charlton, whose preference for a quiet, settled family life always stood in sharp contrast to Best's lifestyle, said that the "glorious history" of United "has been created by people like George Best". "Anyone who witnessed what George could do on the pitch wished they could do the same," Charlton said. "He made an immense contribution to the game, and enriched the lives of everyone that saw him play. It is a very sad day. Football has lost one of its greats, and I have lost a dear friend. He was a marvellous person and my thoughts are now with his family."

Another member of that 1968 European Cup-winning team, the Scottish midfielder Paddy Crerand, said that Best was "the most natural footballer" he had ever seen. "He was also exceptionally brave," Crerand said. "You look at the clips being played on television and most players these days will be writhing around in agony at some of the challenges he just rode." The goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who played at United from 1957 to 1967 and was also a Northern Ireland international with Best, said that despite his friend's problems with alcoholism it was impossible not to warm to him. He said: "I'm proud to say I knew him not just as a footballer and a team-mate but as a person and a friend.

"We know all the stories. We know about the night in Lisbon when he was told to take it easy and scored twice in the first 10 minutes. We know about him leaving Manchester United at 27 and we know the stories that have come since - but I'd defy anyone who really knew George to say a bad word about him. The only person he hurt was himself."

From the modern powers in the Premiership there was also tribute to Best's contribution to football. The Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, said that his father, Felix, a professional goalkeeper, had never tired of telling him of Best's stature as a player. "I saw videos of him and I never tired of them," Mourinho said. "Players like Best they never die. What they leave behind them never dies."

Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal coach, said that despite Best's many flaws he could not help himself from admiring a man who had what he described as a "gambling attitude to life". He added: "Some might describe it as brave, the attitude that 'I'm not scared to live the life I want to lead even if it costs'." Wenger admitted regret that he had not been able to secure a ticket to watch Best play against his boyhood team Strasbourg in the Uefa Fairs' Cup in 1965. "His death was a shock," Wenger said. "He got out of so many tricky situations on the pitch you thought he would do it again in life."

Life and times of a footballing legend

* 1946: Born in Belfast.

* 1963: Turns professional with Manchester United. First Division debut.

* 1964: Makes Northern Ireland debut.

* 1965: Helps United win League championship.

* 1966: Mesmerises Benficaas United become first to inflict a European defeat at Stadium of Light.

* 1967: United win League championship.

* 1968: Manchester United win European Cup, Best scoring in a 4-1 win over Benfica at Wembley. Named European Footballer of the Year.

* 1970: Scores six goals in an FA Cup fifth-round tie.

* 1972: Announces his retirement.

* 1973: Makes brief comeback at United.

* 1974: Plays for Jewish Guild of Johannesburg in South Africa and for Dunstable Town in a friendly.

* 1975: Plays in the North American Soccer League with Los Angeles Aztecs.

* 1976: 42 appearances for Fulham, eight goals.

* 1977: Makes last of 37 international appearances.* 1978: Joins Fort Lauderdale Strikers in US. Marries Angie Macdonald James in Las Vegas.

* 1979: Plays briefly for Hibernian in Scotland.

* 1980: Signs for San Jose Earthquakes and begins treatment for alcoholism.

* 1983: Final retirement.

* 1984: Jailed following a drink-driving conviction.

* 1990: Appears drunk on Terry Wogan's chat show.

* 1995: Marries second wife Alex Pursey.

* 1998: Joins Sky Sports as football pundit.

* 2002: Goes into hospital for liver transplant.

Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

* 2003: Arrested after incident at Surrey hotel.

* 2004: Banned from driving for 20 months after drink-driving. Divorces Alex.

* 2005: Admitted to Cromwell Hospital in London with kidney problems. Nov 18: Put on a life support machine. Nov 25: Dies in hospital, aged 59.

The best ever? Five experts make their judgements

Denis Law: UNITED TEAM-MATE

I'd put him on a par with the top six I ever saw. I wouldn't like to choose between George, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Maradona, Pele and big John Charles. Bestie definitely belongs among that élite.

Bobby Charlton: UNITED TEAM-MATE

He was on a par, at least, with anyone you can name and from the conversations I've had with him over the years, I know Pele would tell you the same thing. From a talent and style point of view, I would say Cruyff was probably the nearest thing to him. George was braver, but Cruyff had great organising ability. George looked after No 1 on the pitch. He wouldn't dictate tactics or chat about what we were going to do.

Sir Alex Ferguson: CURRENT UNITED MANAGER

George was unique, the greatest talent our football has ever produced, easily. Look at the scoring record - 137 goals in 361 League games and a total of 179 goals for United in 466 matches played. That's phenomenal for a man who did not get the share of gift goals that come to specialist strikers. George nearly always had to beat men to score.

Michel Platini: FORMER FRANCE CAPTAIN

George Best invented rock 'n' roll football. During his performances in a Manchester United shirt, he made many people follow his rhythm. His passing is very sad news.

Johan Cruyff: EX-NETHERLANDS STAR

What he had was unique, you can't coach it. I think if you talk about Europe's greatest players, you talk about five or six, and if you talk about his qualities, he'd always be in there. It was a short career but if you go back to the basic qualities, he was exceptional.

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