There are two complimenting but conflicting narratives in the history of Manchester United.
The one is authoritarian. Stemming from the patriarchal managers – Sir Alexander Matthew Busby and Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson. This is the “never say die” mentality so evident en route to the 19th league title of 2011. The long list of one-club men that have served the cause. The monumental comebacks. The siege mentality. The war path.
The other is the individualistic. The iconic figure of the Manchester United superstar in British culture. Cantona the philosopher. Beckham the metro-sexual icon. Ronaldo banging in the goals the girls and the Ferraris. And all of this begins with Best. His importance in United’s recovery from the Munich air disaster goes way beyond the football. When Best emerges from Belfast, United are the sad heroic club every decent fan should feel sorry for and admire. With Best United become fun.
The image of a baby born in a family that has known tragedy was hardly a metaphor at the club itself. Billy Foulkes, the longest serving player under Busby, told me this quite simply: â€œGeorge brought Busby back to life.â€ He added that the great man never found the heart to discipline the child.
If Busby and Ferguson cemented United’s place in sporting history, Best determined it in British culture. This is actually an understatement. Best elevated all of football’s status in British life.
Finally, the birthplace of the game realized it is so much more interesting and glamorous and sexy than any other sport.
The Portuguese dubbed him â€œel-Beatleâ€, following his majestic display in 5-1 victory over Benfica in Lisbon. Who could blame them? He was brilliant, he had long hair and as Iberians they can hardly tell a Scouser from an Ulsterman.
But I see another â€œBeatle-ishâ€ aspect in the George Best story.
I recently read that as a youth he excelled in his studies but was forced to change schools because he was exposed to sectarian abuse. He was Protestant and the family even belonged to the Orange Order. This unpleasant experience was in contrast to life on the estate he had grown up on- where Catholics and Protestants lived in harmony in the years before Belfast was torn apart in bloody violence.
Yet he would become a unifier. Make people push these things aside.
He came to Manchester United, a club with strong Irish Catholic links, and became an instant hero. Wonderfully creative at what he does. Humorous though not cynical. A brilliant brain, a fashion icon and a remarkably engaging young person. â€œLove, Sex and Footballâ€ embodied.
I got a glimpse of this at Old Trafford on the opening day in 2000-2001. Sitting with a lovely Kiwi girl just a few rows away from the traveling Newcastle support. They were booing all of United’s opening day festivities, using pretty harsh words from the fringe of English language.
But then Eusebio, the Portugal and Benfica legend, was invited to take the field. He had brought some commemorative trophies on behalf of his club for the United â€œHolly Trinityâ€. The booing among the Jordies pursued for Dennis Law and even for England hero Bobby Charlton who is their own.
Then they suddenly erupted into song: â€œThere’s only one Georgie Best!â€ From far away in centre field Best acknowledged the gesture and and waved. The girl from the Southern Island of New Zealand smiled and wanted to know more about the man.
There was one other fortunate element in Best’s change of schools.
He moved from a rugby to a soccer school. According to some sources this was actually the reason behind the move. Like Ryan Giggs years later, his rugby background would serve him well. First in facing the tough nature of defending in the English top division. And something absolutely foreign to contemporary young supporters: George Best didn’t dive.
There is one other thing quite different from today’s top ball wizards. Watch your youtube clips carefully. He is not beating them with speed. He is beating them with wit.
Dates have funny ways. He would have been 65 today, on 19th title day. He won’t be taking the field in the ceremonies. Instead the masses flocking to Old Trafford will take photos of the bronze statue in front of the modern megastore.
He finally left United in 1973 and went on a long odyssey through clubs and problems. The earlier departure of Busby was obviously a significant factor in Best’s leaving.
But they are other, at least symbolic, factors in the background.
Clouds had gathered over his homeland. Football had become a more tactical and defensive and cynical game. In the short five years since he was European Footballer of the Year in 1968, the goal average in Division I had dropped alarmingly from 3.02 age to 2.48. Hooliganism takes root in the stands, in particular at Manchester United.
Best is not the battling incarnation of United. He is the artistic and the beautiful aspect of the legacy. The game was no longer a place for him.