My favourite sporting moment: I see Georgie walking, walking, walking and then gone
We picked our way through rubble of sectarian battles to share in a common love
George Best leaves the pitch in Windsor Park in 1970 having been sent off against Scotland.
He was never anything but Georgie.
To Patricia Hughes, who worked in our newsagent’s shop and practised social work, marriage counselling, first aid and general life skills along the Falls as far down as Divis Flats, he was Georgie.
To the rag and bone man, who stopped his cart in the entry beside our back door and whose horse I fed grass with the flattest of hands and for which I was kicked in the stomach leaving the perfect red outline of a horse’s hoof on my white belly, he was Georgie.
To Cadbury’s Mr Heinz, who for free product took my ratings for all new chocolate bars to come to market and stack on our shelves, he was Georgie. To Mamie Sheehan in the Home Bakery, Aldo in The Continental Cafe to sentinel Harry O’Neill, an Antrim GAA man and keeper of the ground outside the Rock Bar at the bottom of Rockmore Road, he was Georgie.
To Fr McCall, who every Saturday morning in our sitting room used whatever higher influence he had filling in the Littlewoods football pools, he was Georgie.
To beloved and tormented Whoop standing idly in the middle of the road, his jeans falling off him, directing traffic; to Hook, who sold the Belfast Telegraph from the back of a van full of empty flour bags; and to Mr Mount, the headmaster of St Kevin’s Primary, who stalked the corridors muttering “I slap the badins and I praise the goodins,” he was Georgie.
There was Georgie in a club on training night with an air hostess or was it a Miss World. There was Georgie with his shirt open to his navel walking down the King’s Road in London with a different air hostess in a mini skirt, even though his place of work was up in Manchester.
There was Georgie with his luxuriant mane and black sidebars smiling sheepishly at the camera and strolling towards his E-type jaguar with a tanned air hostess, not the previous one, decorously sitting in the passenger seat.
But in 1970 as Ben Sherman shirts, Doc Martens and Wrangler jeans were breaking out all over the city, Georgie was already the tabloids’ favourite fantasy football life. Looking gorgeous he had appeared on Top of the Pops in 1965 and grooved with the best.
In 1966 at 19-years-old he scored two goals in a European Cup quarter-final match against Benfica at the Estádio da Luz. That’s when the Portuguese press dubbed him ‘O Quinto Beatle’.
The next year Manchester United would top the league and the year after the holy trinity of Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton would help the side lift the European Cup. The Belfast Boy would also win the Ballon d’Or, polling more votes than Charlton and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
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At the crazy age of 22 he had won the three major honours in club football, the league title, the European Cup, and the European Player of the Year award.
This fabulous meteor shower of Georgie glamour raining down on grim Belfast – alternatively from London boutiques and Old Trafford – was hitting a city that in 1970 marinated in loathing.
The British army behind their sandbags at our front door, and to whom I served tea and Club Milk biscuits and daily asked each soldier what team they supported, would declare effective martial law [aka the Falls Curfew] on the Falls that July, a week before my 10th birthday.
But before that happened the man whose face I had thumb-tacked to my bedroom wall and filled my scrapbook in a ratio of four to one to all the other Manchester United players, was coming home. Georgie was coming to play against Scotland in Windsor Park.
It was a fateful year. That spring and summer two things would happen. I would see the man on my wall play football in the flesh and I would never bring tea to the soldiers again.
The stadium we could see from McCrory Park, the GAA pitch up the hill at the top of Rockville Street, its floodlights arching over the corrugated asbestos roofs of the Windsor stands.
It was April when a group of us walked down the Donegal Road across the M1 motorway and into The Village. Fenians, stepping over the broken glass and half bricks from the previous weekend’s sectarian battle, believing in the common love for Georgie and that it could provide a magical armistice for the afternoon.
Pat Jennings was in goal. Derek Dougan was up front with Georgie. Scotland had Celtic’s David Hay in their defence. Celtic was ‘our’ other team. There was no Billy McNeill, no Jimmy Johnstone. Three Celtic players, that would have been too much.
Stewarded to an area in the terraces we were close to the pitch. Pockets stuffed. Opal Fruits, Tayto smokey bacon, Polo Mints. But I wasn’t there for a football match. I was there to see him, to see him move and wave and play football like he was playing on the street. Dribbling and beating people and always on the search for glory. It was him with his long hair and his ball magic. It was him and his aura, him and the force field. I knew I would feel it.
When he came out he was an alien, a foreign being on the wrong continent, his hair black as a crow. A baggy green jersey, the cuff of his sleeves pulled down below his hands and clenched. His skinny legs gliding over muddy Windsor Park.
Too vain to be a leader, too young and pretty to be a god. But there was Georgie, exotic as a humming bird, flickering and shimmering under a dull city canopy.
Scotland scored. But I didn’t care. Georgie was flashing in and out of the game. But I didn’t care. He was arguing too. That’s Georgie. He was here and there but not always. Then all too quickly he was gone.
He was there glowing and iridescent, each time drawing the crowd to their feet and then he wasn’t there. There was the dash towards the referee. The conversation. Then his misery, his pain. I see Georgie on the other side of the pitch alone walking, walking, walking and then gone.
Looking back on the footage and commentary for the first time since, I can listen to the conversation in the booth. From the accent one voice sounds like Jimmy Hill.
“I think part of George’s frustration is that he is not having a good time and he’s not had good publicity recently and he’s determined to do something about it and he just can’t get back on the ball,” says Hill.
“There,” cuts in the other commentator. “That’s where he starts making a mistake.”
It’s Georgie now pulling at the referee’s arm and the official turning and walking away. Spittle flying through the air towards the referee and coming from Georgie’s handsome mouth. Not sufficient he continues, mud covered, petulantly walking towards the man in the white shirt.
Bending to the ground and picking up the smallest piece of Windsor turf he hurls it at the referee. It’s a straight red card. His voltage still high, the final cameo is Georgie turning his back and disdainfully flicking his arm in the air. Three years later he would leave Manchester United for the first time before an odyssey through 17 football clubs.
“Wuzn’t up to much wuz he,” says Harry O’Neill, helping my mother lug newspapers to the counter as I bound in the door. “Yis, he wuz,” I shout back, skipping past through and up the stairs to the bedroom and my own company.
I look at him short-haired in his blue polo neck on my wall, not knowing then that I would never see him play again. He is calm and smiling. Windsor Park has brought us closer than ever. And now Georgie and me, we have this personal relationship going.
Almost too much, even now.
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