Shade of that which once was Best

YOU could, I suppose, anticipate the reaction to what might be called the overreaction to the death of George Best. There was infinite lachrymose, not to say laudatory, coverage on television, the radio and in the press (not excluding my own involvement). A minute's silence at all League matches over the ensuing weekend. Only the brutish Leeds United supporters at Millwall to their shame desecrated it with their ribaldry. But, it has subsequently and perhaps inevitably been asked, was it all justified?

Beyond doubt, George had been one of the greatest players of his day, perhaps even of all time, but in ensuing years, his life had been a sordid business of drunkenness, indiscipline, debauchery. Given the privileged lifeline of a liver transplant, he'd abused it by continuing to drink excessively. Indeed, almost any kind of alcohol would be excessive.

As an "icon", that horribly fashionable word, he was indeed profoundly flawed and there are plain comparisons with the ghastly outburst of mass sentimentality when Princess Diana died and many, like myself, wondered what kind of a maudlin country we were living in.

Yet while acknowledging that Best was no angel, no role model at all off the football field, I have to say that in the earlier years, when I knew him and was able to enjoy the brilliance of his football, I found him a delightful young man, humourous, modest and intelligent. The latter quality, in particular, distinguished him from later British stars such as Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney, supremely talented footballers but with their brains in their boots. "If I'd been born ugly," Best once famously, if immodestly, said, "you'd never have heard of Pele." Enormously attractive to women, among those two Miss Worlds, it was known that when at Manchester United he owned a boutique which was actually a cover for what might politely be called his romantic activities away from the awareness of United's celebrated manager, Matt Busby. But women — and they besieged him — were not his only indulgence. He was a compulsive gambler, through whose hands money ran like water, and as we have seen, an equally compulsive drinker.

When I first met him, as a dazzlingly precocious 17-year-old, I wrote, in my own innocence, "The New Wave is coming in gently." In fact, it would be more of a tidal wave.

Yet to watch him play was an endless joy and I take issue with those who believe that since his career was over in his middle 20s, it was somehow unfulfilled. There were, in fact, eight remarkable years of it. Years, in which you could admire his cornucopia of talents. His balance, his ball control, his pace, his heading ability — extraordinary in so small a man — his courage. You could never intimidate him, though I remember how in Buenos Aires, in September, 1968, he admitted to me, after United played the brutal Estudiantes de La Plata in the so called Intercontinental Cup, that after fifteen minutes, he just stopped playing when it came to 50-50 balls, knowing he would be fouled and knowing there would be no protection from a feeble referee.

It was largely thanks to Best that United were in that ill starred affair at all. The previous May, in the European Cup Final at Wembley, versus Benfica they had run out of steam in ordinary time, clinging on at 1-1. But no sooner had the game restarted than Best pirouetted past his marker, strolled round Henrique the goalkeeper, and stroked the ball into the net to make it 2-1. United, revitalised, went on to win 4-1.

A couple of years earlier, against Benfica but this time in Lisbon, Best had a still more remarkable game. Benfica had never lost a European match at home, but after just six minutes, Best rose to a free kick by his left back Tony Dunne and heaved a spectacular goal. Six minutes later, he slammed past three baffled defenders and made it 2-0. United went on to win, 5-1.

There is a famous — possibly apocryphal — story recounting that when Best was ensconced in a London hotel room, together with one of his Miss Worlds, the bed covered with �50 notes from a huge win on the roulette tables, a waiter brought in a bottle of champagne and asked him, "Where did it all go wrong, George?"

I think I might supply an answer to that. It was fatal Saturday when Best, who was supposed to be playing for United at Chelsea, chose to absent himself and spend the weekend in the North London flat of the actress, Sinead Cusack, besieged by reporters and photographers. The vastly more disciplined Bobby Charlton was furious with him. In their playing days, they never got on. Indeed, United then were divided into two camps, the Celts — Best, Pat Crerand, Denis Law — and the English. On one occasion, in a pub, Best even threw eggs at a painting of Bobby Charlton. But Bobby, to his huge credit, was, with Denis Law, one of those who attended the hospital where George lay on his death bed.

Perhaps the best valedictory would be the lines of the poet, William Wordsworth: "Men are we and must mourn when even the shade, Of that which once was great has passed away."

I like to remember Best as the glorious footballer, the charming, engaging young fellow, that he once was and I know that, whatever his failings, I am merely one of a vast majority.