Ken Jones: Best the waif and working-class hero whose star lit up a changing world

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Some 40 years ago, shortly before an FA Cup tie between Southampton and Manchester United at The Dell, I fell into conversation with Maurice Setters, one of United's stalwarts at the time. "Look out for the kid Busby's picked to play on the right wing, Setters said, "he's going to be special."

A childlike figure, his hair like a black conifer, George Best looked like a waif who had wandered in from the streets but it was quickly clear that Setters' estimate had been no exaggeration. He was quick, brave, clever and confident. At first glance it was abundantly clear that Best had star quality.

Once established in the team Best quickly became one of the leading attractions in football, showing the startlingly inventive quality only the great players have. He was essentially the product, and emblem, of the years which followed the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961. For an all too brief spell he was probably the world's supreme footballer. He could shoot, dribble, pass, head and tackle. He was murderously quick; he was courageous, strong, imaginative and astonishingly cool. Best's arrival in the game brought back the verb "to dribble" into the sportswriter's vocabulary.

Seeing Best pressing bottles of wine into people's hands at an impromptu party after a match, then stepping jauntily out with a delicious girl in furs, you were struck by his bravura and his enjoyment of the spotlight. He was not hogging it, but acknowledging its presence while it burnt for him. He played the kind of football he played because of the kind of person he was.

For a while everything about Best was heroic: a working-class upbringing in the raw, red-bricked streets of Belfast; the inventive application of exquisite skills, dark good looks. Matt Busby's way of dealing with Best's misdemeanours was to say, "The rest will come in time."

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 clubs, but the scandals and bitter recriminations leading ultimately, of course, to the premature extinction of his career.

Prior to one of his attempted comebacks I spent four days with Best at a health farm in Surrey. For three of those days he ran across the nearby fields and conformed to a spartan diet. On the fourth day he cracked. Foolishly, I agreed to drive him to a country pub where he was known. I left him there, drinking white wine.

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 whirling activity, not happy to be there, but not able to tear himself away, to be without it.

He had his own way of dealing with tension. While most of the team were fretting in the dressing-room, taking off a shoe, then walking around, undoing a button, taking another walk, he would stand outside the players' entrance talking to friends. Not until a few minutes before the kick-off would he hurry into the dressing-room and change quickly. "The boss [Busby] usually comes to call me," he said, casually making a remarkable comment on the patience of one of football's most acclaimed men.

In five full seasons between 1966 and 1971, Best scored 90 League goals for Manchester United. But it was his two goals against Benfica in the second leg of the European Cup quarter-final in March 1966 that established his star status in Europe.

A clinically taken chance against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final helped to fulfil 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 a defender. Best was running at right angles to the goal and it seemed sure that he would hit John Aston's cross clean with his left foot. At the very last second the ball bobbled. 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."