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November 27, 2005

George Best, 1946–2005

It is with extreme sadness that we learned of George Best's tragic death. He was 59.

The Belfast-born genius was without a shadow of doubt one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen and in the opinion of many he truly was… the best.

Even Pele, the only exponent of the globe's most popular sport to contest Best's mantle, went on record to say that he thought George was indeed incomparable in football history. Loftier praise would be hard to acquire.

It would be impossible for anyone to deny that throughout his career he possessed a singular talent that was laced with greatness from the outset. Some would suggest that Stanley Matthews was the greatest ever, while others would plump for Tom Finney. Diego Maradona would certainly get some votes while the likes of Johan Cruyff and Alfredo Di Stefano would surely feature in the discussion. It has always been a tricky exercise comparing players from different eras, but there can be no doubt that George Best would have always stolen the show.

He was special in the world of football. He was destined to become the first genuine pop idol footballer, but his glittering career in the beautiful game almost didn't happen.

Best arrived in Manchester as youngster in 1961 with his friend Eric McMordie, who went on to play for Middlesbrough, but was so intimidated by hustle and bustle of life in a big city that he was quickly back on the ferry to Belfast. Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy, the Reds' legendary management duo, needed all their persuasive guile to tempt him back to Old Trafford, but succeed they did and it was amongst the best days' work they ever did during their glorious reign at United.

Originally tipped for stardom by Bob Bishop, United's hugely respected talent scout in Northern Ireland, Best proceeded to fast-track his way to the top. He made his debut, as 17-year-old, against West Bromwich Albion in September 1963, just a few short months after helping United win the FA Youth Cup for the sixth time. The Old Trafford crowd took him to their hearts instantly and he was to be their darling for the next ten years.

The club was still in the throws of re-building after losing the core of the great 1950s side in the Munich Air Disaster, and he proved to be the missing piece of the jigsaw alongside other great names like Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Pat Crerand, Nobby Stiles and Bill Foulkes.

United picked up their first league title since before Munich in 1965, at the end of Best's first season, and again two years later. Then in 1968 the European Cup, for so long the club's holy grail, was finally captured and Best scored one of the goals as United defeated Benfica in front of 100,000 ecstatic supporters at Wembley.

It was crowning moment of the club's history at that time, but the team was showing signs of ageing and was ripe for another revamp. That was to take time and Best was increasingly relied upon to pull the team through when the chips were down. He was more than up to the task and on occasion he literally won matches single-handedly.

His excesses away from the game invariably made the headlines and his every move was splashed across the front pages. It became too much for him on several occasions and more than once he announced that he had played his last match for his beloved Manchester United. It was turbulent time with the club, going through a troublesome transformation and their one true world class star finding his name in the papers for all the wrong reasons.

He and United eventually reached the end of the road in January 1974 when after yet another reconciliation, orchestrated by then boss Tommy Docherty, the mercurial Irishman was left out of the team to play Plymouth Argyle in an FA Cup tie. Best knew it was the end and he left Old Trafford on that dismal Manchester day never to return, at least not in a playing capacity.

United had been robbed of perhaps the greatest footballing talent the world has ever seen at the time when he should have just been reaching the zenith of his magical career. He was 27 when he played his last game for Manchester United.

It wasn't to be his last outing as a player for he went to represent a whole raft of clubs including Fulham, Stockport County and Hibernian as well as carving out a mildly impressive career in America. But, it was his personal life and a gradual decline into alcoholism that was to be his eventual downfall. His health suffered hugely and he became mere shadow of the handsome, vital superstar of earlier life.

Anyone who was lucky enough to see him in a Manchester United shirt has a unique and abiding memory that will never diminish, for to see George Best with a football at his feet was a sight that transcended mere sport. He was surely the most gifted individual football has ever produced and though many pretenders may have attempted to replicate his wonderful skills in the years since none has gone within a football pitch's length of succeeding.

Capped 37 times by Northern Ireland, he made more than 450 appearances for United, scoring 178 goals – including six in one match against Northampton Town.

His passing will be mourned wherever football is played and in many places where it isn't.

It is unlikely we will ever see his like again.

May you rest in eternal peace, Georgie.

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