The hypnotic majesty and madness of king George

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The dates we should write down are 14 September 1963 when, at 17 and after just four months as a professional, Best made his first-team debut for Manchester United, and 29 April 1974 when, four months after George had walked out on the club for the last time, they were relegated. Best was 27.

Before being driven from the pinnacle by demons, first and foremost drink, he scored 137 goals in 361 League games for United, 179 in the 466 matches he played for them. And this from a winger denied the normal ration of tap-ins which are the accepted bonus of specialist strikers. "George nearly always had to beat men to score," recalled Sir Alex Ferguson, who insisted Best's astonishing flexibility was what not only wrecked defences but kept him away from being injured more frequently.

What Best was not nearly so nimble at was the avoidance of self-inflicted damage to career and health. By the time a suitable donor had been found at the end of July 2002 to transplant his wrecked liver for a normal one, this founder-member of the last-chance saloon could no longer, at the age of 56, walk a hundred yards without having to sit down and rest, the outcome of dedication to conviviality which escalated into disease.

In 1972 I was a beneficiary of that conviviality when in Belfast to cover Northern Ireland's game against Russia. George insisted that Hugh McIlvanney and I join him at a party in the home of his parents, Ann and Dickie, on the Cregagh council estate. We shared the taxi with a boisterous Scot intent on proclaiming loud affinity with Fenian beliefs while travelling through a Protestant part of the town and were soon halted by a vigilante group bearing flags and serious intent, only for mention of the Best name to prove our passport out of potential nastiness. The other outstanding memory of that night was of being conducted upstairs by Dickie Best, intent on showing off his orange sash laid out on the bed.

Best was, in the opinion of those who should know, unique in the British game. Sir Alex claims he was "the greatest talent our football ever produced". Unique was the description of Sir Matt Busby, whose later years in management were plagued by the man's misbehaviour.

"George was gifted with more individual ability than I had ever seen in a player," said Busby. "When you remember great names like Matthews, Finney and Mannion, I can't think of one who took the ball so close to an opponent to beat him with it as Best did." Danny Blanchflower agreed, describing George as "a master of control and manipulation who had ice in his veins, warmth in his heart and timing and balance in his feet".

For a while, those feet followed a rugby ball when the Belfast-born Best, the oldest of five children, delighted his parents by passing his 11-plus and winning a scholarship to the local grammar school, Grosvenor High. But, like many of his later ones, it was a move doomed to fail. For one thing, rugby was Grosvenor's chosen sport and though George shone he remained besotted by football. And then, in his bright school blazer, the Protestant Best's journey home took him through a Catholic enclave. Soon, the only thing George played at Grosvenor was truant. The only place he was ever present, a football pitch, led this scraggy youth with a body derided as "a disaster area" towards a professional career.

In July 1961, aged 15, Best and another Irish lad, Eric McMordie, were summoned to Old Trafford for a two-week trial. At the council house of Mary Fullaway which was to be, on and off, his home for most of a decade, the widow recalled: "I wanted to sit him down and fill him full of meat and potatoes. He was so thin, so tiny. He looked more like an apprentice jockey than a footballer. I didn't give him a hope."

Best, whose appetite at this innocent time of his life extended to nothing more sinister or damaging than sweets, ginger cake and horror comics, grew stronger and taller until that League debut against West Bromwich. Then it was back into the reserves and an expanding leisure-time liking for snooker halls and lager. Already, soft drinks were a thing of the past.

Best's second call-up, against Burnley at Christmas 1963, brought his first goal, a 5-1 win and a regular place in Busby's new-look United. The lad had lift-off. The following April came an international debut for Northern Ireland against Wales; in 1965 United won their first League championship in eight years and a place in the European Cup. Best scored twice in the first 10 minutes against Benfica in Lisbon, with United winning 5-1 and George hailed by the ecstatic Portuguese as "El Beatle".

Notwithstanding his personal preference for the Rolling Stones, Best ascended readily enough to the role of football's first pop star. But there was more to George, or Georgie as he was becoming known, than fan adoration.

This shy young man, who preferred to take the bus from digs to training ground rather than accept the lift proffered by his manager, Busby, had, in the words of Arthur Hopcraft's benchmark book, The Football Man "brought back the verb 'to dribble' to the sportwriter's vocabulary".

In 1967 United were League champions again and the following season became the first English team to win the European Cup. Best scored as Benfica were again beaten, this time 4-1 at Wembley. He went on to become England's, and Europe's, footballer of the year and marked it with a less salubrious "award", his first drink-driving conviction.

Even Mrs Richard Burton, aka Elizabeth Taylor, got involved. "Fame came when he was so young," she sympathised. "God knows, Richard and I have been through some pressure and we've survived. If he can 'use' his problems it will make him stronger."

Some hope. It was the alcohol habit which grew stronger. Best admitted turning up for training under the influence: "Ten in the morning and I'd be drunk." Following rows with his new manager, Tommy Docherty, he announced an intention to quit football. Docherty helped Best on his way with the comment that things might have turned out differently if George had been able to pass nightclubs the way he passed the ball.

The only manner Best matched his escalating drink problem was the frequency with which he retired, returned and changed clubs. There were spells with Stockport, Fulham, Hibernian, Cork and Bournemouth, as well as two attempts to prolong his career in North American soccer. While in the United States, Best married Angie Macdonald James in 1978 and became a father (to Calum) in 1981 before that marriage ended in 1986.

Having finally stopped playing in 1983, Best was unable to stop running into trouble and within a year found himself serving a two-month prison sentence after failure to appear in court on a drink-driving charge led to violence when police called to arrest him.

A spell at Alcoholics Anonymous, the early death of his mother through drink, the sewing of anti-alcohol pellets into his stomach, nothing seemed to work. Not even a second marriage in 1995 to a 23-year-old, Alex Pursey, a second liver or a job in TV punditry could stem the spiral as George relentlessly went about destroying his marriages and his internal organs.

Perhaps the most impressive of George Best's skills was that he managed for a while to bestride the chasm between genius and disaster. He was, beyond argument, in the vanguard of football's greatest. My colleague John Roberts put it perfectly, once writing of Kevin Keegan: "He wasn't fit to lace George Best's drinks."

Six of the best: The games that will live longest in the memory

30 SEPTEMBER 1964: CHELSEA 0 MAN UTD 2

It was 1964 and London was beginning to swing, so Stamford Bridge was an appropriate venue on the day that the man himself says "it all began". The 18-year-old Best captured all the headlines after 61,000 home supporters applauded him off following a mesmerising display.

9 MARCH 1966: BENFICA 1 MAN UTD 5

The game that brought him international prominence and the nickname "El Beatle" was a European Cup second leg. "I told them to play it tight and George just went out and destroyed them," said Matt Busby. With two goals in the first 12 minutes. As history shows, he wasn't finished with Benfica.

21 OCTOBER 1967: N IRELAND 1 SCOTLAND 0

Having beaten England's world champions at Wembley, Scotland found themselves on the wrong end of George's finest performance for his country. Defying a boggy pitch with his dribbling, he tormented poor Tommy Gemmell and the Scottish defence.

29 MAY 1968: MAN UTD 4 BENFICA 1 (aet)

Ten years on from Munich, the European Cup final was really Busby's night and Bobby Charlton's. But after a disappointing 90 minutes, George brought the game to life with a dribble round the goalkeeper to score his most famous goal.

7 FEBRUARY 1970: NORTHAMPTON 2 MAN UTD 8

For a winger, Best's scoring rate was phenomenal. In this FA Cup fifth-round tie he bagged a double hat-trick in his first game back after a long suspension - incurred for knocking the ball out of the referee's hands.

4 SEPTEMBER 1976: FULHAM 1 BRISTOL ROVERS 0

Along with Rodney Marsh, Best joined Bobby Moore at friendly Fulham and galvanised the whole club, scoring the only goal here after 70 seconds of his debut in front of a crowd four times the average. A last hurrah.

Steve Tongue

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