The Best I knew: Strength and grace of a judo player

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The Independent Football

Nobody thought that of George, of course, but in those days, you couldn't sign Irish boys as apprentices. George actually worked at the Manchester Ship Canal, and was a genuine amateur for 12 months. We used to train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My dad was also the coach at the time and took the sessions.

I didn't play that night at the Stadium of Light in 1966 when the 5-1 victory against Benfica first really catapulted George into worldwide recognition, but I was with him when he bought that big sombrero, which earned him the nickname "El Beatle". He was the first football media star, and looking back, I don't think people knew how to deal with him and I'm not quite sure he knew how to deal with it. The club had had star names before, but nobody who was in the newspapers for other things than football, like being a fashion icon.

When we played Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley, there was a great camaraderie, and George was a big part of that. We always thought we were the better team, although it did go down to the wire, with Alex Stepney making a great save to keep us in it. It went to extra time at 1-1. But then George produced that little bit of magic to score the goal that set us on our way. It was a typical George Best goal, because it was executed with a mixture of balance and grace that was his hallmark.

There were some great players on view that night. But George will remain for me the best player I've ever seen. He had a physique that belied his strength. He reminded me of a judo player who could throw someone twice their weight purely by using their balance and skill. He played against defenders who were generally much physically bigger, but could, in the football sense, throw them. He could stay on his feet while they couldn't.

Physically, he could have gone on to 40-plus, maybe even 50, and at a good level, with his ability and physique, had he been a different character, more that of a Stanley Matthews. He was at his peak when he was aged 20 to 25, but after that, it was as if George handicapped himself with his drinking and life off the field, to make himself human. It was like putting weight on a top-class racehorse. There could only be one result. This is a sad moment, but we're left with some wonderful memories.

John Aston was a Manchester United player from 1964 to 1971

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