It is late afternoon of a beautiful mid-October day, not too cold. On the field of the Cregagh Estate, in East Belfast, two kids are kicking a ball. Or rather, one is under the arch and the other tries to beat him with a few nice middle distance shots. In the background, on one side a tall public housing tower block stands. The other side features rows of more traditional two-story houses on narrow streets, in which twists and turns you can find a mural depicting a young man wearing the green national Northern Irish jersey. Around here, among other places, the young man is a true legend.
George Best, because obviously we’re talking about him, perfected his dribbling and his deadly fantastic touch of the ball on that emerald field. His abilities allowed him to debut at the tender age of 17 years in the first team of Manchester United. Or rather the team trained by the forerunner of Alex Ferguson, Matt Busby, who also earned the Sir thanks to his sporting merits. The working-class, Scottish-born trainer immediately fell in love with the talent of the Belfast boy.
Best grew up very close to the slick green theater of a thousand games among generations of children in the district, Burren Way 16. In the difficult years that followed the Second World War, these unusually flat-roofed buildings represented the state of the art of housing, if only because they had bathrooms. They came to live here when George was a little boy, mom Anne and dad Dickie, a shipyard worker at Harland and Wolff. This company became famous for having built the most unfortunate ship of all times, the Titanic. To date, the twin cranes of Harland and Wolff, named Samson and Goliath, dominate the skyline of the capital of the Ireland territory still under British rule.
Burren Way is located in the district of Castlereagh, in East Belfast, where the Union Jack flag waves on street light lamps and the windows of many houses. According to the local iconography, that is easy to decode, it means that we are in a Protestant neighborhood. On the highway leading to the city center, the Schomberg House stands, home of the Orange Order of which Dickie was an active member. He often took his still beardless son to the lodge with him. It is no coincidence that Best’s dad made a living at the Harland and Wolff shipyards; since its founding in 1861 until a few decades ago, the company employed almost exclusively Protestant workers.
In fact, young George had other priorities in life, rather than celebrating the victory of Protestant King William III on the banks of the River Boyne against the troops of the Catholic King James II, an event that is felt as if it happened the day before yesterday and not in 1690. He liked to go after beautiful women, play football, guzzle champagne and other drinks, dress fashionably, and drive sports cars, not necessarily in that order. Rivers of ink have been used to describe his vices and his “stunts,” and we do not want to dwell too much on the individual episodes.
But there’s one we cannot help but mention. It is said that the former No. 7 of Manchester United accumulated only 37 appearances (with a production of 9 goals) with the Irish national team because he was too undisciplined, even allergic to the rules imposed by the coaches. It’s more than plausible. At the age of 22, after winning the European Cup against the Benfica of the great Eusébio and the Golden Ball, the career of the Belfast Boy began to be undermined by too many “diversions.” So when in London, instead of participating in the match against Chelsea and run and dribble in the mud at Stamford Bridge, he preferred to spend the afternoon in the company of the actress Sinéad Cusack, busy with other matters.
But in February 1972, in the match of the qualifiers for the European Championships against Spain, he did not get out on the field for very different reasons. He had received death threats from the IRA. There was a rumor that he had donated a bunch of money to the Democratic Unionist Party, the party of the ultra-loyalist Rev. Iain Paisley, one of the sworn enemies of the Catholics. It is likely it was not true, but there is no doubt that in those years it was very difficult to erase the own origins, especially if you were the best player in the U.K. and as a child you were paraded in the Orange marches, carrying the banner of the local lodge.
At the Best home, pictures hanging all over the walls tell us about the accomplishments of Champion George, of happy moments. There are also some reflecting his memorable performance with the national team, seasoned with a few from high school. Like when in Windsor Park, he stole the ball from the great England goalkeeper Gordon Banks who was about to return it to the field and scored into an empty net. The referee did not like the stroke of genius and annulled the goal. Pity.
In his bedroom instead, there are still a few things that mark the happiness of a child of humble beginnings at the turn of the ‘50s and ‘60s: the Spartacus poster, watched at the nearby Ambassador movie theater (now a clothing store), the bag where he put his tools of the trade (the soccer shoes) and the uniform of Wolverhampton Wanderers, the strong team that he rooted for as a kid. The Best house is not a museum, but since dad Dickie passed away in 2008, it was purchased by a charity engaged in various social activities in this problematic part of the world, and in order to fund raise, it rents the apartment to fans from across Europe. As Heather explains, the girl who welcomed us upon our arrival, “so many come here to pay tribute to a champion they either saw playing live or they only read about or watched his deeds on old films.”
Fans who cannot avoid strolling around the neighborhood, visiting the places frequented by the myth in his adolescence: the Nettlefield Primary School, the Lisnasharragh Secondary School, the favorite fish and chip joint, the Desano Italian ice cream parlor. Not far away is the Oval, the old Glentoran stadium, the team with which 14-year-old Best auditioned.
“Crazy stuff, we rejected him because we thought he was too scrawny,” says John Moore, the manager of Glens, showing a picture where the good George is wearing the characteristic green, black and red striped shirt of the Belfast team. It was August 1982, after risking to go to the World Cup in Spain (but at the last moment, he was not called and so he became the all-time phenomenon who never took part in a World Cup) he competed against “its” Manchester United in a friendly match to celebrate the 100 years of Glentoran. “Obviously, the stadium was full, and of course after every high level move by George, fans went into raptures,” Moore says. “Too bad that was the only game he played for us!”
He returned occasionally to visit his father and sisters — mother Anne died when she was 56 because of the same plague that would later condemn her son, alcoholism. But in his last years as a player, Best had become a globetrotter, committed to pick up the last contracts in the United States, England, Ireland and Scotland. Perhaps at that moment, his true home was the Phene Arms Pub in Chelsea, where he drank nonstop. After hanging up his boots, he tried to reinvent himself as a sports commentator. But the “incidents” related to his almost constant state of drunkenness, even on live television, were too many. His drinking habit never gave him respite, even after receiving a liver transplant in 2002 through the good offices of the National Health Service. This fact unleashed vitriolic controversies in the U.K., especially because he restarted nursing the bottle shortly after the operation.
Those who knew him described him as a shy boy. When he moved to Manchester, still a teenager, he never imagined he would become the fifth Beatle, the first footballer global icon of history.
He was still the George renting a room at Mrs. Fulloway and who felt homesick after crossing the Irish Sea with another boy with high hopes, one Eric McMordie. One who never became a champion.
George now rests with his mother and father in a grave like so many others in the Roselawn cemetery outside the city, where here and there symbols of Ulster Volunteer Force stand on the tombstones, one of the most active Protestant paramilitary groups during the Troubles.
His physique, already ravaged by the effects of alcohol, stopped resisting on Nov. 25, 10 years ago at the Cromwell Hospital in London. Before dying, Best asked to eat an ice cream, remembering those he devoured as a child at Desano’s.
When he returned to Belfast a week later, there were 100,000 people on the streets to pay homage, under a leaden sky as never before. Although not officially, his was a state funeral, celebrated in the Stormont Castle, the former seat of the Northern Irish Parliament which has always been considered by Catholics a symbol of loyalist power.
Now the city seems to have “reclaimed” one of its most famous sons. One of the two airports was named after him, and when you engage in a chat in a pub or in a taxi, sooner or later some anecdote pops out. It happened to us with the taxi driver who took us to the Best home. “You know, my father has a pair of shoes worn by George. Dickie gave them to him many years ago. He would not give them away for all the money in the world!”