Sam Wallace: George Best - an icon whose appeal spanned the generations

Click to follow
The Independent Football

It was around 12 years ago that Sir Alex Ferguson decided that Ryan Giggs, by then nearly 20, could at last begin to accept some of the endorsement deals that had stacked up for more than a year for Manchester United's greatest young footballer in decades. United kept him away from that world - from the distractions that might plague him, from those seeking to exploit him - so that his brilliant young career might develop safe from the dangers of fame.

So when Ferguson finally lifted the restrictions on Giggs' activities, United did exactly what you would expect of an institution that had known the heartbreak of losing young talent to the pressure of Old Trafford's history, a club that knew the danger of expecting too much, too soon. They released a video comparing Giggs to George Best.

What it lacked in cinematic innovation, The Very Best: Ryan and George made up for in unprecedented access to the young footballer who had played a full part in the club's first League title in 26 years while still a teenager. But there was a significance beyond the comparison between two different lives from two successful United generations. At last, it seemed to say, Giggs was part of a United team for whom comparisons with Matt Busby's side of the late 1960s were no longer just a bad joke.

More than Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, Best was the most enduring symbol of the impossibly high standards of that United team - even for a generation of football fans who were too young to have watched him play on anything other than old television footage. Best may have belonged to a different age but before United reinvented themselves as the great Premiership title-winning machine of the 1990s, it was his legacy, and that of the team in which he played, against which successive United sides were measured.

No United player has won the European footballer of the year award since he did 37 years ago and, even now, few would argue that Giggs or Eric Cantona could match his technique. As United re-emerged as a genuine force in the early 1990s the cult of Best also seemed reborn. That decade brought his shaggy Beatles haircut back into fashion and the new lads' magazines immediately adopted him as a pioneer for the hedonistic lifestyle they endorsed. A picture of Best even featured on the cover of arguably the decade's most influential album - Oasis's 1994 debut Definitely Maybe - although less prominently than the shot of Rodney Marsh in his Manchester City days.

As the Premiership ushered in the age of the footballer as celebrity, with Best the only precedent anyone could remember, it was entirely natural that Giggs should be compared to a player whose time at United had come to an end 19 years earlier. But in all discussion of Best, even in that club video, there is of course the great unsaid truth about his career. While he talked to Giggs about life as a football prodigy, and his time spent in the pubs and clubs of Manchester, no one seemed to want to mention that the fame and the pressure that made Best so famous eventually came to consume him.

For a new generation, Best represents a shocking waste of talent, a man with an appetite for self-destruction that is increasingly rare in modern football. Best left United - albeit a side that was then in decline - five months before his 28th birthday. At the same age, Giggs went on to win the seventh and eighth Premiership titles of his career, a fourth FA Cup and has a contract that will keep him at United well past his 34th birthday. He will end his career under no financial pressure ever to work again, with a collection of medals that stands comparison with any in British football.

That counts as success now, the realisation that withstanding the pressure of fame and building a legacy, as well as a comfortable life beyond football, are just as important. The memory for those who can only see Best's playing days on television footage is one where the brilliance of the young player is balanced by the sad decline of the older man.

With a supremely successful career behind him, and about to turn 32 next week, Giggs might today remember that time he and Best first met and reflect that what he learnt most from the old master was how not to do it.