First Touch

George Best – The Belfast Boy

George Best lived as he ultimately died, with both hands firmly on the self destruct button. That, above all, was the key to his genius – and it was genius. Let nobody doubt that. As a footballer, the Belfast Boy played the game so close to the edge as to be on the other side of the precipice. And for a time in the late 1960s and a little beyond, while football was still central to his universe, he played the game with a style and majesty that no player has ever bettered.

george best in action
George Best in action against the New York Cosmos

Dave Bowler author logoBy Dave Bowler

Best’s mastery of the football was such that he could show it to the opponent, virtually give it to the opponent, and still take it past him in a blur of movement, a blaze of trickery that would confound the most seasoned illusionist if they attempted to reproduce it.

His special band of magic was in sucking an opponent in, luring them into his trap, snaring them before flicking the ball past them, over them, under them, through them and sprinting off into the  distance, defenders hacking away at him in his wake, but rarely managing to catch him.

He had every attribute in the game. Tight control, vision, the ability to pass it long or short, strength in the tackle, a finisher’s ruthless instinct in front of goal, an astonishing change in pace even when apparently flat out sprinting. But above all that, Best had imagination, wit, intelligence and, so necessary in his case, bravery.

george best playing for northern ireland
The Belfast Boy turns out for Northern Ireland in 1974
Where nobody could see an angle, Best could find it.

When there was no outlet ball, he’d dream one up and play it. When seven men were between him and goal, he’d turn giants to dwarves with a run and a swerve, a path of such invention it was as if Einstein had drawn up a blue print for him to follow.

George was the great entertainer, but he was the great winner as well. He wanted to come out on top, he saw it as a personal challenge, but he would only win the way he wanted to, the Best way, by blinding you with artistry.

Temperamental and tempestuous he might have been, but he was no thug, never tried to cheat his way through, kick his way through. Best always wanted to play his way through, trying to find tighter and tighter corners to play his way out of, as though just taking to the field and playing the orthodox way was too easy, too boring. It was as if he needed to make football hard for himself, just to give him something to think about, something to rise to.

Best Conquers Europe

Not only did Best provide the spark that dragged Manchester United out of the post-Munich melancholy and out to conquer Europe as his forbears at Old Trafford would have done, he provided a whole new era with its personality. Best was footballer as pop star, he was the fifth Beatle, he was glamour, excitement, glory. Best put sex into football, he created the climate where footballers could be superstars, he was the prototype as well as the warning note that all have followed subsequently.

If he played today, no team outside the other half of Manchester could afford him because he would simply be the greatest show on earth. Remember, he played his football on cloying, muddy pitches, using the heavy leather case ball that weighed a ton as soon as it got wet, and he played against defenders who had trained as assassins by the KGB, men like Tommy Smith, Ron Harris, Norman Hunter, in the days where he tackle from behind wasn’t just legal, it was compulsory. Put him in today’s environment and he’d make David Silva look like a beginner.

For those of us of a certain age, George was a link with our youth and with the wonders that football brings, the bond it creates between father and son, between brothers, between friends. George was our brother, our friend. Whatever else happened in his life, on the football field, George was touched by the hand of God. Let’s hope God remembers that and does right by him, gives him a ball, a field and some defenders to play with now.

magic of the fa cupDave Bowler is the author of “The Magic of the Cup 1973/74”, telling the story of Liverpool’s FA Cup win in 1974. Available here: – 

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