James Lawton: George Best was a timeless genius. But Bobby Charlton was the better footballer

In his final days at Manchester United, Best had become a parody of himself
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The Independent Online

In all the sadness of George Best's departure, and so much of the glory it recalled, perspective was always likely to be listed as a casualty - and so it was with the assertion that he was the greatest football player produced in these islands.

Saying that he was the greatest talent is quite another matter. It is one sustained quite spectacularly in a barrage of film for those who never had the privilege of seeing him in the shining flesh.

His virtuosity has been demonstrated so many times in the past few days. But the greatest player? It has been a claim allegedly supported by such giants of the game as Pele and Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, but when you closely examine their remarks, and review the very meaning of the term, we see that an understandable generosity has been in the air. George might have been due that ultimate accolade of being Britain's all-time No 1, and maybe the world's, had he gone the full course; had he in his playing maturity - one that generally comes around the age George, 27, was turning his back on the best of himself - brought a new degree of discipline to the outpourings of his native genius. But he didn't, and no amount of revisionism or sentimentality can alter this.

It means that in honouring the beloved dead we may have done something of a disservice to the living, and that among their number is one of George's most public mourners, Sir Bobby Charlton.

No doubt this naturally retiring man would discourage speculation of this kind at such a time, as would other contenders for the title of greatest British player like Sir Tom Finney and the late Sir Stanley Matthews and John Charles.

But their work, too, is on the record and it glows no less intensely because their lives outside of football accumulated so much celebrity - or because they never argued for their place in a game to which they always extended the greatest of respect. When George left Manchester United in 1974 he had been a first-teamer for 11 years. He had played 474 times and scored 181 goals, an astonishing ratio by any standard, but then it is also true that in his final days at the club he had become a sad parody of himself, and it was a decline which became sharply progressive just a few years after his European Cup final triumph in 1968 as a 22-year-old.

Charlton played 766 games and scored 253 goals, which meant that from midfield and for several frustrating years from the left wing he scored a goal every 3.027 matches. George, who marauded at will and hogged the ball often to the torment of Charlton and Denis Law, did it at the ratio of 2.619. Law, the third member of the blessed trinity, scored 239 in 409 games at a strike rate of 1.71. Statistics will always be only part of a football story, but when they accompany performance of great beauty, as was the fact in different ways in all three cases, they probably have added relevance.

In the end the obligation is probably to detach yourself from all the recent emotion and ask a simple question : whose performance and talent was most satisfying for the longest time, who seemed to understand most implicitly the demands of a great player, whose underlying, supreme loyalty, was to the team? Was it Best, Law or Charlton? The opinion here is that it was Charlton, spraying passes of magnificent range and insight, moving through the midfield like a great galleon with the wind in its sails, scoring goals of bewildering power and authority like the one he scored against Mexico to set England rolling towards World Cup victory in 1966. Because of circumstances, Best never had the chance to display himself in a World Cup, and Law only when the best of his talent had flown, but then if Charlton got the opportunity no one could have exploited it so masterfully.

With his United team-mate Nobby Stiles Charlton is the only British player to have won both a European Cup and a World Cup winner's medal, and if this was to exploit favourable circumstances his presence was undoubtedly part of their creation. In the European Cup final Best scored a goal of unforgettable enterprise, but the record reminds us that Charlton scored two. Two years earlier England had triumphed over West Germany in the World Cup final, and one of the most significant reasons was that West Germany's player of genius, Franz Beckenbauer, was deputed to mark Charlton. Four years later in Mexico, England were again dominating West Germany - right up to the moment which broke Sir Alf Ramsey's career, when Charlton was withdrawn, to preserve his sharpness for what seemed like a certain semi-final, and Beckenbauer was suddenly emboldened to go forward.

Charlton played his first game for United in 1956, a few days short of his 19th birthday, and scored twice - 18 months later, after surviving the Munich air crash, he was the hope of the ravaged club - and a new star for England. He played his final game 17 years after his debut in, most appropriately, Shakespeare's city of gentlemen, Verona.

After the game, at the age of 35, he fought back tears in the little restaurant where he said farewell. He raised a glass of red wine to the good days. It had been a career marked by both humility and the deepest understanding of the needs of a team. That last quality has been displayed an encouraging number of times, not least in the European Championship of 2004, by Wayne Rooney, the young man who sometimes seems to be carrying on his shoulders the full weight of a great tradition.

These past few days Rooney might be excused the belief that the star he must follow once belonged exclusively to George Best. That one shone a beautiful light, no question, but it was not so constant; the one guiding Bobby Charlton was never obscured. In giving to the young, dark Caesar all that he is due, it is maybe something that should not be forgotten. Not, this is, just for the morale of a great, ageing footballer, but to remember how it was all those glorious, under-stated years.

Better just to stay home than be part-time tourists

It is a brave old curmudgeon who these days questions the right of England cricketers Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan to down tools in Pakistan and join their wives in the delivery ward.

In my case it is also involves a slight collision with my esteemed colleague Angus Fraser, who says that if he had his time over again he might reconsider his position on those occasions when he put his professional instinct before family considerations. Of course, times change and no doubt Fraser, an ultimately dedicated professional sportsman, looks at the new dilemma in a new light. It is, I suppose, everybody's obligation in the age of the new man.

Perhaps in these circumstances there should be a compromise to the effect that those selected for an arduous stint abroad should examine their family commitments, including impending births, and decide whether they are able to see out the job alongside their team-mates. If not, surely it is better for the plane to be occupied by those players who can give the challenge their total concentration ... and presence.

Strauss, a marvel of consistency hitherto, has had a miserable tour with the bat. It may have had nothing to do with his decision to fly home early. But however you cut it, there has to be a conflict.

Hatton's fighting spirit beats at the heart of boxing

Bless Ricky Hatton for his fighter's heart. It redeemed that dreadful showbiz introduction to his successful world light-welterweight unification bout with Carlos Maussa and put into the sharpest perspective the tired trumpetings of one of the spectators, Naseem Hamed.

Hamed was far more adept than Hatton at exploiting the celebrity trappings, the dry ice and the fanfares, but he came unstuck when he got in the ring for a real fight against Marco Antonio Barrera. Now he talks of a rematch with Barrera, long after it slipped off boxing's increasingly unreliable radar screen.

Hatton, on the other hand, pursues Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto, two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The suspicion is that Hatton, who fought wildly against the unimpressive Colombian, will be stepping out of his class. However, he has the guts and the conviction to seek some definition of the limits of his talent. It is the heartbeat of boxing.

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