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George Best will be looking down, proud of Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 heroics

Tributes paid as anniversary of star's death nears

By Rory Dollard

Published 21/11/2015

Simply the Best: George Best shows off some of his wide range of skills during his time at Manchester United, where he became a worldwide star
Simply the Best: George Best shows off some of his wide range of skills during his time at Manchester United, where he became a worldwide star
Best man: George Best (c) shows off the 1968 European Footballer of the Year award, which journalist Max Urbini (l) presented to him before the match, as team-mates Bobby Charlton (second l, 1966 winner) and Denis Law (r, 1964 winner), and manager Matt Busby (second r) look on

It seems fitting that on a day when Northern Ireland will mourn the 10th anniversary of their greatest player's death, football is once again riding high in the country.

George Best, who died at just 59 on November 25 2005, was an undisputed great - not only of his chosen sport, but of any sport.

Yet while his story, one of limitless skill, the best and worst excesses of celebrity and an ultimately fatal addiction to alcohol, still entices, Best somehow failed to shine on the international stage.

At Manchester United the honours flowed - two league titles, the club's first ever European Cup, a Ballon d'Or and a highlights reel to match the best in history - but it was a curiosity that Best managed only 37 appearances and nine goals for Northern Ireland.

Fewer caps than Niall McGinn, fewer strikes than Iain Dowie.

He is, without question, one of the finest players never to grace a major tournament.

But his successors in the green shirt, after a 30-year absence, will do just that next summer after qualifying for Euro 2016.

Complications relating to a liver transplant denied Best the chance to share in the celebrations. But Gerry Armstrong, a former team-mate, long-time friend and finally Best's pall-bearer, has no doubt what that would have meant to his colleague.

"I can't believe it's 10 years since that awful day but it's amazing that it comes as Northern Ireland have just qualified for the European Championship," Armstrong said.

"I know how proud George would have been about that, he would have loved it. I just know he is somewhere up there looking down on us and smiling.

"He was so proud to come from Northern Ireland and to wear that green shirt. He loved to see the country do well.

"And it worked both ways; nobody here will ever forget George Best or what he achieved. He is our greatest ever player, no doubt about that, and although we miss him we have some fantastic memories that we'll never forget."

Stories of Best - or 'El Beatle' to give him one of many nicknames - are passed down the football family like folklore.

He made just as much use of his Hollywood good looks as he did his footballing talent, and boasted of sleeping with four Miss Worlds, almost certainly the only man from east Belfast's modest Cregagh Estate to make such a claim.

"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered," he once quipped.

But there were two failed marriages and his desperate, futile battle against the bottle to weigh against his glory days.

Nevertheless, current Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill looks back on Best with fondness.

"I remember playing in his testimonial at Windsor Park as an 18-year-old... it was the thing of dreams to just be in a changing room with him," O'Neill said. "We still recognise his contribution, not only to football but to life. I don't think Northern Ireland will ever produce another George Best and possibly the world of football might not.

"Certain players are timeless and it says a lot that George's legend lives on at Manchester United despite the fantastic players that have come and gone since."

Best is the marquee name on a proud list of Northern Irishmen to have represented the Red Devils, including the likes of Harry Gregg, Jackie Blanchflower, Sammy McIlroy, Norman Whiteside, Jimmy Nicholl and, more recently, Jonny Evans and Paddy McNair.

Keith Gillespie did not make the same kind of impact at Old Trafford, playing only a handful of times between 1993 and 1995.

But early on the Larne-born prospect was dubbed 'the new Best', a tag that weighed heavy but one he still regards as an honour.

Gillespie said: "It was an incredible accolade... anyone from Northern Ireland who goes to Manchester United hears about George Best but me more than most because we were both wingers.

"I had that tag and it was nice, even though I was nowhere near the player he was. My nickname at all my clubs was 'Bestie' but he was someone I looked up to for years and I still do.

"Like many of us he had his flaws off the pitch but that never stopped people loving him.

"What he did for football in the 60s was incredible, he was a genius."

They are sentiments which will be shared in Manchester, Belfast and far beyond as football remembers the life and career of George Best.

The extraordinary life and times of the great George Best

1946: Born May 22, Belfast.

1963: Leaves school and turns professional with Manchester United. Travels from Belfast with Eric McMordie, who went on to play for Middlesbrough, to Old Trafford. The pair return to Northern Ireland because they are homesick but United manager Matt Busby travels after him and persuades Best to come back to Manchester. Makes First Division debut on September 13 against West Brom at Old Trafford.

1964: Makes Northern Ireland debut, seven months after making his first-team bow, against Wales in Swansea.

1965: Helps United win their first league championship in eight years.

1966: Mesmerises Benfica, regarded as one of the finest teams in Europe, by scoring twice in the opening 10 minutes as United become the first team to inflict a European defeat on the Portuguese side in the Stadium of Light. United win 5-1 and Best is hailed as ‘El Beatle’ by the fans. One supporter runs on the pitch at the end with a knife wanting a lock of Best’s hair.

1967: United win league championship.

1968: Manchester United become the first English team to win the European Cup, Best scoring in a 4-1 extra-time triumph over Benfica at Wembley. Picks up the English and European Footballer of the Year awards.

1970: Scores six goals in an FA Cup fifth-round tie at Northampton. Sent off playing for Northern Ireland against Scotland in Belfast for throwing mud at referee.

1971: Withdraws from the Northern Ireland squad after threats on his life. Scores a hat-trick against Cyprus in Belfast.

1972: Announces retirement.

1973: Makes short comeback after making peace with new United boss Tommy Docherty before again retiring after another bust-up.

1974: Plays for Jewish Guild of Johannesburg but his short spell in South Africa is characterised by his heavy drinking and gambling lifestyle. Dunstable Town manager, his former Manchester United team-mate Barry Fry, persuades him to turn out for his club in a friendly.

1975: Plays for Stockport on loan, making three league appearances and scoring two goals, before becoming one of the leading lights of the newly formed North American Soccer League with the Los Angeles Aztecs and joining Cork Celtic.

1976: Joins Fulham, making 42 appearances with eight goals.

1977: Makes the last of 37 international appearances for Northern Ireland against Holland in Belfast.

1978: Joins Fort Lauderdale Strikers in America but a wrangle over his registration between the American club and Fulham leads to FIFA imposing a worldwide ban on him. Marries first wife Angie MacDonald James in Las Vegas.

1979: Plays for brief spell with Hibernian in Scotland.

1980: Signs for San Jose Earthquakes and begins treatment for alcoholism.

1981: Scores what he later described as his favourite goal in a 3-2 win over former club Fort Lauderdale. Son Calum Milan Best is born.

1983: Plays five times for Bournemouth before finally retiring.

1984: Jailed for drink-driving offence.

1988: A testimonial organised by friends attracts 20,000 people in Belfast and raises £75,000 to help stave off bankruptcy.

1990: Causes storm of protest after appearing drunk and swearing on BBC TV’s Terry Wogan chat show. Best claimed TV executives ‘’plied’’ him with champagne before the performance.

1995: Marries Alex Pursey.

1996: Announces he would be interested in succeeding Jack Charlton as Republic of Ireland manager but Football Association of Ireland appoints Millwall boss Mick McCarthy.

1998: Joins Sky Sports as football pundit.

2001: December — Reveals he is on standby for a liver transplant.

2002: July 30 — Goes into hospital for transplant.

December 8: Awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

2003: July 12 — Arrested after an incident at a hotel in Tadworth, Surrey.

August: Announced he was selling his trophies, including his 1968 European Footballer of the Year award, to raise money to buy a Greek home.

2004: February — Banned from driving for 20 months after pleading guilty to drink-driving.

April: Divorced from wife Alex.

2005: July — Cleared over allegations of indecently assaulting a teenage girl.

October 1: Doctors at the private Cromwell Hospital in west London reveal Best is in intensive care with kidney problems. Condition improves over the next few weeks.

November 18: Suffers severe setback in his recovery as he contracts a new infection and is put on a life support machine.

November 25: Dies in hospital, aged 59.

Belfast Telegraph

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