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George Best
Born: 22 May, 1946. Belfast, Northern Ireland

International Caps 37
International Goals 9
Teams Manchester United, Stockport County, Cork Celtics, Dunstable Town, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian, San Jose Earthquakes, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions
Team Honours European Cup (1968)
League Division 1 (1965, 67)
Individual Honours Football Writers' Player of the Year (1968)
European Player of the Year (1968)
Tell me, Mr Best, where did it all go wrong? So, it is said, the man from room service inquired as he delivered vintage champagne to the former football genius in his suite at a plush hotel.

There was 20,000 in cash scattered on the bed which also contained the current Miss Universe.

In today's laddish world, the remark may seem laughable. Yet the waiter had a point. George Best had squandered one of the rarest and most precious football talents ever seen in favour of a self-indulgent merry-go-round of birds and booze.

He reached unimaginable heights with his outrageous skills in a career that lasted a mere six years at the top, before self-destructing into alcoholism, bankruptcy and jail.

To this day, Best maintains that nothing went wrong, that he just got bored with it all. The most he has ever conceded about that waiter's question is: "Perhaps he saw something I didn't."

But to see Best play in his prime was to be mesmerised by his dazzling ability. Few would argue that he is the most gifted footballer ever produced in the British Isles. There wasn't anything he couldn't do.

"He was quick, two-footed, beautifully balanced," his friend Michael Parkinson once wrote. "He could hit long and short passes with equal precision, was swift and fearless in the tackle and he reintroduced the verb 'to dribble'. He was as imaginative and whimsical in midfield as he was economical and deadly given a chance at goal."

He could also head brilliantly and he never shirked from defending when he had to. In short, he was the perfect footballer. But while he was Roy of the Rovers on the field, sadly he was Roy of the Ravers off it.

In those six magical seasons with United, he scored 115 goals in 290 games - six of them in one game! He won two League Championships, the European Cup and was voted European Football of the Year. Pele named him as his favourite player, which was remarkable considering Best's international career with Northern Ireland never allowed him the opportunity of appearing in the World Cup finals.

Best, then a charming, street-urchin of a lad, arrived in Manchester from Belfast in 1961 at the age of 15 with another young player called Eric McMordie. But the genius which was to beguile the football world nearly didn't get a chance to flourish. After just 24 hours at Old Trafford, Best and McMordie felt they had seen enough and fled back to Ulster. Best's father telephoned United's manager Matt Busby and within two weeks he was back at the club.

He turned professional in 1963 and made his debut that autumn at home against West Bromwich Albion who were then second in the League. Best had a fine game, giving West Brom's experienced full-back Graham Williams a roasting. One of his first moves was to show Williams the ball - and then he "nutmegged" him! United won 1-0 to keep them top of the table. Best had a hand in the goal, but he was replaced on the left wing for the next match by Ian Moir.

Yet there is a lovely story that years later Williams, the seasoned pro he had embarrassed, met Best and said to him: "Will you stand still for a minute so I can look at your face?" "Why?" asked Best. "Because all I've ever seen of you," explained Williams, "is your arse disappearing down the touchline."

Best was still finding it hard to settle in Manchester and, suffering from homesickness, took himself off to Belfast to spend Christmas with his family. While he was there the club got in touch. He was needed for Saturday's home game against Burnley who had thrashed United 6-1 at Turf Moor on Boxing Day.

Best, a might cheekily for a 17-year-old with only one League game under his belt, said he was available to play provided the club not only flew him to Manchester, but also back to Belfast immediately after the game. The club agreed. Perhaps that was the defining moment when the young Best realised he had made the big time - and that the big time meant you could indulge yourself with attention and demands.

United completely overturned that humiliating defeat, winning 5-1 and Best scored his first goal for the club. This time he was in the side to stay.

By January 1964, the great triumvirate of those golden days at Old Trafford was appearing in a match together for the first time. Law-Charlton-Best made their debut as perhaps the greatest combination in British football in the return match with West Brom at the Hawthorns. Conditions were bad and several players wore basketball shoes to combat the slippery surface.

United won 4-1 and, significantly, Law, Charlton and Best were the scorers, Law getting two. Best's goal is described by Graham McColl in his book, Manchester United in the Sixties, as the "best of the day."

"He took a neat pass from Law," wrote McColl, "angled himself clear of the West Brom defence and then squeezed the ball neatly between the posts from the tightest of angles."

It was typical Best flair that was to be repeated over and over again as he thrived at the heart of that incredible partnership.

The spectre of the Munich air crash in which eight of the Busby Babes had died in 1958 still hung over the club. Busby had said it would take five years to rebuild and recover - and it had, with the FA Cup being won in 1963 in a 3-1 victory over Leicester.

But what Best now offered was the catalyst to overcome those terrible memories. The team was playing football others could only dream about - and in Best they had found someone whose showmanship was so awesome that the Old Trafford crowds had a talisman to take away the pain. He didn't just beat defenders - he toyed with and tormented them.

Best was the direct heir of those tragic Babes - Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Billy Whelan and, of course, Duncan Edwards. And, incredibly, he was better than any of them.

But therein lay the crux of the Best problem. The expectancy, the pressures on him to perform at such a sustained level of greatness were so huge. He was, said the sportswriter David Miller, "fantasy brought to life." Yet those hopes were embodied in a character totally unsuited to deal with the demands on him. He was wayward and weak. And, in the end, the demons would win.

But at this point, in the spring of 1964, the glory years of vintage Best were emerging. United went so close to honours that season. They finished second in the League, reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners' Cup in their first season back in Europe since Munich.

In all three competitions, United had finished second best only to the eventual winners and in 1964-65 it would come right.

They played some fabulous football that season, inflicting a 7-0 defeat on Aston Villa and a 10-1 aggregate hammering of Borussia Dortmund in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (forerunner of today's UEFA Cup). Dortmund were no mugs. They won the West German cup that year and the European Cup Winners' Cup the following season.

United won the League Championship and were back in the European Cup. By now Best had become the first showbusiness footballer. He was receiving 1,000 fan mail letters a week. He was dubbed "the fifth Beatle" because, in the days when players had short hair, his mop resembled those of the pop group. The boutiques, modelling assignments and personal appearances business was booming for Best.

It took its toll. United's early season form was poor. After eight League games, they had scored just eight goals. These were the days of attacking football, when big scores were not unusual, and United's total was the second lowest in the division. Best was dropped.

He missed United's comeback match in the European Cup against the minnows HJK Helsinki. United squeaked the first leg away 3-2. Best was reinstated for the home leg. But the man who had replaced him on the left wing, John Aston, kept his place. Best would play at inside right.

As if he needed to prove something, Best had a blinder. This was the stage he needed. The glamour of the European Cup. He scored twice, one of them a beauty as he glided through the Helsinki defence. United won 7-0. They were on their way.

A 7-1 aggregate victory over ASK Voerwaerts followed next before a clash with mighty Benfica in the quarter-finals. United won the first leg 3-2 at Old Trafford, but would it be enough to take to Portugal? Benfica had never been beaten in 19 European Cup matches in the Stadium of Light yet United, in one of their best performances, were to clip the wings of the Eagles of Lisbon.

The final score was 5-1. It was a shattering defeat for Benfica. Their star player Eusebio was in his prime and he had been presented with the European Footballer of the Year trophy just before the kick-off.

Busby's instructions had been to keep it tight for the first 15 minutes and see how things went. With just 12 minutes gone, Best had scored twice - once with a header, and the second a moment of magic as he beat three men before shooting past the goalkeeper.

Afterwards, Busby turned to Best and said wryly: "You obviously weren't listening."

The semi-final marked a return to Belgrade to play Partizan in the first leg. United went down 2-0, Best injured a knee and missed the rest of the season. His team-mates won the home leg 1-0, but the adventure was over for another year. United finished fourth in Division One. Busby's dream of winning the European Cup would have to wait.

The summer of 1966 was dominated by England's success in the World Cup. For Best, however, it was a period of recovery after having a cartilage operation. The rest did him good. On the opening day of the season against West Brom, Best, now on the right wing, scored in the first minute. He was back.

With no Europe to distract them, United won the title in style, wrapping up the Championship with a 6-1 drubbing of West Ham. Everything was set for the all-important assault on the European Cup and this would be the year that dreams came true.

First, however, United undertook a remarkable overseas tour. It began in May in Los Angeles, went on to New Zealand, and finished at the end of June in Western Australia. It was an extraordinary preparation for a season that would begin in just six weeks time.

Significantly, one of those tour matches was against Benfica. United lost 3-1.

United beat Hibernian Valletta of Malta and FC Sarajevo of Yugoslavia in the first two rounds of the European Cup before meeting Gornik Zabrze of Poland in the quarter-finals. They took a 2-0 lead from the first leg to Poland where they had to play on a snow covered pitch. It continued to snow during the match and United went down 1-0. But they were through to the semis where they would face Real Madrid. Busby told journalists: " I feel this is our year."

United held only a fragile 1-0 lead as they went to the Bernabeau for the second leg against Real. Law was out with an injury and by half-time United were 3-1 down. It seemed as if the dream was dying again.

Somehow United stuck to the task and miraculously came away with a 3-3 draw. At last, they had reached the European Cup Final.

The night of May 29 at Wembley was to be the fulfillment of United's prized ambition. The Red Devils of Manchester against the Red Devils of Lisbon . . the old foes, Eusebio's Benfica.

Benfica were vastly experienced. They had played 52 European Cup ties, winning 29. United had played 32 and won 20. Benfica, who had already won the trophy twice, were appearing in their fifth European Cup Final in eight years. It was United's first. And in Eusebio, Benfica had the second highest goalscorer of all time in the competition with 36, topped only by the peerless Di Stefano of Real Madrid with 49.

Just after half-time, Bobby Charlton put United in front with a rare header. There were only nine minutes to the final whistle when United's defence left Graca unmarked and he stunned the crowd with an equaliser. United were tiring, Benfica coming on strong. With time running out, Eusebio twice had good chances to grab the glory. Each time he was foiled by Alex Stepney in goal. Benfica were overunning United and looked certain to get the winner. Then the whistle went. United had the chance to regroup before extra time.

It was then that Best took the game by the scruff of the neck. He received the ball with his back to goal. He drifted past his marker with a characteristic swivel, ghosted past the goalkeeper and struck the ball home. Sheer magic.

"I used to dream about taking the ball round the keeper, stopping it on the line and then getting on my hands and knees and heading it into the net," Best said later. "When I scored against Benfica in the European Cup Final I nearly did it. I left the keeper for dead, but then I chickened out. I might have given the boss a heart attack."

Brian Kidd, United's present-day assistant manager, headed the third goal and Charlton, United's captain and link with the team of Munich, scored the last for a crushing 4-1 triumph.

United, and Best, however, had reached their pinnacle. Best was voted European Footballer of the Year, but within twelve months the cracks were appearing.

Best was sent off for fighting in the World Clubs Cup against the South American champions Estudiantes of Argentina. United's League form was poor and they finished the 1968-69 season in eleventh place. They got as far as the semi-finals in the European Cup, but at the end of the season, Busby retired.

His successor as team manager was Wilf McGuinness, an Old Trafford veteran who had been in charge of the youth team. He didn't last long before Frank O'Farrell took over.

Best began to drift. Even the great Sir Matt had his problems with him, but the other managers just could not control him. Best began to drink more and missed out on training. He was on the slippery slope.

There were still magical days, however, when he achieved the seemingly impossible. Such as an FA Cup fifth round tie at Northampton in the winter of 1970. Best was returning after suspension and gave a complete exhibition of his unique skills. United won 8-2. Best scored six of them!

Such days were becoming rarer, however. More usually, Best was the subject of newspaper headlines featuring some drunken binge. By the end of that season it was over. He was only 25.

What followed was an extraordinary and speedy descent. He briefly re-appeared for United in 1973, but now he hawked his God-given talent to some distant outposts of the game. The genius that was Best turned out for Stockport County, Bournemouth, Fulham, Hibernian, Los Angeles Aztecs, Cork Celtic, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, San Jose Earthquakes, Dunstable Town, Brisbane Lions and Ford Open Prison.

That last team acquired his services courtesy of a drink-driving conviction and assault on a policeman.

Best's explanations are interesting. Whatever he lacked in self-discipline, he was never less than honest with himself. "I was born with a great gift," he said, "and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak.

"Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town."

He once admitted that, when playing in America, he was living in a house by the sea. But as he had to pass a bar to get to the beach he never actually made it to the water.

And as Tommy Docherty said: "George was a fantastic player and he would have been even better if he'd been able to pass nightclubs the way he passed the ball."

Perhaps he never really matured. His former wife Angie, mother of his son Calum, said she couldn't look after two babies, so the older one had to go. Almost 25 years after his star burnt out, Best was voted the greatest British sportsman of all time by a panel of 1,000 journalists and sports personalities.

The irony is, as Michael Parkinson said, that "the only tragedy George Best has to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been."

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