George Best

The attached graphic of George Best and Gordon Banks has a few stories bubbling through the screen at you. Some will recognise it probably as a Home international match between England and Northern Ireland taken around fifty odd years ago. Others will know it as one of the last few international games to be played in Belfast in 1971 before civil conflict eclipsed sport and life, but not hope. It would be four years before international football returned to a still turbulent Belfast. Yugoslavia who would have their own civil difficulties, later on, would be the team who led that movement.

The picture captures two greats of the era. Both later on in their lives were to face difficulty. The following year Gordon Banks was to lose an eye in a car accident derailing his career and George Best, of course, was on a longer road. The match itself followed a usual course with an Allan Clarke goal sealing a win for England. It would be probably rude at this point not to say that the following year future Arsenal manager Terry Neill would score a single goal at Wembley to do the same to England. But this is no Home International review.

The still of these two players should immediately frame a famous moment for many. You don’t even have to be of that certain vintage to know that. There are many football photographs that are significant for the story they tell. We will look at some of them in future ‘Tales’ editions. There are a few things to say about this photograph.

George Best is reasonably considered not to have the career he might have had with Manchester United. The screaming narrative here is the boozer playing the boy rather than the ball. I have heard equal arguments that would equally forcefully state that he actually did get as much out of his Manchester United years as was available. That can and has been debated elsewhere but is not what we are about here. Pro rata, it is felt that in accruing 37 caps for Northern Ireland he underwhelmed there. Nine goals filled out those appearances.  The discussion here is all underlined by the no shows for club and country.

Facing him the epitome of steady. The Banks of England he was called. The low key, low maintenance coal man who became the World Cup winner for England. Easily identifiable, homely, he was probably the next most loved of the ‘66 team after Bobby Moore. It’s a tight call with Bobby Charlton but Banks came across as more relaxed and sociable. Less shy is probably the right description.

On this point, many have hammered home the belief that Bobby Charlton and Best never got on. That story was perpetuated into popular newsprint by the simple and understandable difference between the two. Best, single, sociable and young. Charlton, married, reserved and older. The link? Both brilliant footballers and shy. The football ability was easily expressed for both on the pitch. The shyness was expressed in different ways.  Gordon Banks didn’t have Bobby’s shyness but he did represent that straightforward and ramrod ‘establishment’ player.

George, of course, was not. He was well established by now as the Che Guevara of British football. The flashing black hair against the striking green shirt.  Chlorophyll and nightshade in shorts. The bad boy of British football aglow in the strip of the black sheep of the home nations. To borrow a line from that famous Irish folk-rock group Horslips, he was ‘Hawkeye in the sun’.

What happened next was almost something that needed to happen, something that should happen. Banks was being shadowed by Best. A head-on confrontation as Banks tried to kick the ball west towards Divis mountain. It was a dance that was of its time and is not seen these days.  But Best had decided he would feature and feature he would. Throwing the ball up in the air Banks set himself to launch the ball down the pitch, the dorsal fin on the green number 11 shirt lashed and George was on the ball in a flash. The Banks’ boot was not to connect and as the ball ran loose the race was on. The panic was immediate. That panic was not something ever associated with England’s goalkeeper but there was no doubt he was not in a good place here.

Ulster’s flashing blade, of course, won that race and dispatched the ball into the Railway End net with his head.  The Scottish referee, clearly and momentarily not sure what to do decided to disallow it as it was the only role available out of the quicksand. Neither Best nor Banks quite knew where they stood right there and both lapsed into their natural habitat in those moments. The goalkeeper taking the righteous indignant mantle, waving his hands to the ref in a ‘Help me out here ref, you can’t seriously allow that’ plea. But it was as much in desperation as anything.  Best adopted a familiar stance. Hands on hips in that resigned ‘teacher caught me again pose’. The crowd bellowed their disapproval but not in certainty.

Through it, all the idea of curtailed genius emanated. The feeling from Best was that the crowd and he had had their moment of quicksilver brilliance violently arrested. It was like a third corner to his ‘El Beatle’ performance against Benfica in ‘66 and his dismembering of Scotland a year later. This time though it had gone against him. However, as one of the all-time greats, it was his Pele moment if you align the famous Brazilian’s edge of area dummy or the halfway line near miss. These things are commonplace now but nobody had broached them fifty years ago.

For many attending it was an ‘I was there moment’ and followed on from a year previous when Best had been sent off for throwing mud at the referee. As mentioned the last international match Northern Ireland played in Belfast was played a few months later v Russia. The succeeding matches were played in places like Hull, Coventry, and Liverpool over the next few years. George’s appearances became sporadic. His final caps were in the autumn of 1977 against Iceland and finally Holland. This writer was pleased to attend both games as much to see another genius share the pitch, Johan Cruyff.

Best was to finally succumb to the ravages of alcoholism in November 2005. I went along to his funeral and it was the nearest thing to a state event the country had ever seen. There is, of course, an airport named after him and a themed hotel will bear his name shortly in the centre of Belfast. What was missing is a statue of him and of course this recently materialised.

Best would be a very unifying footballer in the divided community that is Northern Ireland. Both tribes, however, will discuss him primarily as a footballer as he did not provide any political profile through his time. This was some feat, bearing in mind his celebrity as the country descended into sectarian chaos during his heyday but politics was clearly not his thing. By and large, most Northern Ireland football fans here will pay homage to him as he is the most instantly recognisable world face they possess. A T-shirt of Best has the same currency as a Pele, Maradona or Messi and such like.

That said, many will put him behind the likes of Pat Jennings, David Healy, Gerry Armstrong, Steve Davis, etc. who it is felt gave more to their country. Moving beyond football, and the judgemental will pour scorn on some of the darker antics in his life. In typical Northern Irish fashion though, for every dark antic there is a story and a memory of his innate friendliness, his generosity and time he gave to his home province in other ways. In short, any time he behaved poorly or showed disrespect, the Northern Ireland team and fans suffered as much as other key people and components too in his life. Indeed, some would say he himself came under that umbrella too.

It is marvellous that the statue has eventually appeared. The IFA will be pleased it is beside Windsor Park which will correlate nicely alongside their very successful IFA museum tour. The George Best statue will now become a major tourist attraction for many visitors. Gordon Banks recently sadly passed has his statue now as well. Two greats with permanent homes. Proper order…proper order.