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George Best remembered: 10 years on from icon's death, Northern Ireland football is riding high

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 entrances, 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 that Niall McGinn, fewer strikes than Iain Dowie.

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

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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 was 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 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 as well. 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 then."

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 sixties 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.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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