Nick Townsend: Remember the football, he said. I do

For all the soap-opera and self-destruction the abiding memory is of the peerless player

If you were selecting a medical man with gravitas to offer continuous pronouncements on your declining health, you would choose the eminent Professor Roger Williams, even if by the end one wanted to scream: "Too much information. Enough." Yet as his life expired at 59 with the kind of reverence normally accorded a Pope, it confirmed the affection in which he is held.

We should not await any plume of white smoke to announce a successor because there is none; just a shortlist headed by Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry. Both may, in time, be elected pontiffs in the public's psyche. But not yet.

So many last writes, many of which have contended that Best squandered the football riches with which he had been so endowed, and in later life was little more than a pathetic, pitied wastrel. This observer cannot concur. The longevity of his career bears close inspection. He represented Manchester United for well over a decade at a time when footballers were not surrounded by the sophisticated medical regime that exists now. Nor must we forget the proximity of uncompromising defenders who were often indulged by officials.

Yet, for no fewer than seven of those seasons he was close to ever-present. He scored 180 goals in all competitions. His contribution to United's European Cup final triumph over Benfica in 1968 earned him the accolade of European Footballer of the Year. He played 37 times for his country. The fact that he achieved it all this while succumbing steadily to the devil drink, while being constantly distracted by liaisons with many of the world's most alluring women, aggrandises rather than diminishes him, at least to these eyes.

There is such significance in the title of his most recent autobiography Blessed. As he says, "By God, I packed some living in those 12 years [at Old Trafford] - I lived about three lives in that time". The only regrets concern the latter years of his life, when the world spun out of his control. But that was the nature of the man.

Many hoped that when he married his second wife Alex, it would be accompanied by a relatively quiet, contemplative conclusion to his life. It wasn't to be. Maybe he appreciated the irony of the fact that as he raked over the embers of that relationship she was gaining the exposure he despised by appearing in a show, the title of which could could have been Best's mantra for much of his life:I'm A Celebrity; Get Me Out Of Here.

Yet, as he stressed in his final interview: "They'll forget all the rubbish when I've gone and they'll remember the football. If only one person thinks I'm the best player in the world, that's good enough for me."

Consider this author one of those men.

Watching Best play was akin to being in the presence of a Sinatra. For those of us fortunate enough to have done both, you had to keep reassuring yourself that this was reality not fantasy.

The last occasion for this observer was when Best played at Stamford Bridge in 1971. There were 54,763 of us, corralled in like cattle, but uncomplaining. Just exhilarated by the prospect of Best and Law, and Charlton and Kidd on view. In opposition, Hudson and Cooke... and that ubiquitous assassin, Ron Harris, about whom the mischievous side of Best later opined: "It would have been a doddle for me playing today. Guys like 'Chopper' Harris, Nobby Stiles, Tommy Smith, Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter wouldn't survive these days."

Who can say? What we can contend is that Best's physique, so willowy that Kate Moss might have coveted it, was deceptively durable. A low centre of gravity helped; so, too, his two-footedness. Mostly, he was simply too nimble, too swift, too visionary in his appreciation of the game, to allow defenders' lunges to trouble him. He withstood their worst and laughed at it.

United triumphed that night, though Best was sent off for swearing at the referee, Norman Burtenshaw. He was subsequently summoned to the FA - not exactly a rare occurrence - but escaped heavy punishment by claiming that he was actually cursing his lookalike team-mate, Willie Morgan. He loved playing at Chelsea. "Big club, big players, packed ground," he enthused. At one time it was rumoured he would move there. He has since revealed that it was the only other club he would have signed for in his pomp. Somewhat poignantly, it was close to where he spent his final weeks at the Cromwell Hospital.

For many, though, he will remembered not for those last ghastly images but as Georgie the Belfast Boy who emerged with that winsome smile and mellifluous brogue into a television age that was in transformation from grainy black and white to colour, in all its glorious detail. It was the equivalent of the Beckham phenomenon - but with charm. A true child of the Sixties, he embraced the anti-Vietnam War campaign command "Make Love, not War" literally, and with considerable zeal.

True, he sold his soul to various advertising campaigns. He even did one for Playtex. It featured a beautiful girl walking into a bar and studiously ignoring his offer of a drink. The message was that if you were wearing a bra that uplifted you like a Playtex, you could even say no to George Best...

Yet, such activities were all a relatively innocent diversion, long before branding arrived to devour sport. Today, Rooney is surrounded by a coterie of minders and business managers, ostensibly to protect him. Would Best have prospered today under a similar regime? You wonder. Then it was just fans, and "friends" and women who wanted a part of him - and many did so in a manner which paid little heed to his weaknesses, ultimately to his ruin.

They say the good die young. The Best? Well, they merit considerable longer. On Friday, even the seemingly indestructible son of Belfast, who saw off the most callous defenders, fell victim to the most savage challenge of all. That of his own making. This time, there was no comeback.

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