Tag Archives: George Best

Don Revie and Leeds Could Have Saved the Life of Man United’s Tragic George Best – by Rob Atkinson

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The late, not so great George Best

In George Best, the football world lost a massive talent if not a truly great player, when the maverick Irishman died prematurely at only 59 in 2005. In the twelve years since his tragic death, the debate has continued over his place in football, his ranking among the legends of the game. Best was a genius technically, blessed with the skills to enable him to do pretty much whatever he wanted on the football field. But he was also a flawed and addictive personality, less able than most professionals to deal with the pressures of professional football, more likely to be swayed from the straight and narrow by the temptations that would face any rich and over-hyped young man.

That being the case, Best could hardly have suffered a worse fate than to be taken onto the books of Manchester United as a callow youth, there to develop as a skillful footballer, but also to be lost in the maelstrom of hype and self-aggrandisement that has dogged the Old Trafford club since the start of the Matt Busby era and, particularly, since the Munich Air Disaster in 1958. For Best, it was the wrong club at the wrong time; he needed a different approach and a less relentlessly goldfish bowl existence. Stronger, less easily-led personalities than George Best prospered at Old Trafford, but the combination of George’s skill, personal attractiveness and extreme marketability made him ripe to be chewed up and spat out by the Man Utd/media publicity machine. Therein, the seeds of his eventual destruction were sown; Best was doomed by the unfortunate circumstance of becoming a Man United prodigy, his downhill path plotted even while he was enjoying such spectacular, early success.

It could all have been so different for George Best. What he needed was a better and more professional environment, somewhere his stellar talent could have been harnessed for the benefit of a crack team of inseparable brothers. Somewhere with a “Side before self, every time” mentality, with a manager who treated his players like sons and their wives and girlfriends like daughters-in-law, a place and a club where press flattery did not venture, but where instead a siege complex was fostered that strengthened the squad from within. George Best, had he but known it, needed Don Revie and Leeds United; if history had worked out differently, and Best had grown up alongside the likes of Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer and ex-Man Utd star John Giles, then I would venture to suggest that his development and indeed his whole existence would have been along such radically different lines, he may well have been still alive today.

George was let down by his football club, its management and the surrounding hype and worldwide acclaim. He was considered by many to be the greatest of all time, a view he would publicly endorse on his own behalf on many occasions. And that says a lot about George, about his inadequate standards and lack of humility. It’s something that would have been ironed out of him swiftly and early at Elland Road. Such conceit was frowned upon in the ultra-professional environment at Leeds, where individual skill was fostered and encouraged mainly within the pattern and demands of team requirements. Those were of paramount importance in Revie’s blueprint, so you had world-class talents like Gray, Bremner and Giles willing, nay, eager to devote their own brand of genius to securing the optimum team results. They’d have kept young George’s feet on the ground alright, and the Leeds backroom staff would have been there every step of the way, nurturing Best’s talent, inculcating the team ethic, bringing him down when that was needed, boosting him when necessary. The fact that Eddie Gray succeeded at Leeds was proof that a properly motivated and disciplined Best could have succeeded as well – and he’d have a had a long career, a longer life, if only that could have been the case.

It’s such a shame about George. The Manchester scene was all wrong for him, as would most probably have been that of London. Moreover, the club where he landed, at such a tender age, was in the business of producing legends, media stars to feed the delusions of their fans and meet the post-Munich hype and voracious desire to be the biggest, the best, the most glamorous. It takes a hardy seedling to prosper and grow in a hothouse like that and, despite early promise and a devastating few years of gaudy brilliance, George was doomed to wither and fade far too soon. The scars of that traumatic fall – he won his last club honour at only 22 – affected him for the rest of his life, leaving him easy prey for unscrupulous advantage takers, and for the buzz and temporary relief provided by alcohol. Who can deny that the more focused atmosphere and environment of Leeds United would have kept Best on the right path, providing him with a stage on which his technical genius could flourish, giving him the tangible rewards his prime deserved and yet never received?

In the public consciousness, Best was the Best – because we’ve been relentlessly told that’s the case, which has a lot to do obviously with the media circus and public adulation surrounding such an over-hyped football club. But sober analysis identifies Best as a genius footballer who was not a team player, not a very professional player and certainly not, over the span of his career, a world-class performer. Best, for all his talents, was not in the top twenty of all-time greats – but he should have been. He could perhaps have been right up there, among the best of the best. That he wasn’t and isn’t is something revisionists will deny, but a look at the facts and stats tells its own damning story.

George Best could gave been a much greater footballer, and he could still have been with us today. If only he’d been lucky enough to have started out, under Don Revie, at Leeds United, just as the Super Leeds legend was being born in the early sixties. What a different and infinitely happier story his might then have been.

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Forget George Best: King John Charles Was the Greatest British Player Ever – by Rob Atkinson

John Charles - the Greatest

John Charles – the Greatest

Ask any football fan to tell you who in their opinion was the greatest British footballer ever, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Danny Blanchflower, Tom Finney, George Best, Duncan Edwards, Dave Mackay, Billy Bremner, Kenny Dalglish, Paul Gascoigne – and many, many more, some with reasonable claims for recognition, others less so.  Probably most will go for Best, partly because of the hype that surrounds the self-proclaimed Greatest Club in the World and partly because Best himself wasn’t shy about telling everyone he was the best ever, anywhere, which must have given World Cup Winners Zidane and Maradona slight cases of mirth-induced hiccups.

The claims of Best tend to be perpetuated by the media, who have their own agenda when proclaiming superlatives about the game, especially these days when markets are so important and merchandise-buying fans must be kept happy.  So we hear that Man U are the biggest/greatest, that Old Trafford, the Theatre of Hollow Myths itself, is the finest ground this side of Betelgeuse, that the Busby Babes were going to be the greatest team in all four dimensions for ever and ever – and that Best was, well, the Best. It’s a self-perpetuating myth that glosses lightly over George’s many faults: his predilection for taking the field in important semi-finals tired and emotional as a newt, or not-so-fresh from some young strumpet’s bed; his dislike of discipline and inconveniences such as training; his waste of a massive natural talent upon early retirement and then a succession of ever more embarrassing comebacks.  This was the greatest player ever?  Really??  What does the word “great” mean, exactly?

If you ask a Juventus fan of a certain age, he’d probably have a pretty unanswerable argument to put for the unparalleled greatness of William John Charles (1931 – 2004). Proud Welshman Charles shone for several seasons in the top two leagues of the English game with Leeds United before a then British record fee of £65,000 was enough to take him to Italy.  There he scored on his debut for Juventus and never really looked back, performing with such masterly grace, skill, power and sportsmanship that the Juve fans took him to heart forever, dubbing him il Gigante Buono – The Gentle Giant.

In 1997, Charles was voted by fans of the Italian game as “best-ever foreign import” – this over and above the likes of Platini, Maradona, Law, Rush, Sivori, Gullit and Zidane (who had been at Juventus a year when the vote was taken). For a player to be deemed the best ever in that sort of company, and well over 30 years after he had left Italy into the bargain, argues for a truly special, unique performer, someone who possessed very great gifts indeed.

Those tifosi know their football, after all – and in Charles they knew they had a world-class centre-half and a world-class centre-forward, all wrapped up in one modest and loveable package.  Who else embodied skill, strength, temperament, courage better than the Gentle Giant, a man described by the Juve club doctor after his transfer medical as “quite the most perfect human machine I have ever seen”?

John Charles was all that, and so much more besides.  He has been described as being simultaneously the best defender and best attacker in the world, blessed with heading power to surpass many a player’s shooting ability, a rocket shot in either foot, an incredible physique and amazing skill on the floor, especially for such a big and powerful man.

In the whole of his career, encompassing all those seasons in the physical battleground of Serie A, he was never once sent off, nor even cautioned.  That is perhaps even his greatest achievement, considering the attention paid to trying to mark him out of his attacking contribution – and yet Charles’ spell with Juventus was so honour-laden that he carried home many tangible rewards also.

His spell at Juventus must count as the John Charles heyday, although he had enjoyed considerable success in a mediocre team at Leeds United.  Several goal-scoring records fell to the giant Welshman during his first and most productive spell at Elland Road, and yet he’d had a long spell as a central defender, another position in which he was a truly daunting opponent.  Leeds were sometimes nicknamed “John Charles United” at this period of their history and none who saw him play doubted that here was the finest footballer in the world.

It was the versatility of Charles, his ability to excel in two such different positions, stopping attacks and scoring goals with equally deadly proficiency, that made him such a valuable asset to any team he played for.  In 1958, Wales came as close as they ever would to World Cup glory, falling only to Brazil in a match for which Charles was injured – the deciding goal in a 1-0 defeat being scored by a young lad known simply as Pelé.  To this day, Welsh supporters wonder what might have been had John Charles been available for that game. The phenomenal Welshman was a potential match-winner against any opposition.

John Charles died in 2004 after a prolonged spell of ill health.  My dad remains one of his biggest fans and due to this I got to meet him a few times – a more likeable, self-deprecating and gentle man it would be hard to imagine.  For him to declare himself the Greatest is impossible to imagine.  That sort of thing is for someone who’s indisputably the best around and a showman too – the likes of Muhammed Ali.  And examples of flawed genius like Georgie Best, that doomed Belfast boy, they might come out with such immodesty as well – but that sort of blarney can’t hide the truth about genuine, five-star greatness.

I went to Elland Road to see John’s funeral cortège complete one solemn, dignified circuit of the pitch as thousands stood in silent tribute to the King.  He had his greatest years on foreign soil and became a world star, but he always came back to Leeds, his adopted home, where he was loved and revered in equal measure.

Greatness isn’t just snake-hipped skill, it isn’t just about wonderful goals and flashes of brilliance that might make you forget for a while the drink and the women and the missed training sessions – the wasted years.  That is the tragedy of Georgie Best. Greatness belongs to a different magnitude of star, one who rises literally and metaphorically above all others, encompassing skill, power, dedication, athleticism modesty, respect for opponent and team-mate alike. That was the greatness of John Charles CBE, hero of Leeds United, Juventus and Wales.

The sadness is that, in these glitzy, Murdoch-funded, money-obsessed days, you rarely hear the name of Charles mentioned when the greats are discussed – maybe just a passing reference here and there.  Some of his contemporaries still get the plaudits – Jimmy Greaves, Nat Lofthouse, the tragic Duncan Edwards, who may well have developed into a player the equal of Charles.  Perhaps John himself is tainted, in the eyes of the chattering classes, by association with what they will always see as “The Damned United” – and doomed therefore along with Don Revie and all of his greats to be left out of the reckoning when hypocrites gather to compare memories.  That is indeed regrettable, but it’s a part of the modern condition that, just as the media need heroes to shove down our eager, consuming throats, so they need a pantomime villain – and just as the former will always be Man U, the latter is always going to be Leeds, whatever those of us who know better might argue.

So let them have their skewed discussions, their little lists of greats, their exclusive club of what they deem acceptable in the history of the game.  It’s a fools’ paradise they inhabit, and just as we Leeds fans can nod wisely and tell them all exactly which was the finest English club side of all time, so we can identify the greatest British player.  John Charles, il Gigante Buono, King John. Simply the best.

New Fears for Gazza After Latest “Drunken Assault” Charge

Gazza: Slippery Slope?

Gazza: Slippery Slope?

There are uncomfortable parallels between the slippery slope Paul Gascoigne now finds himself on – a slope he started to slide down at a Wembley Cup Final in 1991 – and the decline and ultimately tragic death of another flawed genius, George Best. It’s not the happiest comparison to make, but perhaps it’s a message that needs to be spoken loudly and repeatedly, directly into the ear of the legendary Gazza, in the hope that he may yet be saved from the process of self-destruction he appears to be unswervingly set on. The news today that he’s been arrested over an incident involving drink and violence is no great surprise – but it IS cause for extreme concern.

Gazza was undoubtedly the finest talent of his generation, but like so many footballers and other artists gifted with supernatural skill of one sort or another, he seems fatally lacking lacking in anything approaching a safe level of common sense. Those identical words could have been written and published in the 1970’s, substituting only the legend of Gazza for the legend of Bestie. The similarities between the two are uncanny, both in terms of raw ability and irrepressible personality when things were going well. Sadly, the tendency towards addiction to factors which are the enemies of health and well-being seems another element ominously common to both.

George Best of course ultimately fell victim to his fatal attraction to booze and died an early and tragic death following the raising of hopes after a liver transplant. George was unable to leave the drink alone even after such a very final warning, and his demise followed as night follows day. There was a time when he had it all, of course – but it’s tempting to believe he might have wished to trade some of those trappings and achievements for a few more healthy years on the planet. Famously, a hotel employee once walked in to witness George surrounded by champagne bottles in his luxury suite, happily relaxing in bed with at least two Miss Worlds and the humble functionary sighed, without any apparent sense of irony, “George, George – where did it all go wrong?” It was funny at the time, as was Best’s quote when asked what he did with his money. “I spent loads on wine, women and song – but quite easy on the song – and the rest I just squandered,” he replied. Again, it’s pithy – but the humour shrivels away to nothing when you remember how he ended up in an early grave.

Is Gazza inevitably headed for a tragically similar fate? His health has been a matter of public concern for some time now, and again he seems totally unable to leave the booze alone despite repeated warnings that he’s drinking his health and possibly his life away. It’s not too difficult to pinpoint the start of Gazza’s descent – rewind back to the FA Cup Final of 1991, Spurs v Forest. A pumped-up Gascoigne had already perpetrated an ugly, early, chest-high foul on Garry Parker of Forest – a challenge which went unpunished by referee Roger Milford, but which could so easily have been a red card. Then, still high as a kite on Cup Final adrenalin, Gazza scythed down Gary Charles to concede a free-kick on the edge of the area. Forest actuallly took the lead from the resultant free-kick as Stuart Pearce hammered home – but the price for Gascoigne was even higher. He had ruptured knee ligaments in fouling Charles, and had to leave the field on a stretcher.

To many minds, he was never quite the same player again, even though his subsequent career still hit some major heights. Who knows what difference an early red card for the first foul might have made? Gazza would have avoided that calamitous injury and perhaps come much closer to fulfilling his outstanding potential – and maybe his life post-football would have been less of a horror show. No blame attaches to Roger Milford for his evident misjudgement – referees have no insight into the future.

Since his retirement, Gazza’s life has been a catalogue of calamity, culminating in this latest arrest and charge of alcohol-fuelled misconduct. That he is still drinking is a worrying signpost to the fate suffered by George Best, and if he fails to conquer this demon, it is difficult to see a bright future for the Clown Prince of the 80’s and 90’s. Daft as a brush, Bobby Robson called him, and there’s little reason to dispute that. But surely someone needs to take Gazza in hand and steer him away from a fate that Bestie could eloquently warn him all about, if only he were alive to do so. Someone, somewhere, has to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. Someone has to save Gazza from himself.