James Nesbitt: George was the kind of man a lot of men would find themselves in love with

Click to follow
The Independent Football

George Best was my boyhood hero. He was the star from Belfast who played for both Manchester United and Northern Ireland, while I was the young boy from Co Antrim who went to football matches with his dad.

It is impossible to over-estimate his importance to Northern Ireland, which, during the late Sixties and Seventies, was sometimes not a good place to be. George was the man who demonstrated that something wonderful could come out of Northern Ireland, that it was not a place in decline and, unquestionably, he crossed the divide between communities.

Everyone was so proud of this man, this talented, iconic figure, from a small country of just one million or so, who had the whole world at his feet. He helped give us a sense of identity. And he was cool before we really knew what the word "cool" meant.

And he meant so much to me, personally. He was part of my childhood, my growing up. I think to sum up what he meant to me, you have to know that two of my older sisters and myself all had posters of him on our bedroom walls. I had George Best boots, a George Best neckchain and ring, and my granny had knitted me a jumper with his image on the back. And I used to kiss the photo on the ring before I went out to play football myself.

I saw him play live several times. The first was for Northern Ireland against England in 1971. George had studied the way Gordon Banks [the English goalkeeper] punted the ball upfield and realised that he tossed the ball high in the air before kicking it, which put the ball into play. George managed to get to the ball and flick it back over his head and then he headed it into the goal. It was disallowed, of course, but not before the crowd went wild.

They were showing film of that on the television yesterday and you could just see this white-haired man cheering wildly behind the goal - I'm sure that's my dad and if you blew the film up, you'd see me next to him.

The next time I saw George playing live was when Northern Ireland beat Cyprus 5-0 and George scored a hat-trick. George had already scored twice when he took a corner. As he placed the ball, he held three fingers up to the policeman on crowd control. And of course he scored from the corner.

And then a few years later, it must have been 1976 or 1977, my dad and I watched him on television play for Northern Ireland against Holland, who had Johann Cruyff in their team, who everyone was saying was the best player in the world.

George got the ball, and he was looking for Cruyff to come and take it away. Cruyff approached him and George just nutmegged him, put the ball straight through through his legs, as if to say, "I can still do it ... and I can do it to you". It was pure genius. I think it was the sports writer John Roberts, who writes for The Independent, who said that good a player as Kevin Keegan was, he still wasn't fit to lace George's drinks. He was right.

The first time I met him was just after Cold Feet had started and I was on this chat show in Belfast and I heard he was going to be on as well. I was in a complete state about it, and by the time I got to the studio, I was going "Is he here yet? Where's George ... ?" every couple of minutes. They took me through to the green room and he had his back to me and he turned round and said: "Jimmy Nesbitt, fantastic to meet you ..." And he was so utterly charming. Although we met a few times after that, I'll never forget that night.

We very rarely get to meet our boyhood heroes and sometimes they let you down. But George didn't let me down, not before, not then or afterwards.

The fact that all the people who saw him play remember him so fondly tells you something. George was the kind of man, one of a small number, that a lot of men would find themselves in love with.