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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 13:37 GMT
The best and worst of a legend
By John May

George Best signs a guest book as he is given the freedom of Castelreagh
George Best signing a guest book when he was given the freedom of Castelreagh
Of the vast volume of words written and said about George Best, perhaps the most telling came from the mouth of the man himself.

The ultimate laddish tale tells of the night when a waiter delivering champagne to Best's hotel room saw thousands of pounds of casino winnings and the current Miss World both arranged tastefully on the bed.

The scene prompted the legendary question: "Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?"

But it was only some years later that Best observed: "Perhaps he saw something in me that I didn't."

Best was always ready with this self-deprecating put-down when questioned on his lifestyle.

"I spent 90% of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted," he was often quoted as saying.

A more reflective Best also said: "I was born with a great gift, 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."

What is evident is there were plenty of people who cared more about Best than perhaps he did himself, and they nearly all found it galling that Best arguably squandered some of his gifts.

Current Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson hails Best as "unquestionably the greatest. There was nobody to compare with him."

United team-mate Paddy Crerand described Best as "a one-off" and Denis Law said Best was "the complete player."

I don't care if he is George Best, unless he's willing to do hard training, he won't get a look in
Malcolm Holman, Ford Open prison coach

But one of the most apt tributes to Best's talents came from former West Brom defender Graham Williams.

In the middle of a game in which he was being run ragged, Williams asked Best: "Will you stand still for a minute so I can look at your face?"

"Why?" asked Best in return.

"Because all I've ever seen of you," explained Williams, "is your backside disappearing down the touchline."

At the same time, there are more sober reflections on Best's life and career.

Ferguson himself also conceded it was "so tragic that circumstances led to such an early retirement from the game".

Former Wales manager Bobby Gould said "Best's rare talent was allowed to fade before its time.

"When George looked at how Alex Ferguson handled the likes of Eric Cantona, I wonder whether he regrets that someone did not handle him in the same way."

It was Sir Matt Busby who came closest to playing that role for Best.

Aware that he had a particularly fragile talent at his disposal, Busby warned: "Don't coach him, he's a genius."

Former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby
Busby did his best to protect Best's talents

"We had our problems with the wee fella but I prefer to remember his genius," added Busby, who was one of the few figures to command Best's respect.

David Meek, who covered United for the Manchester Evening News for more than 40 years, offered an alternative view to those who criticised Best's early retirement.

"I thought the criticism levelled at him when he finished at 27 was unfair," said Meek.

"He played 11 seasons of First Division football with United and paid his dues to the public. He started early and was entitled to finish when he did."

He lost a lot of goodwill when he kept drinking after his liver transplant
Michael Parkinson

Equally, Best was acutely aware of his standing atop the pecking order, and could be cutting in his impish dismissal of other players.

"Geoff Thomas? Isn't he the player who can trap a ball as far as I can kick it?" he once asked.

In a similar vein, he said on another occasion: "Who knows, one day they might even say I was another Ryan Giggs."

His allies in the media would also weigh in on his behalf.

Parodying Best's claim that Kevin Keegan was not fit to lace his boots, football writer John Roberts said: "Keegan isn't fit to lace Best's drinks."

Michael Parkinson became a close friend because of Best's regular appearance on his chat show.

And perhaps it was that close friendship that allowed Parkinson to make a more balanced assessment when he asserted that Best "lost a lot of goodwill when he kept drinking after his liver transplant and that's very sad."

So perhaps it should also be left to Parkinson to put things into a final, telling perspective.

"The only tragedy George Best had to confront," Parkinson concluded, "is that he will never know how good he could have been."


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