George Best kicked off my love affair with football and Manchester United. As a boy I read every word published about him in the newspapers and, like all kids my age, I lived for Match of the Day when United were on, after which we’d try to recreate George’s goals on our own streets. He scored 137 of them in 361 games for United in his 11 years at Old Trafford, but sadly fewer than 30 are preserved on tape for the wonder of future generations.
Still, we have our memories.
George was honing his mercurial football skills from the moment he took his first steps. Those were at Jocelyn Avenue, a typical Belfast pre-war terrace street, off the tough Woodstock Road area. In 1949, with George aged three, the family moved the few miles to the newly built Cregagh estate, one of the post-war developments springing up all over the city to replace the blitz-damaged wartime housing stock. Here George found the wide-open spaces to express himself: the green opposite his Burren Way home.
George’s was a natural talent, born from a modest sporting lineage: dad Dickie played amateur football until he was 36, while mum Anne was an outstanding hockey player. A typically hard-working Belfast couple of the era, Dickie operated an iron turner’s lathe at the Harland & Wolff shipyard at Queen’s Island, where the Titanic was built; Anne was on the production line at Gallaher’s tobacco factory in north Belfast.
They granted George’s wish to give up a prized place at a rugby-playing grammar school for his local comprehensive, where football was his academic choice. But this was a Belfast where jobs were hard to come by despite the post-war recovery, leading Dickie to line up an apprenticeship in a printing company for his son as a fallback if his football dreams were to be dashed. However, George’s first and only ‘real’ job would be a stint as a clerk at the Manchester Ship Canal company, where United placed him until he was old enough to sign pro at 16.
Back in Cregagh, it was obvious to all who watched George that he was special. And yet he was deemed too small and slight to be selected for the Northern Ireland boys international team despite starring in trials; it was the same story at his local club Glentoran.
Then came nine words on a telegram to OldTrafford that changed George’s, and football’s, future forever: “Boss, I thinkI have found you a genius.” So wrote Manchester United’s Belfast scout Bob Bishop to Matt Busby after being alerted to George’s potential by the latter’s Cregagh Boys Club mentor Bud McFarlane.
Initially it wasn’t a smooth crossing from comparatively small-town Belfast to the bright lights of Manchester, as 15-year-old George and another promising pal, Eric McMordie, set sail on theLiverpool boat. They were still in their school uniforms; George, with a prefect’s badge on his lapel, had never been away from home before. McMordie would later tell me: “At that age we felt completely out of our depth and homesick. Neither of us could comprehend the break from home that we’d made, nor could we envisage a life stretching ahead of us in these strange surroundings. Maybe if we’d been a bit older it would have been different.
“That first evening we went for a walk and I said to George, ‘I don’t think I fancy this, do you?’ He replied, ‘I think I feel the same – let’s go.’ I felt bad about it for a long time as we were treated so well. We were just too young.” Busby refused, however, to give up on the kid he would later build his 1968 European Cup-winning team around, just ten years after the Munich air disaster destroyed his original Busby Babes. George was eventually persuaded – by his dad and Busby – to return to Manchester.
As a kid I was in awe watching George play for Northern Ireland at WindsorPark. He stirred the earliest sporting emotions I can recall: the anticipation leading up to matchday; the thrill of seeing him play; the buzz around the ground as he swept onto the ball. I was distraught the day he was sent off for chucking mud at the referee against Scotland; disbelieving when his goal against England was disallowed after he nicked the ball in mid-air from GordonBanks. I was just as awestruck the first time I met him.
It wasn’t as if I was some cub reporter; I was in my twenties and had been around the block a few times. In from the start of Billy Bingham’s glory reign, I’d been with that great Northern Ireland side on their early 80s World Cup and British Championship rollercoaster ride. I was no stranger to the company of celebrated footballers. But then one night, not long after the high of Spain ’82, Bestie breezed into Windsor Park.
In the upstairs bar my early mentor and much- missed colleague, the late Gordon Hanna of the Sunday People, struck up a conversation with George. Clearly recognising someone left out of the conversation, George nodded to me and asked Big Gordon, “Who’s your mate?” Gordon apologised as he introduced me, at which point I went to speak – but couldn’t. Gordon remarked,“You’re his hero.” That only made me more tongue-tied.
How this guy I’d looked up to from when I was no height went out of his way to make me feel at ease was something I’ll never forget. It’s my abiding memory of him. And boy did he try hard – but none of it worked. Not even a joke about the national side’s reticent goalkeeper: “You and Big Pat [Jennings] must be great crack on away trips!”
I vowed to regain the power of speech if there was ever a next time. And the chance came not long after, when the circus rolled into the little Co Derry village of Tobermore in the winter of 1984. The wee team had signed George, who needed the money to head off the taxman, for an Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United.
After the game – which Tobermore lost 7-0 that Thursday afternoon – I found myself in the dressing room with my old sidekick, the late Alex Toner of the Daily Mirror. The casino stories started as George stepped out of the shower and began dressing, while he and Alex relived long, liquid nights spent together. At that, I couldn’t resist an ironic crack as George pulled on a Perrier jumper.
“Oh, you’re going to talk today are you?” he said, grinning – and silenced me again! Beware your idols may have feet of clay, the poet warned. Not this one.
George blamed no-one but himself for his descent into alcoholism. So as criticism of his lifestyle mounted, I would hear no ill of my idol. And when he left us, it was hard to find words to express the sense of loss felt by a whole football generation of my age. As we move up the queue, his is a light that will never go out.
My 89-year-old father considers a day without an outing a day wasted. On returning from one of his latest, I asked where he’d been this time. “To visit George’s grave,” came the reply. I never knew till then that hero worship was hereditary.