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Jim Gracey:Sunday Life Sports Editor

George Best is a Manchester United legend and my boyhood idol but he always made himself ordinary so he could make me feel important

Jim Gracey

It’s 16 years ago to the day that Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend George Best passed away.

In 2015, on the tenth anniversary of his death, I penned a tribute to the man who was a boyhood hero and would later become a friend.

Here is that article:

Did you ever interview George Best? It's the question I'm most asked at every milestone since he was cruelly taken, aged just 59, by well documented alcohol-related illnesses, and now the 10th anniversary of that Friday, November 25, 2005 seems to have arrived in a heartbeat.

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.

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He kicked off my love affair with football and Man United. Wolves were his club, growing up in Cregagh, and if he'd ended up there, I'd be Old Gold today instead of Red.

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...

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.

And dejection followed 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, I would hear no ill of my idol.

When he left us, 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, Gerry Armstrong and Norman Whiteside, the big names 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 much missed colleague, the late Gordon Hanna, struck up a conversation with George - one I was to hear many times, 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. And 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 United.

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, the late 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 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 to 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.

No amount of money could buy the knack George enjoyed throughout his life of being loved and forgiven, 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 old 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, similarly, with those of us whom George kept young as long as he was around to live life to the full and dodge the Reaper.

As we move up the queue, his is a light that will never go out. The legend and the memories live on and with each anniversary, a fresh perspective.

My aforementioned, now 84-year-old, father 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.

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