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Northern Ireland's most gifted footballer George Best would have been 69 today, here we celebrate the Manchester United legend's life

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GEORGE BEST:FOOTBALL/MANCHESTER UNITED LEGEND. ACTION. 9/4/1971

GEORGE BEST:FOOTBALL/MANCHESTER UNITED LEGEND. ACTION. 9/4/1971

George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages

George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages

George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar

George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar

George Best in a Glentoran shirt with another ex Northern Ireland international Norman Whiteside - and a young Stephen Chick

George Best in a Glentoran shirt with another ex Northern Ireland international Norman Whiteside - and a young Stephen Chick

George Best

George Best

Photopress Staff

George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966

George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964

Manchester United legend George Best

Manchester United legend George Best

George Best pictured with Pat Jennings

George Best pictured with Pat Jennings

George Best in training for Manchester United

George Best in training for Manchester United

George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin

George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin

George Best footballer in Manchester United kit

George Best footballer in Manchester United kit

George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.

George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.

George Best with Lawrie Sanchez

George Best with Lawrie Sanchez

George Best

George Best

John Chaffetz, an official of the Los Angeles Aztecs, points the way for soccer star George Best. Best was attending a press conference after joing the Aztecs in 1976

John Chaffetz, an official of the Los Angeles Aztecs, points the way for soccer star George Best. Best was attending a press conference after joing the Aztecs in 1976

Football legend George Best, pictured with Pat Jennings (left) and Billy Bingham (right).

Football legend George Best, pictured with Pat Jennings (left) and Billy Bingham (right).

FUNERAL Best 40...A view from the balcony of Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast of George Best's funeral cortege making its way towards the buildings, Saturday December 3, 2005.

FUNERAL Best 40...A view from the balcony of Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast of George Best's funeral cortege making its way towards the buildings, Saturday December 3, 2005.

Soccer - 50th Anniversary of George Best's Debut for Manchester United...File photo dated 30/07/1968 of Manchester United's George Best. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday September 13, 2013. At around 10am 50 years ago on Saturday, David Sadler jumped into a taxi cab in Chorlton in the suburbs of Manchester alongside a 17-year-old stripling of a lad who was about to embark on a journey which would bedazzle the world of football. That boy was George Best. See PA story SOCCER Best. Photo credit should read: PA Photos/PA Wire...S

Soccer - 50th Anniversary of George Best's Debut for Manchester United...File photo dated 30/07/1968 of Manchester United's George Best. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday September 13, 2013. At around 10am 50 years ago on Saturday, David Sadler jumped into a taxi cab in Chorlton in the suburbs of Manchester alongside a 17-year-old stripling of a lad who was about to embark on a journey which would bedazzle the world of football. That boy was George Best. See PA story SOCCER Best. Photo credit should read: PA Photos/PA Wire...S

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GEORGE BEST:FOOTBALL/MANCHESTER UNITED LEGEND. ACTION. 9/4/1971

Sixty-nine years ago today, Northern Ireland's gift to the football world was born.

Ronald Samuel Best, as his recently discovered birth certificate revealed he was first named, entered this world on May 22, 1946 at the Royal Hospital, Belfast.

Quickly renamed George, he went on to take the world of football and celebrity by storm.

Georgie, Georgie, they called him the Belfast Boy, as he became immortalised in song and legend.

The first football superstar and, in our book, the greatest player ever in his Manchester United and Northern Ireland heyday, George burned brightly in our lives like a sparkler before his light was sadly extinguished, 10 years ago this November, aged just 59.

It would have been nice to have him still around at 69 but at least we have our memories and here are some of those...

 

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By Jim Gracey

Did you ever interview George Best?

It's the question I'm most asked at every milestone since his passing.

The answer is, well, yes... and , er, no!

The truth, I'm not ashamed to admit, is that the first few times I met my all-time, absolute idol, HE interviewed me.

I was simply dumbstruck in the presence of the guy, who from my boyhood, I'd worshipped both as a footballer and Jack The Lad.

George Best is the reason I ended up in the toyshop, as newspaper sports departments are known to the `serious' (envious?) journos at the front of the paper.

He kicked off my love affair with football and Man United. If George had been a Burnley player, they'd be my English club today.

As a kid, I was in awe watching him play for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. He stirred the earliest sporting emotions I can recall...

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Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964

Books:GEORGE BEST: The Legend - In Pictures, Ivan Martin, Appletree Press

Books:GEORGE BEST: The Legend - In Pictures, Ivan Martin, Appletree Press

George Best and his dad, Dickie

George Best and his dad, Dickie

George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages

George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages

Manchester United footballer George Best with manager  Tommy Docherty.

Manchester United footballer George Best with manager Tommy Docherty.

Getty Images

George Best  with Gerald Black

George Best with Gerald Black

George Best leading the teams out with mascot

George Best leading the teams out with mascot

George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin

George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin

John Chaffetz, an official of the Los Angeles Aztecs, points the way for soccer star George Best. Best was attending a press conference after joing the Aztecs in 1976

John Chaffetz, an official of the Los Angeles Aztecs, points the way for soccer star George Best. Best was attending a press conference after joing the Aztecs in 1976

George Best in action

George Best in action

George Best

George Best

George Best with the Portadown football team and mascot before they played Glenavon in 1981

George Best with the Portadown football team and mascot before they played Glenavon in 1981

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964

George Best: Manchester United and Northern Ireland Legend

George Best: Manchester United and Northern Ireland Legend

Memories: George Best trudges off the pitch after being sent off against Scotland

Memories: George Best trudges off the pitch after being sent off against Scotland

George Best larks around in his kitchen with Angie in 1976

George Best larks around in his kitchen with Angie in 1976

Sunday Mirror

George Best footballer in Manchester United kit

George Best footballer in Manchester United kit

Alex with George Best in 1995

Alex with George Best in 1995

The birth certificate

The birth certificate

George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar

George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar

GEORGE BEST:FOOTLALL/NORTHERN IRELAND AND MANCHESTER UNITED LEGEND.

GEORGE BEST:FOOTLALL/NORTHERN IRELAND AND MANCHESTER UNITED LEGEND.

Belfast boy: George Best is the most heralded Northern Ireland sports star... but Rory McIlroy can close in

Belfast boy: George Best is the most heralded Northern Ireland sports star... but Rory McIlroy can close in

Getty Images

George Best is regarded by everyone as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and by many, including Brazilian icon Pele, as THE best of the lot.
The Belfast boy, who lived a rock and roll life, had staggering skill and balance, which he used to score for Man United in their 1968 European Cup final victory, one of 179 goals for the club. A breathtaking talent.

George Best is regarded by everyone as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and by many, including Brazilian icon Pele, as THE best of the lot. The Belfast boy, who lived a rock and roll life, had staggering skill and balance, which he used to score for Man United in their 1968 European Cup final victory, one of 179 goals for the club. A breathtaking talent.

Getty Images

George Best in a Glentoran shirt with another ex Northern Ireland international Norman Whiteside - and a young Stephen Chick

George Best in a Glentoran shirt with another ex Northern Ireland international Norman Whiteside - and a young Stephen Chick

George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966

George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966

Manchester United legend George Best

Manchester United legend George Best

George Best. Football. Manchester United and Northern Ireland.
Ireland v England Oct. 1966.
Best and Parke outwitted by a headless Charlton as Englend mount an attack.

George Best. Football. Manchester United and Northern Ireland. Ireland v England Oct. 1966. Best and Parke outwitted by a headless Charlton as Englend mount an attack.

HEALTH Best 11...Library filer dated 08/03/1969 of legendary footballer George Best who is "coming to the end of the long road of his ill-health", his doctor Professor Roger Williams said Thursday November 24, 2005. See PA story HEALTH Best. PRESS ASSOCIATION photo. Photo Credit should read: PA...A

HEALTH Best 11...Library filer dated 08/03/1969 of legendary footballer George Best who is "coming to the end of the long road of his ill-health", his doctor Professor Roger Williams said Thursday November 24, 2005. See PA story HEALTH Best. PRESS ASSOCIATION photo. Photo Credit should read: PA...A

Benfica's Goalkeeper Jose Henrique (left) races back to his goal in a vain attempt to stop George Best (right) of Manchester United from scoring his team's second goal in the the European Cup final at Wembley, 29th May 1968. United eventually won 4-3 after extra time.

Benfica's Goalkeeper Jose Henrique (left) races back to his goal in a vain attempt to stop George Best (right) of Manchester United from scoring his team's second goal in the the European Cup final at Wembley, 29th May 1968. United eventually won 4-3 after extra time.

George Best pictured with Pat Jennings

George Best pictured with Pat Jennings

Football legend George Best pictured at Windsor Park

Football legend George Best pictured at Windsor Park

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

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

PA Photos/PA Wire

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

PA/PA Wire

George Best playing at the stadium

George Best playing at the stadium

George Best in training for Manchester United

George Best in training for Manchester United

Football legend George Best

Football legend George Best

George shakes hands with the Glenavon captain Alan Frazer and referee Malcolm Moffatt

George shakes hands with the Glenavon captain Alan Frazer and referee Malcolm Moffatt

George Best's wife Angie hands out balls during the game

George Best's wife Angie hands out balls during the game

Angie Best with the referees

Angie Best with the referees

Excited young fans mob George at the game

Excited young fans mob George at the game

Angie is greeted by fans

Angie is greeted by fans

The Bests having fun on the pitch during the game

The Bests having fun on the pitch during the game

On the ball: George’s wife Angie on the pitch

On the ball: George’s wife Angie on the pitch

Fond memories: mascot Stuart McKinley aged six

Fond memories: mascot Stuart McKinley aged six

Style icon George Best outside his Manchester Boutique in the 1970s

Style icon George Best outside his Manchester Boutique in the 1970s

George Best in action for Manchester United

George Best in action for Manchester United

George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.

George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.

George Best with Lawrie Sanchez

George Best with Lawrie Sanchez

George Best

George Best

George Best and his mother Annie

George Best and his mother Annie

Molly meets soccer star George Best

Molly meets soccer star George Best

Football legend George Best, pictured with Pat Jennings (left) and Billy Bingham (right).

Football legend George Best, pictured with Pat Jennings (left) and Billy Bingham (right).

Lining up: George Best joins the rest of the Tobermore United squad for a team photo before the Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United in 1984

Lining up: George Best joins the rest of the Tobermore United squad for a team photo before the Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United in 1984

The late George Best with then wife Alex Best is pictured with family and friends outside his boyhood Burren Way home after he received Castlereagh's Freedom of the Borough

The late George Best with then wife Alex Best is pictured with family and friends outside his boyhood Burren Way home after he received Castlereagh's Freedom of the Borough

Close friends George Best and Mike Summerbee at 1966 World Cup Final

Close friends George Best and Mike Summerbee at 1966 World Cup Final

George Best in April 2002 at the house in Burren Way, where he unveiled a plaque after being awarded the freedom of Castlereagh

George Best in April 2002 at the house in Burren Way, where he unveiled a plaque after being awarded the freedom of Castlereagh

George Best with son Calum

George Best with son Calum

George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum

George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum

George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum

George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum

George Best and Calum Best

George Best and Calum Best

Football legend George Best pictured in 1990

Football legend George Best pictured in 1990

Football legend George Best with his wife Angie, brother Ian, father Dickie and baby son Calum

Football legend George Best with his wife Angie, brother Ian, father Dickie and baby son Calum

George Best with his sister Barbara McNarry

George Best with his sister Barbara McNarry

George Best at home in Belfast with his father Dicki

George Best at home in Belfast with his father Dicki

George Best, ex-Manchester United footballer, smiling with bruised eye

George Best, ex-Manchester United footballer, smiling with bruised eye

H&H auctioneer James Wheeler polishes up the Jaguar once owned by George Best

H&H auctioneer James Wheeler polishes up the Jaguar once owned by George Best

PA

George Best

George Best

Photopress Staff

Manchester United and Northern Ireland football legend George Best

Manchester United and Northern Ireland football legend George Best

A bus stop on the Cregagh Road on the morning of George Best's funeral.

A bus stop on the Cregagh Road on the morning of George Best's funeral.

Flags at George Best funeral at Stormont. Saturday 3rd December 2005

Flags at George Best funeral at Stormont. Saturday 3rd December 2005

The garden of the Best family home in Burren Way, Cregagh, on the day of George's funeral.

The garden of the Best family home in Burren Way, Cregagh, on the day of George's funeral.

The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.

The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.

New stamp depicting George Best

New stamp depicting George Best

Calum Best in the funeral cortege.

Calum Best in the funeral cortege.

Calum Best shakes hands with well-wishers as George Best's funeral cortege leaves the Best family home

Calum Best shakes hands with well-wishers as George Best's funeral cortege leaves the Best family home

The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.

The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.

Calum and Dickie Best at George Best's funeral

Calum and Dickie Best at George Best's funeral

The crowd on the Cregagh Road waiting for George Best's funeral cortege.

The crowd on the Cregagh Road waiting for George Best's funeral cortege.

Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best

Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best

A view from the balcony of Parliament Buildings in Stormont

A view from the balcony of Parliament Buildings in Stormont

Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best

Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best

George Best's coffin is carried up the steps to the Stormont buildings

George Best's coffin is carried up the steps to the Stormont buildings

George Best's coffin is draped with the Northern Ireland flag

George Best's coffin is draped with the Northern Ireland flag

George Best's agent Phil Hughes (centre) with Eamonn Holmes next to George Best's coffin in the Parliament buildings in Stormont, Belfast, Saturday December 3, 2005. The world of football was today paying its last respects as George Best, one of the greatest ever players, was laid to rest. Best, 59, died last Friday in London's Cromwell Hospital.

George Best's agent Phil Hughes (centre) with Eamonn Holmes next to George Best's coffin in the Parliament buildings in Stormont, Belfast, Saturday December 3, 2005. The world of football was today paying its last respects as George Best, one of the greatest ever players, was laid to rest. Best, 59, died last Friday in London's Cromwell Hospital.

The Best family at the George Best funeral at Stormont

The Best family at the George Best funeral at Stormont

Billy Bingham at George Best's funeral

Billy Bingham at George Best's funeral

Robert Dunlop at George Best's funeral

Robert Dunlop at George Best's funeral

Dickie and Calum Best at the funeral of George Best funeral at Stormont.

Dickie and Calum Best at the funeral of George Best funeral at Stormont.

Terry Neill at George Best's funeral

Terry Neill at George Best's funeral

Paddy Kielty and Gerry Armstrong at George Best's funeral

Paddy Kielty and Gerry Armstrong at George Best's funeral

Frank McLintock at George Best's funeral

Frank McLintock at George Best's funeral

Mike England at George Best's funeral

Mike England at George Best's funeral

Derek Dougan at George Best's funeral

Derek Dougan at George Best's funeral

Milan Manderic at George Best's funeral

Milan Manderic at George Best's funeral

Pat Jennings at George Best's funeral

Pat Jennings at George Best's funeral

Phil Taylor, George Best's agent and Jackie Fullerton at George Best's funeral

Phil Taylor, George Best's agent and Jackie Fullerton at George Best's funeral

Alex Higgans at George Best's funeral

Alex Higgans at George Best's funeral

Bobby Jameson at George Best's funeral

Bobby Jameson at George Best's funeral

Barry McGuigan and his wife at George Best's funeral

Barry McGuigan and his wife at George Best's funeral

Rodney Marsh at George Best's funeral

Rodney Marsh at George Best's funeral

Dennis Law (centre) at George Best's funeral

Dennis Law (centre) at George Best's funeral

Martin O'Neill at George Best's funeral

Martin O'Neill at George Best's funeral

Callum Best and mum Angie at George Best's funeral

Callum Best and mum Angie at George Best's funeral

George Best's grave

George Best's grave

George Best Belfast City Airport handled more than 2.5 million passengers last year

George Best Belfast City Airport handled more than 2.5 million passengers last year

A mural of George Best and David Healy on the wall of the Times Bar, York Road. Brian Little/ Presseye

A mural of George Best and David Healy on the wall of the Times Bar, York Road. Brian Little/ Presseye

The Best family plot at Roselawn on the day before George's funeral.

The Best family plot at Roselawn on the day before George's funeral.

Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. Pictured a silver Benfica letter opener, dated 1966, given to George which marks Man Utd's 5-1 European Cup defeat of Benfica in Lisbon. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years

Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. Pictured a silver Benfica letter opener, dated 1966, given to George which marks Man Utd's 5-1 European Cup defeat of Benfica in Lisbon. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years

Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon holding a replica European Champions Manchester United Trophy presented to Dickie Best when George Best died. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon holding a replica European Champions Manchester United Trophy presented to Dickie Best when George Best died. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Best Fans - Mark McIlwaine (13, left) and David McCracken (13), both from Lurgan Junior High admiring some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Best Fans - Mark McIlwaine (13, left) and David McCracken (13), both from Lurgan Junior High admiring some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon (dressed in his school rugby kit) holding a cast from George Best's original match worn boots, pictured amongst Best memorabilia at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon (dressed in his school rugby kit) holding a cast from George Best's original match worn boots, pictured amongst Best memorabilia at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.

Items on sale of the Dickie Best collection which will go on public auction on the 19th march at the Wilsons premises in Mallusk with 110 lots of George Best memorabillia available which was collected by Dickie over a 40 year period.

Items on sale of the Dickie Best collection which will go on public auction on the 19th march at the Wilsons premises in Mallusk with 110 lots of George Best memorabillia available which was collected by Dickie over a 40 year period.

Family Portrait (left to right): Carol Best - Lisa Hogg; Julie Best (Twin) - Catherine Quinn; Ann Best - Michelle Fairley; George Best - Tom Payne; Dickie Best - Lorcan Cranitch; Grace Best (Twin) - Amy Quinn; Barbara Best - Laura Donnelly

Family Portrait (left to right): Carol Best - Lisa Hogg; Julie Best (Twin) - Catherine Quinn; Ann Best - Michelle Fairley; George Best - Tom Payne; Dickie Best - Lorcan Cranitch; Grace Best (Twin) - Amy Quinn; Barbara Best - Laura Donnelly

George Best played by Tom Payne

George Best played by Tom Payne

Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley

Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley

George Best played by Tom Payne

George Best played by Tom Payne

Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley

Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley

Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley

Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley

George Best played by Tom Payne

George Best played by Tom Payne

George Best played by Tom Payne

George Best played by Tom Payne

Richard (Dickie) Best with a picture of his son, footballer George Best pictured at his home in Belfast. October 2005

Richard (Dickie) Best with a picture of his son, footballer George Best pictured at his home in Belfast. October 2005

Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday were Michelle McBride with Lyn Smyth

Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday were Michelle McBride with Lyn Smyth

Kevin Scott / Presseye

Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday was Ivan Little

Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday was Ivan Little

Kevin Scott / Presseye

Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes

Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes

Kevin Scott / Presseye

Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes

Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes

Kevin Scott / Presseye

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Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964

The anticipation and excitement leading up to matchday. The thrill of seeing him play; the buzz around the ground as he swept onto the ball; distraught the day he was sent off for chucking mud at the referee against Scotland.

Disbelief at his disallowed goal against England when George nicked the ball in midair from Banks as the great keeper released it for a kick out; Bestie rounded Banks and nodded it into the net in front of me and my old man at the Railway End only for the ref to rule no goal for no other reason than it hadn't been done before.

Then dejection when he walked away from United for a Spanish beach, aged just 26. As a boy, I read every word written about him, collected the posters, saved every magazine.

As criticism of his later lifestyle mounted from the poker in the backside brigade, I would hear no ill of my idol.

When he left us, aged just 59, in November 2005, it was hard to find words to express the sense of loss felt by a whole football generation my age.

It was much the same, for different reasons, the first time I met him. Try as I might, I just could not speak!

It wasn't as if I was some cub reporter just down from the sticks. I was in my 20's and been round the block a few times.

In from the start of Billy Bingham's glory reign, I'd been with that great Northern Ireland side on their early 80's World Cup and British Championship rollercoaster ride.

Billy Hamilton, Ian Stewart and Norman Whiteside, the big name coming boys of the day, were mates. Still are.

So I was no stranger to the company of celebrated footballers. Then one night, not long after the high of Spain 82, Bestie breezed into Windsor Park.

Afterwards in the upstairs bar (where else?) my early mentor and late colleague, Gordon Hanna, struck up a conversation with George - one I was to hear many times again, of casinos and late nights on Northern Ireland trips abroad in hotels beseiged by screaming hordes of gorgeous girls.

Then a side of George's character I was later to admire more than any other came to the surface.

Clearly recognising someone left out of the conversation and incapable of speaking up for myself, he nodded to me and asked Big Gordon: "Who's your mate?"

"Sorry," Gordon apologised, as he introduced me, "I thought you'd met George before."

I went to speak but couldn't as Gordon joked with George: "You're his hero." Which only made me more tongue-tied.

How this guy I'd looked up to from I was no height went out of his way to make me feel at ease was something I'll never forget and for all the video re-runs of his football heyday, that will be my abiding memory of him.

Boy, did he try hard with me that night.

"How long have you worked for wee Malcolm (Brodie)?"

"You've done well to get that job" Him congratulating me? "Wherever I go in the world, the first thing reporters ask me is if I know Malcolm."

None of it worked. Not even a joke. "You and Big Pat must be great crack on away trips!" he kidded.

That was my experience of George Best every time, turning the conversation away from himself to his interviewer, mutual friends and shared interests.

I drove home still in awe, vowing to regain the power of speech if there was ever a next time.

The chance came not long after when the circus rolled into Tobermore in the winter of 84.

The wee team had signed George, who needed the money to head off the taxman, for an Irish Cup tie against Ballymena.

A few false starts at a snowbound Fortwilliam Park and a 7-0 Thursday afternoon beating later, I found myself in the Tobermore dressing room with my old sidekick Alex Toner, of the Daily Mirror, and another of the old Northern Ireland away trip gang of George's champagne vintage.

The casino stories started again and a million women the world over would have changed places with me at that moment as George stepped out of the shower and began dressing while he and Alex relived long, liquid nights spent together.

And at that, I couldn't resist an ironic crack as George pulled on a Perrier jumper.

"Oh, you're going to talk today, are you?" grinned George, silencing me again! Beware your idols may have feet of clay, the poet warned. Not this one. For me George's most endearing quality as a superstar without question was his ability to appear ordinary while making others feel important.

On more relaxed meetings after those faltering introductions, he'd always break the ice by asking after Malcolm, Gordon and Alex and you knew he was genuine.

I wasn't so sure, though, when he claimed to have received the Christmas card I sent him in Ford Open prison on his drink driving rap. Aye right, mine and 5,000 others.

I once asked him if he felt his legend was diminished by those gimmick appearances at places like Tobermore and Fivemiletown.

"People wanted to see me and I needed the money," he shrugged. In my Telegraph match report from Tobermore, I noted that the sheep in the next field saw more of the ball than Bestie as he stood shivering on the wings for 90 minutes.

But he fair packed the place out, boosting his and the club's coffers. Mission accomplished. Everbody happy.

No amount of money could buy the knack George enjoyed throughout his life of being loved and forgiven by ordinary people, whatever his excesses.

When the taxman finally caught up with him, despite having squandered a fortune most of us could never comprehend, it was folk of modest means who bailed him out with his 1988 Windsor Park testimonial, purely for the joy he brought them, none more than that late, great Crusaders football character Derek Wade.

George needed a hundred grand to wipe the slate clean and it was the wily Wade, I remember, who came up with the wheeze of selling the tickets for a tenner with the smallest of small print informing the buyer: "Admission £1, remainder a donation to G Best", thereby throwing the taxman a body swerve George would have been proud of.

A wasted life, according to the tut-tutters? They should be so lucky to fit into 79 years what he crammed into 59.

George was a raker and raking is what rakers do.

But he didn't choose to be an alcoholic and those who understand that would never have condemned him.

It's why I stood up for him vehemently when they wheeled me onto one of those Sunday lunchtime religious affairs radio shows after yet another boozy lapse on that borrowed liver.

"It's immoral, giving that man a new liver," screeched some sanctimonious harpie, to which I snapped back: "What would you do? Let him die? How moral is that?"

They never asked me back.

The last time I saw George was in the hospitality room after a League Cup final at Wembley. He was sipping tea (honestly!) with the actress Maureen Lipman, and wearing a stylish, brown leather jacket with `Legend' emblazoned across the back.

"He's got an 'ology in it," I kidded his pal from the BT ads. "And the rest," she smiled.

When the Queen Mother died, I recall a commentator observing that The Queen had been transformed overnight from a daughter to a 79-year-old grandmother.

And so it was with those of us whom George kept young as long as he was around to live life to the full and dodge the Reaper.

Our internal flame glows a little less brightly for his loss.

Still, the legend and the memories live on and with each anniversary, a fresh perspective.

My aforementioned, now 83-year-old, dad considers a day without an outing a day wasted. On returning from one of his latest, I asked where he'd been this time. "To visit George's grave," he replied.

I never knew til then that hero worship was heriditary.

 

This article first appeared in the Mary Peters Trust magazine.

 


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