Ken Jones: Best paradox was part of a brilliant talent the world called 'El Beatle'

Click to follow

George Best was as symbolic of his age as the Beatles were. There is no doubt that his extravagant style, both on and off the field, appealed to a generation that mutinied against traditional values and ideals. But time waits for no athlete and it was not about to slow respectfully to a crawl for the Ulsterman; within five seasons of being voted European Footballer of the Year in 1968, Best had come to the end of his first-class career. He was just 27 years old.

For a while everything about Best was heroic: a working-class upbringing in the raw, red-bricked streets of Belfast; the inventive application of immaculate skill, dark good looks. If only he had lasted longer. He might have done had Matt Busby dealt more sternly from the start with embarrassing misdemeanours. "I could see the sense in allowing George to develop naturally," Bobby Charlton said, "but once the wayward aspect of his nature began to surface, Matt should have been unyieldingly firm. 'The rest will come in time' was Matt's way of dealing with George."

It certainly did; not only 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 and ultimately, of course, the premature extinction of his career.

Prior to the emergence of David Beckham no player in the history of British football had ever been such a centre of attraction as Best. He himself was described by his mother as a home-loving boy who would sit quietly for hours. But at that time of great adulation there was still the paradox of Best's social life, where he so often appeared as the still centre of a whirling activity, not happy to be there, but not able to tear himself away, to be without it.

In his prime on the field there was no limit to what Best could achieve with a football. Only 5ft 8in and weighing merely 10st 3lb, his balance and natural strength made it very difficult to knock him off the ball. He could beat men effortlessly. His shots were delivered powerfully with the merest backlift. He was dangerous in the air and a master of improvisation.

The brilliant flame began to flicker and dim for Best when he lost the blinding speed which, when allied to exceptional change of pace, was the most crucial element in his game. George Cohen, a World Cup winner with England in 1966 says, "Apart from being astonishingly skilful, George was very quick off the mark, which made him a handful in the penalty area. Once he was given licence to use the full width of the pitch, you could look out. He could beat you down either side and usually did."

In five full seasons between 1966 and 1971, Best scored 90 League goals for Manchester United, an impressive strike-rate. But two goals against Benfica in the second leg of the European Cup quarter-final in March 1966 established Best as a superstar of the game.

Holding a slender 3-2 lead from the home leg United were under orders to contain Benfica for a while but within 15 minutes the Portuguese champions, Eusebio, Germano, Coluna et al, had been torn apart by Best's genius, the Irishman scoring twice in a 5-1 victory. Despite the disappointment, the Portuguese warmed to Best's artistry. They christened him "El Beatle".

A clinically taken goal against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final helped to fulfill Busby's dream, but for sheer class the goal that stands out was scored against Real Madrid in the semi-finals. Moving in from the right flank he was shadowed by defender. Then came the bewildering change of pace. Best was running at right angles to the goal and it seemed sure that he would hit John Aston's pass clean with his left foot. At the very last second the ball bobbled. It would have caused most players to miscue. Not Best. Making the merest adjustment at top speed, he half-volleyed a ferocious scoring shot. In the press box someone asked the time of the goal. "Never mind the time, sonny," came the reply. "Just put down the date."