Belfast Telegraph

We have just unearthed a gem from your neck of the woods...




GEORGIE Best would have been 60 today had he still been around.

The party would have been something else.

Thought of his birthday moved my recollections back more than 40 years when I conducted the first interview his late mother Anne gave in her Burren Way home as she talked proudly of her son, who had just exploded with atomic-like force on the football scene as a teenager with Manchester United.

And she revealed that it had been a difficult birth in a city hospital with George so frail, so thin that some felt that he just mightn't make it. Becoming a footballer never entered their thoughts then but of course he came through and the rest is history.

Now the clock and the calendar has moved on six decades.

This tiny little baby who became an icon lies in peace at Roselawn Cemetery, his grave a shrine to those who remember him like myself and millions of others as the Belfast boy, the ultimate football genius.

His skill was hypnotic, a player up there and perhaps surpassing Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano, Cruyff and the other greats.

Of all the descriptions of his genius I read one paragraph by my long-time colleague and friend Hugh McIlvanney, that prince of sports writers as summing him up best.

"With feet as sensitive as a pickpocket's hands, his control of the ball under the most violent pressure was astonishing. The bewildering repertoire of feints and swerves, sudden stops and demoralising spurts, exploited a freakish elasticity of limb and torso, tremendous physical strength and resilience for so slight a figure and balance that would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple."

Being here in the Big Apple for Northern Ireland's end of season tour takes me back to a day in a Manhattan bar and restaurant when Matt Busby mentioned that he had unearthed a gem "from your neck of the woods" who would become the greatest.

"His name George Best," he said.

And on returning home I learned he was one of the hundreds of youngsters the late Bob Bishop brought to my office in the Telegraph sports department to be photographed before embarking on the great adventure to Old Trafford, many of whom returned disillusioned.

Remember it? There he stood, wearing his Lisnasharragh school blazer with Eric McMordie.

Memories... they come flooding back like a river in full flow.

My short stay at his Manchester digs, his first cap with Pat Jennings against Wales in Swansea, those vivid blue eyes, luxuriant black hair which had the females falling at his feet.

Then there was the humility of the man as he portrayed presenting the schoolboy in the children's hospital with the jersey he wore on the day he beat Scotland on his own - the finest individual show ever seen at Windsor Park.

Those European nights with Manchester United in Lisbon, crowning glory of winning the trophy at Wembley and at the reception afterwards in a West End hotel he went straight to Matt Busby's old mother, threw his arms around her and she said instantly: "That's my boy."

Those telephone calls from distant parts when he went absent without leave from Manchester United and Northern Ireland, his escapades which embarrassed and sometimes irritated me but which I always put down to the disease that is alcohol.

His generosity, ability to complete The Times crossword in record time and his knowledge of literature.

I recall too him sitting in my car for over an hour outside the Culloden Hotel after I had given him a lift back from Windsor Park and how he related some of the difficulties of life in great detail, his battle for life which he lost and his funeral which stunned the world by its dignity, overwhelming sympathy from the people of Northern Ireland underlining just what he meant to so many in this province.

Last Saturday I was due to participate in the unveiling ceremony of a wall painting near the fields on the Cregagh estate where he mesmerised the youngsters and their parents so often with his skills.

How appropriate then his portrait will dominate the scene for to me he will always be Georgie, the boy from Burren Way, the Belfast Boy.


From Belfast Telegraph