How George Best's Legacy Still Lives on at Manchester United

Paul AnsorgeFeatured ColumnistSeptember 14, 2017

United's Holy Trinity.
United's Holy Trinity.OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

At the back end of the 2014/15 season, Manchester United were feeling pretty good. Louis van Gaal's first season had not been a success, but wins against Liverpool and Manchester City had come in quick succession and things seemed to be on the up. It was a good time for a new upbeat chant to catch on.

Surprisingly, though, the chant that defined that period was not in honour of one of United's existing players, nor even was it a player from the recent past. Indeed, it was for a player who had not played for United for more than 40 years, who had died 10 years earlier.

Best is still remembered at Old Trafford.
Best is still remembered at Old Trafford.Michael Regan/Getty Images

The song is based on the 1969 Norman Greenbaum hit "Spirit in the Sky." And as anyone who has been to a game since May 2015 will know, United fans have changed the lyrics: "I'm going on up to the spirit in the sky, that's where I'm gonna go when I die" it starts—as the original did. "When I die and they lay me to rest"—and for now we are still on the same page as Greenbaum—"I'm gonna go [for a drink] with Georgie Best."

OK, Greenbaum never sung that part. And nor do United fans, using slightly stronger language to describe "going for a drink."

The song caught on like wildfire. Now, there is definitely an unfortunate component to that, given that it celebrates George Best's relationship with alcohol, which was, in truth, a tragic one.

As George Best: All By Himself, the recent ESPN, BBC and Northern Ireland Screen film, part of the 30 for 30 series, documented, Best's battle with alcoholism was responsible for the dramatic downward turn in his career and continued to plague him until his death.

But football chants do not tend to be the product of thinking deeply about an issue. Drinking and football culture are profoundly interlinked, and this was a song designed to be sung during moments of pure escapism, moments that were often alcohol fuelled themselves.

The most fascinating thing about the chant is that it exists at all. There cannot have been many new chants about footballers whose peak happened during the 1960s to have caught on among a club's support in the past five years.

But, of course, there were not many footballers like Best. As the old saying goes, "Pele good, Maradona better, Georgie Best."

Best is one of only three players to have a statue outside of Old Trafford. He is immortalised in bronze on the club's forecourt alongside Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, with whom he formed United's "Holy Trinity" during their 1960s glory years. The three of them were integral to the Red Devils' league title wins in 1965 and '67 and the European Cup in '68.

The Holy Trinity, reunited in their later years.
The Holy Trinity, reunited in their later years.TIM OCKENDEN/Associated Press

Law was a prodigious poacher and Charlton an attacking midfielder with a thrilling ability to slam the ball into the back of the net from outside of the box. But Best was a magician.

When interviewed on ESPN's 30 for 30 podcast, Daniel Gordon, the director of All By Himself, spoke of trawling through the footage of Best's United days and hearing an audible difference in the crowd noise when Best had the ball when compared to the rest of the team. The celebrations for his goals were the loudest celebrations of all.

His ability was held in the highest possible esteem by his peers, too. Portuguese legend Eusebio said: "Best was the best player in the world, not just England, and a good friend of mine. When he played against Benfica in 1966 in Lisbon, we lost 5-1 and George was spectacular, a genius."

His United manager Sir Matt Busby said of him: "George was gifted with more individual ability than I had ever seen in a player. When you remember great names like Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, I can't think of one who took the ball so close to an opponent to beat him with it as Best did."

But it is Charlton who best encapsulates why Best's legacy continues to resonate. In the midst of a glowing tribute to his team-mate's talent, he said: "Manchester United's glorious history has been created by people like George Best."

Charlton is right, but not just in terms of Best's contributions on the pitch, as vital as they were.

Best was also a new kind of figure in footballer, a genuine superstar on a national and international scale—as well known off the pitch as on it. With rock-star good looks and a pretty rock-star lifestyle, he became an icon of the times as his mid-60s Beatle-cut transitioned into the shaggy, bearded look he sported in the 1970s.

He was the best player in England and up there with the very best in the world, all the while looking like the icons of youth culture that had become the dominant cultural force for just about the first time in history.

Best was one of United's own, too, imported from Northern Ireland early enough to be raised in the academy system of which Busby was rightfully so proud.

So, he was young, glamorous, and a devastating, skilful attacking force. Best was essentially the living embodiment of the values by which United have defined themselves ever since.

From David Beckham's haircuts to Eric Cantona's collar and Paul Pogba's dab, there is a rich history of the crossover of United and popular culture. From Steve Coppell to Ryan Giggs to Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, United fans have long celebrated players who will run with ball at their feet.

While the reality might be more prosaic, the collective imagination of what Manchester United are owes an enormous debt to Best.

Much as it is with Best's drinking, of course, some of this glamorisation is misplaced. United are now a global brand prepared to associate themselves and their image with commercial products around the world. They are a business registered in the Cayman Islands, and Old Trafford is sometimes so quiet that only the singing section in J-Stand and the away support can be heard. And in the end, Best's drinking killed him.

But football is not really about dealing with reality on its own terms. Football is about escapism, about singing with friends and celebrating the moment. Football is about lionising those who bring the most joy to the people watching. Best's lasting legacy at United lives not in reality, with its unpleasant and all-too-real consequences, but in the collective imagination of the club's support and the wider world.

Glamour, youth and life lived to its fullest. And a level of ability that almost no one else could live with. The popular myth of Best and the popular myth of United are just about one and the same. There is some ambivalence in the disconnect between the popular myth and reality, but ambivalence is part of what it means to be human.

Diego Maradona, a player with a similar contradictions to Best, said: "George inspired me when I was young. He was flamboyant and exciting. I think we were very similar players, dribblers who create moments of magic."

Those moments of magic are Best's real legacy. Eventually, the memories of the rest of it will fade, but the ripples those moments of magic created, moments that inspired Maradona who went on to inspire just about everybody who has kicked a football since, those moments will live on for a long time to come.

          

Quotations per the club's website where not otherwise stated.