Mike Summerbee: I feared for George every day of my life

Mike Summerbee enjoyed the good life with George Best in his Manchester heyday. Here, the former City winger recalls a friend and a phenomenon
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The Independent Online

Yes, I feared for George every day of my life since the path we shared for those few, amazing years parted so sharply, but no, I didn't think to change him. I didn't presume that ability. I could ask him how he was doing, tell him that I still loved him and that the days we had together would always be precious, but George was George, unchangeable, ungovernable if you like. I'm told it is often the price of genius.

Now that he is gone, I will leave the judgements and the moralising to those who specialise in such matters.

One notion I will never accept, however, is that somehow George's destiny could have been altered from outside; that Manchester United and their great manager Sir Matt Busby could have better anticipated the rush of George's fame, that they could have protected him in the way that Sir Alex Ferguson did Ryan Giggs a few decades later.

But you can only say that if you weren't there when George came home from Lisbon and his astonishing performance against Benfica. I was. I walked down the streets of Manchester with him and saw the girls flock to him; girls of all ages, office workers in mini-skirts and bouffant hair, and old ladies with walking sticks. I saw the traffic stop. I saw that the world was invading George in a way that went far beyond football. A club like United, who were aware of what an asset they had, were also invaded by this new attention, this crazy onset of celebrity. They had no adequate defences.

You also have to remember the mood of the country and a city like Manchester back then. Suddenly, we thought that we had invented glamour. Big provincial cities were no longer small, inconsequential satellites of the capital, London. Liverpool was a huge player in the "Swinging Sixties" with the emergence of the Beatles - and, of course, George was elected by the newspapers as their fifth member - and Manchester too had a sense that it had moved on to centre stage. There were music stars like Wayne Fontana and the Hollies, you bumped into them in the clubs all the time, but no one was bigger than George.

One huge part of his impact was that he was such a beautiful man. Another was that he was so naturally unassuming. In our nights on the town - and there were quite a number - he never saw himself as the centre of attention. If he had an entourage, it was not appointed, or created by him. It was a case of iron filings attaching themselves to a magnet.

But then why didn't he adjust? Why didn't he move with the changing years? My reading is that he couldn't. So much came to him so quickly, that in the end, the adrenalin, the excitement, took hold.

My father was a professional footballer and my mother said that it was such a precarious life that the one vital thing was a bit of stability. I don't think George ever had that but, if he did, plainly he couldn't hold on to it.

We were such great pals, though there were times with my own success for Manchester City, when we won the Championship and the FA Cup, the European Cup-winners' Cup and the League Cup, I too thought I had inherited quite a bit of the world. But I was never under any illusion that George and I operated on the same level. George's football was a fantasy ... and, for a lad from a council estate in Belfast, so was so much of his life.

This no doubt made it easier for me to step back from the wildness of the Manchester years, that and the fact that my wife, Tina, and my family gave me a new point of focus. Like any married couple we've had our ups and downs, but we soon had something to build on. That was elusive for George and never more so it seemed than in the last few sad and desperate years.

Such is the level of that sadness, the feeling of waste, that I suppose inevitably I have to turn my thoughts back to those days when we very close and the world seemed so straightforward - and so filled with good things. You won and you lost but you always thought you would come out on top. If you didn't, there was always another game, another challenge.

When City won the First Division title in very spectacular fashion in 1968, winning our last two away games at Tottenham and Newcastle, George and United were also contenders. They had to win at Sunderland in their last game, and we had to lose. But we got there and our coach Malcolm Allison - who would later sign Rodney Marsh to try to compete with the appeal of George even though he was beginning to slide - announced: "Next stop Mars."

Bestie still reminded us all that he was already occupying another planet. He was waiting for me when I returned to Manchester that evening, and he bought the champagne. A few weeks later he was the star of United's first European Cup triumph. We were back in his shadow, but then who could complain? George on the football field had a life of his own. He made his own rules and he was one of the few players in the entire history of the game who could do that. Off the field, he also did that and no doubt many would conclude that this was a failure, a loss of understanding of what was most important in life. But as I say these words, I repeat that I make no such judgement.

I just remember what he meant to me when the world was so young and everything was before us. I remember someone who had no arrogance, no belief that he was better than anyone else. In the end I suppose he was partly a victim of his own talent and his own beauty. Sometimes I look at a photograph of my wedding day and see that my wife is looking beyond me to the best man, and I chuckle to myself and wonder how many men would put up with that down all the years? Perhaps a lot more than you imagine if the best man was George and they knew him so well.

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