Around one o’clock this afternoon, the Guardian News Alert thingy I subscribe to flickered onto my screen at work to tell me that George Best had died. It was no surprise obviously, but it touched me personally because we have met many times.
I say “met” but it was a very one-sided meeting. I was a lad in the crowd watching George on the pitch, so I met him any number of times, but he never met me once. Still, I knew him well, at least as probably the most perfectly natural footballer I’ve ever seen.
For sure, it’s easy to be critical of his post-footie life, but I’m not going to be. He was perhaps the earliest product of red top media hype — the Fifth Beatle, owner of boutiques (now there’s a blast from the past), quaffer of champagne. Champers for goodness sake! For a working-class lad from Belfast?
They didn’t know how to deal with it then and I’m not sure they do today, so I’ll leave his later life there. After all, there but for the grace of God and all that.
Back to 30th May 1968. I had bunked off school, not something I often did, but this was sanctioned by my mum, if not my headmaster. I had queued for three hours at Old Trafford to hand over my full set of vouchers and 15s (75p for goodness sake!) for my ticket for the European Cup Final at Wembley.
It was a long trip by coach in those days, but we got there. I won’t go into the details of the game — they’re well-documented — so I’ll concentrate on my memories.
And what memories! The best night of my young life. Bobby putting us ahead, the equaliser by Graca, Stepney’s save from Eusebio, extra-time, sublime skill by George for our second, Kiddo’s third, Bobby’s fourth and then lifting the trophy.
And I said I wouldn’t detail the game.
As I came out of Wembley, hot, hoarse and tired, two players stood out in my mind — Brian Kidd who had scored on his 19th birthday, the sound of “Kiddo!” echoing in the late night air, and John Aston who had been crap all season, but played a stormer that night.
No George? Well no. He had done what George always did and what we’d come to expect. To play the most sublime football. And to score extravagantly. However, if I have a visual memory of that night long ago, there it is above. (Click to enlarge)
GB was (and is) an icon. That Shakespearean blend of greatness and failure combined. How many of us are better at the latter rather than the former?
Georgie, it was a privilege to meet you, even if you never met me. And God’s has got His No. 7 for His Sunday league team.