Maradona good, Pele better, George Best (popular Belfast sporting adage).
Born in East Belfast in 1946, George Best became (and remains to this day) Northern Ireland’s most celebrated footballer. Rejected by local clubs, he was signed by Manchester United, then as now England’s glamour team. Making his debut aged 17, Best starred in the 1964-65 and 1966-67 Championship-winning teams, cementing his reputation as a dazzling, jinking and goal-scoring winger. His good looks, long hair, gift of the gab and love of the high life also led to his acquisition of the sobriquet “the fifth Beatle”. Further fame was assured when United beat Benfica 4–1 in the 1967 European Cup Final, Best scoring one of the goals and running the Portuguese team’s defence so ragged before a vast televised audience that his award of European Footballer of the Year was a foregone conclusion.
The latter half of the 1960s saw Best’s celebrity lifestyle (by then he owned nightclubs and boutiques and had dated at least one Miss World) consumed by gambling, alcoholism and chasing women. He walked out of United in 1974, and after that his footballing career declined rapidly, taking in spells in the US and Australia. Alcohol addiction led to a stint in prison in 1984, after which Best was found guilty of drunk driving and assaulting a police officer. By 2002 his health was so poor that he underwent a liver transplant, but continued to drink after its success and eventually succumbed to multiple organ failure in November 2005.
Some 100,000 mourners lined the streets of Belfast as Best’s coffin travelled to his funeral service at Stormont. Belfast City Airport was subsequently renamed in his honour and, in 2006, the Ulster Bank issued one million £5 notes bearing his picture – the entire issue was rapidly snapped up for keepsakes. The great sadness of Best’s football career was that, despite 37 caps for Northern Ireland, he never appeared in a major international competition such as the World Cup) but he inspired a host of young footballers and, indeed, numerous jokes, not least his own oft-quoted remark: “I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”