“Rob, top five musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter-day sins, is it better to burn out or fade away?” Barry Judd, High Fidelity (2000)
Is it better to burn out than fade away? Is a question often asked in relation to artists. Art is littered with geniuses whose brilliance was blinding but all to brief.
George Best was an artist on the football field. He painted masterpieces akin to Bosch or Van Gough. Watching footage of this slight, shy boy from Belfast glide along boggy fields, dancing through attempted assaults before picking out wonderful pass or scoring a marvellous goal is a joy.
His career technically ended in 1983 with a blink-and-you’ll miss it spell with Brisbane Lions. Capping off an eight-year odyssey that took him to eleven clubs, across four continents.
However, this was a footnote, Best’s career as a top-level footballer, effectively ended in 1974 – bar a brief spell at Fulham – when he left Manchester United bringing a glorious eleven-year spell to a close at just 27 years old.
Best arrived in Manchester in 1961. He was spotted in Belfast by scout Bob Bishop, who telegrammed United manager Sir Matt Busy to say he’d found a “genius,” overlooking concerns other clubs, including local club Glentoran, had over Best’s diminutive stature. After a great “What If?” moment when the shy teenager absconded back to Belfast, Best returned to Manchester, under the guardianship of Mrs Mary Fullaway, along with youth teammate David Sadler.
By the age of 17, Best had broken into the first team against West Bromwich Albion in the 1963/64 season. He showed glimpses of his talent by taking the mickey out of opposition fullback Graham Williams. Williams, non-plussed about this, responded with by booting Best into orbit but Best dusted himself off and kept coming. It was a window into what was to come.
His next appearance wasn’t for another three months. Busby, furious at his team conceding ten goals in just two matches over Christmas, rang the changes and Best returned to the starting – XI ON 28TH December 1963 against Burnley. The young waif destroyed fellow countryman Alex Elder in a 5-1 hammering of Burnley which included his first goal for the club.
From just his second senior professional match, Best became a first ballot starter at the biggest football club in the country. Capable of playing on either flank or through the middle, Best was a generational talent with prodigious ability few footballers enter the game with. Technique, pace, vision, flair and astonishing toughness, Georgie boy was the player the punters would pay to watch as he produced outrageous moments on a regular basis, while avoiding assaults from opposition players.
Just over two years after his debut, Best was elevated to superstardom when he marshalled a 5-1 destruction of Benfica in Lisbon. Benfica were the team of the decade, playing in four European Cup finals, winning two and containing Europe’s pre-eminent footballer, Eusebio. Best, eclipsed everyone and the enraptured Portuguese press dubbed Best “El Beatle.” An icon was born.
Best haunted Benfica again in the 1968, European Cup Final. Picking up the ball from a knock on in extra time, he jinked past one defender before rounding the goalkeeper and walking the ball into the net. A magnificent goal from the game’s finest purveyor of theatrical delight. It was only fitting that Best prepared for the biggest moment of his life by spending the night before with “a particular young woman called Sue.”
With a Ballon d’Or win to go with his European Cup that year, Best had reached the pinnacle of his career. He was 22 and had the world at his feet. Good looks, a sharp mind, absurd talent, he attracted adulation and adoration wherever he went.
It should have been the start of a glorious era. Football’s first popstar taking his place amongst the greats of his age. But it never did get better for Best than that night at Wembley in ’68.
That victory seemed to drain the club of its energy, and as a result, despite the performances of Best his fellow members of the “Holy Trinity,” Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, the club drifted into mediocrity and decline almost overnight. The years following that glorious night against Benfica was simply Best raging at the dying of the light before his frustrations with the club’s lack of direction seemed to dampen his love of the game. When he left United after falling out with manager Tommy Docherty, he had scored 179 goals and finished club top scorer, six out of his last seven seasons.
For a man with money, fame and little else to fill a curious mind, Best slipped into his own grave decline after leaving United. Falling into partying and heavy drinking which eventually turned into a lifelong battle with alcoholism and turbulent relationships littered with accusations of domestic violence. His death at the relatively young age of 59, mirrored that of his mother, who also died due to alcoholism at just 55.
Like many great artists, Best was a glorious diamond with a fatal flaw. Despite all of this, many who witnessed on-field exploits will tell you that Georgie Boy was simply, the best.
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