Ouzo F.C: Ouzo News: Belfast boy in a life less ordinary - George Best Remembered by all
Belfast boy in a life less ordinary - George Best Remembered by all
As concern grows over George Best's fading health Bill Elliott remembers a fun-loving man who was nobody's fool
Sunday November 20, 2005
Mac, the village newsagent, had The Sun open on the page led by the medical bulletin on George Best. He pointed at the story. 'He's an idiot, isn't he?' he asked. It was, of course, a rhetorical question but it still deserved an answer. And the answer is 'No'.
Like, I suspect, millions of others, Mac only knew - or thought he knew - one George Best. The one who was weak, unable to say no to almost anything, a man lost in a shambolic world, an alcoholic who never managed to beat properly the old foe. Now, weeks on from that first bulletin, comes more of the same, confirmation again of his weakness. But an idiot? No, not an idiot, never an idiot.
And so I tried to tell Mac about the Best I knew in the late 1960s and the 1970s when I was a Daily Express football reporter in Manchester, covering United and City and travelling with the Northern Ireland team for their matches. And trying to keep up with Georgie Boy and a fast life that captured the times. It was fun but, Christ, it could be difficult as well.
Those were the days when reporters still had real contact with the stars. First priority was to have a contact number. I had one for Bobby Charlton, one for Denis Law. For George, at his height, I had 19 telephone numbers in my book. These included his old digs in Chorlton-cum-Hardy and his 'second mum' Mrs Fullaway, who fussed over him and to whose modest home he retreated when he needed a break from the bollocks, and where the local kids guarded his E-Type Jaguar from the sharp scratchings of envy.
There was the number for the home he had built, an uber-modern place with a huge TV set that disappeared up a fake chimney. It had more glass than brick in its construction, so the fans could see straight in and George was forced to sit with the blinds down to avoid being watched all the time. He loved looking at his house, but he hated living there. A goldfish would have felt edgy, so, soon after he moved in, he moved out.
The other telephone numbers were for a bunch of his best pals, a few were for women and the rest were for the various clubs and pubs that George frequented, places like The Brown Cow or Slack Alice's or Blinkers. It was in these places that he would be protected as he drank his then alcohol of choice - vodka and lemonade - and held court quietly and shyly. He was, almost always anyway, friendly with everyone except the fools and, of course, he was especially friendly if the interloper wore a micro-mini and sported long, blonde hair. There were a lot of these about at the time and George made friends with all of them.
The rest of us young men could only watch all this with a mixture of fascination and envy, but if we were gobsmacked by his effortless pulling power we were even more impressed when we watched him play football. London back then had Michael Caine and Twiggy and The Rolling Stones as it swung, Liverpool had The Beatles and the rest of the Mersey sound but Manchester, grey, old Manchester, had The Hollies and Bestie. Mancs, to a man, felt they had the better of the deal.
The old TV pictures of George playing do him some justice but not enough. Tom Finney once told me George was, by far, the best, most complete footballer he had ever seen, a view echoed by Bill Shankly. What was he like? You had to be there to appreciate the brilliance, the imagination, the balance, the commitment, the goals. Most of all, he had the belief.
In 1976, Northern Ireland were drawn against Holland in Rotterdam as one of their group qualifying matches for the World Cup. Back then the reporters stayed at the same hotel as the team and travelled with them on the coach to the game. As it happened I sat beside George on the way to the stadium that evening.
Holland - midway between successive World Cup final appearances - and Johan Cruyff were at their peak at the time. George wasn't. I asked him what he thought of the acknowledged world number one and he said he thought the Dutchman was outstanding. 'Better than you?' I asked. George looked at me and laughed. 'You're kidding aren't you? I tell you what I'll do tonight... I'll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.' And we both laughed at the thought.
A couple of hours later the Irish players were announced one by one on to the pitch. Pat Jennings, as goalkeeper, was first out of the tunnel to appreciative applause. Best, as No 11, was last. 'And now,' revved up the PA guy, 'Number 11, Georgie [long pause] Best.' And out trotted George. Above him, a beautiful blonde reached over with a single, long-stemmed red rose. Given his nature, his training and his peripheral vision there was no way he was going to miss her or the rose, so he stopped, trotted back, reached up to take the flower, kissed her hand and ran out on to the pitch waving his rose at the punters as the applause grew even louder.
Five minutes into the game he received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff's feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.
Only a few of us in the press box knew what this bravado act really meant. Johan Cruyff the best in the world? Are you kidding? Only an idiot would have thought that on this evening.