The Best Legacy: A skill to thrill and a parable of our times

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The Independent Football

Might not the man knocking on the door with room service have been a genuine football fan, echoing the bewilderment felt by millions round the world: how could the career of the most naturally gifted British footballer of all time effectively have ended at 27 - younger than Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard and Ruud van Nistelrooy are today?

The answer was that at the same time as growing increasingly fond of the celebrity lifestyle, he became exasperated with the way United were declining as a force; finishing, for instance, in mid-table within 12 months of the famous 1968 European Cup victory, then no higher than eighth for the next three seasons as Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell tried to work under the shadow of the all-powerful, all-knowing general manager, Sir Matt Busby.

Chicken before egg, or egg before chicken? Certainly Best's behaviour in the early Seventies - missing training, playing poorly after entertaining a girl in his hotel room on the afternoon of an FA Cup semi-final replay against Leeds - only exacerbated the dreadful schisms in the Old Trafford dressing-room.

United, in the end, couldn't cope with him but couldn't cope without him, which led to the doomed attempt to bring him back in the 1973-4 season, when they were 18th in the table, 10 months after his retirement. The comeback lasted three months, ending in tears when Tommy Docherty dropped him for an FA Cup tie against Plymouth and Best sat in the referee's room crying his heart out at what he knew to be the end of the affair.

Being prepared to turn out later for all manner of teams from Dunstable Town to Los Angeles Aztecs illustrated how much he missed playing, and getting fit and tanned in California enthused him sufficiently for a briefly joyous period with Fulham in the old Second Division alongside Rodney Marsh and Bobby Moore, but even that quickly fell apart.

How good was he? Critics outside Britain have found it difficult to judge, since the Northern Ireland side he regularly inspired in the Home International Championship frustratingly made the World Cup finals only before (1958) and after (1982, 1986) Best's time. Most of those able to watch him regularly either in the flesh or on television would place him behind only Pele, at least at his peak from 1965-8. For while, tight dribbling and lightning acceleration were principal qualities - which in an era of thuggish defending and permissive refereeing also demanded courage of the highest order - what was remarkable for a winger was his ability in such areas of the game as heading and tackling. David Sadler, a United team-mate, made the startling claim that Best could have played in any position in the 1968 team and been better than the existing incumbent - full-backs and centre-halves included.

In many ways his life story remains a parable of our times: celebrity squared. On this particular day, however, football fans will want to remember the good times, rather than sourly deploring the descent into alcoholism: two thrilling European Cup performances against Benfica, in Lisbon and the Wembley final; the double hat-trick in an FA Cup tie at Northampton; individual goals like an audacious lob at home to Tottenham, a slalom through the despairing Sheffield United defence and a thrilling swerve away from Ron Harris's brutal lunge and round the Chelsea goalkeeper.

It takes a special player, too, to be remembered after 35 years for a disallowed goal; after the picking of Gordon Banks' pocket at Windsor Park as England's No 1 threw the ball up to clear it, the referee refused to believe anyone could have the speed of thought and foot to dispossess a keeper without fouling him.

This sad morning, let us stand up for the Special One.