Today marks 10 years since soccer legend George Best passed away.
One-time Manchester United starlet Best was honoured earlier this year with an exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester.
Back in 2003, when the museum was based at Preston’s Deepdale stadium, Bestie was inducted into their Hall of Fame and JP’s North West sports editor Peter Storey went along to meet his boyhood hero.
When I was five or six-years-old my mum bought me my first football. It was an orange and black plastic Frido ‘flyaway’ type.
And after begging my dad for days to come out for a kickabout with me, he finally did – and kicked it straight onto the roof of Maxted’s Removals and I never laid eyes on it again.
Why do I remember the ball so vividly – after all, I only had it for a few days?
It wasn’t because of its fate or the disappointment I felt at not having a ball (I had a long wait for the next one). Nor was it because it was my first.
No, it was none of these things. The reason that football meant so much to a six-year-old boy growing up in the backstreets of Old Trafford was that it bore the signature of his hero… George Best.
Just a few months earlier Bestie had scored an extra-time winner in the European Cup final at Wembley in 1968.
My dad was nominally a Manchester City fan (although I never recall him dragging me to Maine Road thankfully) but from that moment against Benfica I was a Red.
My eldest sister made me a scrapbook with all the newspaper cuttings from that glorious 4-1 triumph over Benfica and I cherished it for years.
I got my first United kit for my seventh birthday in the days before squad names and numbers, and was aghast when I stood proudly at the front door only for the milkman to enquire if I was Bobby Charlton.
“I’m George Best of course,” I told him.
You could see the floodlights of Old Trafford from the front windows of our house and for many years that was the nearest I got to my idol, George, until Greater Manchester Police saw fit to block out the skyline with their new headquarters.
On one of the many occasions I read about George being ‘dropped’ by Matt Busby, I remember one of my sisters telling me this meant he’d never play for United again. I was devastated.
Of course, I discovered she was wrong, but ultimately her fateful prediction came true and Best was lost to United, to top-flight English football, and to me.
By the time I was old enough to stand on the Stretford End, Bestie was long gone. I only saw him play once in the flesh. Bearded, and a little portly, he turned out for Paddy Crerand’s testimonial in 1975, part of a 1968 team playing against the present day side of Pearson, Coppell, Macari and Co.
But he still had magic in his feet. He’d scored a wonder goal playing in the US for Fort Lauderdale Strikers which has been replayed time and again. Bestie still had it.
And so had I – hero worship.
George was never truly replaced in my affections by any other United player, although I always had my favourites (still do, of course).
And so when I discovered he would be in Preston this week, at the National Football Museum to hand over his 1968 European Footballer of the Year award and belatedly receive his induction to the museum’s Hall of Fame after his health problems prevented him attending the earlier event, there was only one place I wanted to be yesterday afternoon.
George, perhaps typically, was an hour late. I told myself I wouldn’t have waited for anyone else so long, but this was Georgie Best, once boy genius, now football icon.
The Press huddle were told of George not being in a particularly good humour – his visit might be short and not so sweet, we were warned.
After all these years I feared my illusions would be shattered.
Best, of course, has taken his fair share of flak in the newspapers after going back to the booze following his liver transplant.
In truth it is difficult to argue with those sentiments.
But it was George Best footballer I had come to meet and in a few moments he appeared, looking a little nervous and wary of the gathered journalists and camera crews.
But I needn’t have feared. He was charming, gave a short but eloquent speech and patiently answered all our questions and posed for photographs. I was relieved.
He even autographed a 60s United jersey for me afterwards – I felt like a little boy again.
George revealed that no less than the great Pele is putting together his Top 100 footballers of all time and that he understands he will figure in it. I asked him if it was true that, a few years ago, Pele had described George as the greatest player in the world.
“He did,” said Bestie. “Just to be mentioned by someone of Pele’s standing is a fantastic honour. I watched a video of Maradona recently, and he said the same thing about me.”
He added: “If it’s good enough for Pele, it’s good enough for me.”
And me, George, and me.