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George Best was a high achiever at Man Utd, not a wasted talent
Last Updated: 25/11/15 4:17pm
November 25 marks 10 years since the passing of George Best at the age of 59. While there is a temptation to recall the boozy anecdotes, Adam Bate argues that the narrative of a wasted talent belies his extraordinary achievements with Manchester United…
Manchester United's training ground is an impressive place on the bleakest of days, but when Denis Law is hosting a tour it transforms into something that bit more special. During the summer, a group of us gathered in the impressive gymnasium and were invited to ask questions of The Law Man.
An obvious one soon came up. Who was the best trainer that he had seen? Law's eyes instinctively glanced to the heavens before realising that the clue to the answer had been in the question. It was George Best. At first, there was the hint of a snigger among his audience. But Law was serious.
George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton were dubbed 'The Holy Trinity'. They each won the Ballon d'Or during their time together at Manchester United and a statue of the three men was unveiled outside Old Trafford in 2008.
The surprise is understandable. Younger generations are accustomed to tales of Best's off-the-cuff genius. It's a potted history that encourages the myth of a gift granted rather than a skill honed. Law's claim is a reminder that nothing - not even the wonders of Best - can be forged from thin air.
As a child, he would play truant to be with the ball. The boy from Belfast battled homesickness to make a life in Manchester as a 15-year-old and after a brief taste of first-team action, Sir Matt Busby encouraged "brutal" sessions in order to prepare his protégé for the kicks he knew would come.
For Best, it might not always have felt like hard work but work it undoubtedly was. And when unleashed on the English game, his brilliance helped restore Manchester United to former glories - winning the title for the first time since the Munich air disaster in his first full season.
The 1967/68 season was surely his finest. From the flank, Best scored 32 goals in all competitions - a tally not matched by a United player until an out-and-out striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy, accomplished the feat the following century. Unlike Van Nistelrooy, Best also won the European Cup.
He cleaned up in award season that year. Of the 20 previous FWA Footballer of the Year winners, 75 per cent had already turned 30 years old. None had been as young as Best. It was a similar story with the Ballon d'Or award for Europe's outstanding player.
A dozen years earlier, Sir Stanley Matthews had won the first Ballon d'Or at the age of 41. Best was 22, the youngest winner until Ronaldo claimed the gong in 1997. To date, Lionel Messi is the only player to have won both the Ballon d'Or and the European Cup by the same age as Best.
These achievements are recounted here to help illustrate that so much came so quickly. What followed was a level of fame few could comprehend and a descent into alcoholism that would eventually claim his life.
Best was only 27 when he made his final appearance for Manchester United, but he had also made 474 appearances for the club. While the flawed genius narrative is, of course, not without substance, that does not feel like a talent wasted.
As Duncan Hamilton, Best's biographer, puts it: "The surprise for me isn't that Best experienced what F Scott Fitzgerald described as 'The Crack Up', which began his ruinous drinking. It is simply that he survived for so long before descending into depression's black dog."
As a result, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, perhaps there is now enough time and distance to view his career free from lament. Let's look to the scale of his achievements. A comment from the New York Times marking 25 years since the death of Elvis Presley feels apposite.
"All the talentless impersonators and appalling black velvet paintings on display can make him seem little more than a perverse and distant memory," argued the New York Times. "But before Elvis was camp, he was its opposite: a genuine cultural force."
Before Best was dating Miss Worlds, and before he boasted of squandering the rest of his cash on fast cars and alcohol, he was winning everything that club football had to offer by the age of 22. As his fellow member of the Holy Trinity still tells anyone who'll listen, that didn't happen by accident.