George Best wrote poetry with his feet
Added to SP site, Monday 5rth Dec. 2005
George Best's final wish was that people should remember him for his football. He wouldn't have been disappointed for it was in recognition of his unique talent that tens of thousands lined the streets on the day of his funeral to say farewell to a legend.
All along the three mile funeral route from his Cregagh home to Stormont the people of Northern Ireland turned out to throw flowers, scarves and to applaud. One banner summed up how Best's talent is regarded here: "Maradona good, Pele better, George Best".
Normally such an occasion is reserved for the "great and good". Perhaps George Best's final gift was to allow us to build from below our version of a state funeral, this time for one of our own.
Like the thousands of others, it was to remember the football that I stood near his Cregagh home to watch the cortege go by. I never saw him play for Manchester United but I did go to Windsor Park to watch him play for Northern Ireland.
That was before safety regulations and all seater rules cut the crowds and the atmosphere, when 40,000 jammed the Windsor Park terraces for the international matches. Perhaps it was because the Northern Ireland team overall were never going to be world beaters that the world class talent in the number seven (sometimes eleven) shirt shone out so brightly.
Whatever the reason, the electricity that shot round the stadium every time he got the ball was unforgettable. His achievements of that time have been passed down the generations ever since.
Like the 1967 match when Best, more or less singlehandledly took on and beat a good Scotland team. The unfortunate full back, Tommy Gemmill himself no mean player, marked him for the first 45 minutes and commented in a recent radio interview that he still couldn't untangle his legs.
As is only too well known, there was another darker side to Best's life. He was only 27 when he retired from serious football, disillusioned at the failure of the Manchester United management to reverse the decline of the club and replace the aging stars of the trophy winning 1968 team.
By this time Best had begun his descent into chronic alcoholism, the disease that would eventually kill him. Alcoholism led him to do things which cannot be condoned or excused and for which he himself never made excuses or attempted a justification.
But he was the main victim in all this. Drink left him bankrupt and desperately ill before it eventually killed him.
Those who stood in the rain to applaud his memory look on Best both as a sporting genius and as a victim, someone who despite the unsought status as football's first superstar, never strayed that far from his working class roots in East Belfast.
He went to Manchester United as a shy 15 year old at a time when the club policy was to keep the young players separated from their families. In his first year at the club he only saw his parents four times. He was left to cope with the fame and adulation, the constant posse of cameras and, while he succeeded on the pitch, his reliance on alcohol meant that, off the field, his life started to come apart.
Best played in a different era - before player's wages shot through the roof to ridiculous levels, before they had advisors and agents, before multimillion pound advertising and promotion contracts gave top players millionaire lifestyles.
Perhaps the incredible reaction to his death was in part nostalgia for the days before exorbitant match prices, overpriced replica kits and the complete domination of the game by billionaire business men and media tycoons.
People in Northern Ireland feel also a nostalgia of a different sort. Best's career began before the Troubles. When he first went to Manchester the sectarian division was on the wane. The Cregagh estate where he grew up was majority Protestant, but Catholic families lived there also.
A few years later all this changed. By the early 1970s Belfast was a city of almost daily bombings and shootings, the buses stopped running at 7pm, death squads roamed the streets and working class people were locked at night into communities that had become more segregated.
Most of the Catholic families in Cregagh moved out or were forced out - although the first efforts by bigots who came in from outside the area to "get the fenians out" were opposed jointly by young people, Catholic and Protestant, who had grown up with George Best in the estate.
In this dark period the magic of George Best on the football field provided a little bit of colour for people here. It was one of the few things that came out of Northern Ireland that transcended the Troubles and that people on both sides could be proud of. Kids wanted to grow up to be George Best, whether they honed their skills by kicking a ball against a wall in the Shankill or the Falls.
Best was instinctively a fighter. Even without the alcohol there is no way he would have graduated into an establishment figure of football, or of anything else. Whatever comparisons might be made with other players on the field, in his general attitude to things he was in the Maradona rather than the Pele school.
Perhaps because of this he stayed clear of local sectarian politics. His support for NI colleague and fellow East Belfast man, Derek Dougan's call for an all Ireland team was purely from a football point of view, not to grind any political axe. He just wanted a better team that would give the few world class players in the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland squads a better chance of playing on a world stage.
His funeral, taking place at a time of unprecedented sectarian division, achieved what his talent on the pitch had done more than three decades ago. It united working class people in grief and respect right across the city, right across Northern Ireland and beyond. Rangers and Celtic scarves and tops were laid side by side on many of the impromptu memorial shrines created by fans in various parts of the city.
It was good to see the people who played with Best and many others he would have admired at the funeral service - people like Denis Law, Pat Jennings, Pat Crerand and many more. His family added a fitting touch, insisting that ten fans would be picked at random from the thousands outside and invited into the Stormont building for the commemoration. Bestie would have appreciated that.
But it was stomach churning to see the narrow breed of sectarian politicians also take their places. The presence of DUP MPs, Peter and Iris Robinson, along with DUP councillors from Castlereagh Council and of Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness represented all the sectarian small mindedness that the skills of George Best somehow managed to transcend.
Even more stomach churning was the presence of Secretary of State, Peter Hain, who may shake hands with George's father Dickie to-day but who intends to impose water charges plus a nineteen percent rates rise on him and his Cregagh neighbours tomorrow.
All in all it felt more comfortable to be standing in the rain in Cregagh with the working class people, Catholic and Protestant, who applauded with genuine appreciation for those few years when George Best wrote poetry with his feet.