Why was George Best so popular? How did this man get a hundred thousand people out in the rain to see him off? And why did I work it? If I was asked to start work at 6am for anything else, I’d have laughed at the very idea, but it was Georgie, so that was OK.
It’s not the football, for he was long retired by the time I was watching TV. It’s not for the drinking, because, not to put too fine a point on it, drunks are ten-a-penny. It’s not the glamour, it’s not the drunk-driving, it’s not the occasional bout of violence. So what the hell was it?
Perhaps it’s the infectious love of previous generations. For there was a lot of that going round, and it was there to see on Saturday. But I don’t think that it reached out as far as Randalstown (much like electricity and the like didn’t reach us).
Perhaps it was the cross community aspect. But then, that’s something that makes people say “Oh, isn’t that good to see”, rather than getting them to camp overnight, then run a mile uphill to get a good spot at a funeral.
Perhaps it was the sheer natural talent. Footballers today may do things that Best could only have dreamed of, but they have everything about their game micro-managed, while Best turned up hungover and would probably still beat any modern play one-on-one.
Perhaps it was the showmanship. As a fella at the funeral said to me, who else would nutmeg a player, then do the same thing a couple more times just because he could. What modern player would risk doing anything like that these days? For the ‘game’ nowadays is about the business as much as the game, back then the game mattered more.
Perhaps it was the showbiz lifestyle. Those who blaze a trail for others to follow will be remembered long after those who follow are gone. Best was the first real celebrity footballer, the first to be shown on colour TV, the first to live the celeb lifestyle that so many others have tried out.
Perhaps it was the cheeky boyishness that he showed. He’d do something wrong, and hold his hands up. Bt then minutes later he’d have everyone within 20 yards eating out of his hand.
I think it’s a bit of all that, but more still. I think that the honesty counts for a lot as well. The realism. Beckham may be a bigger name and a more prominent image, but could you tell me where the image ends and the man begins? With the Belfast Boy, people looked at the man, and the image, and didn’t see much difference. There didn’t seem to be much PR behind him (I’m sure there was, but it wasn’t as hamfisted or as in-your-face as the modern stuff).
Perhaps it’s all of that. Maybe mixed in with a little niche in the collective NIrish mind. We’ve produced some outstanding people over the years, some great talents in many fields. Some of them we’ve ignored, some we’ve driven away, some we’ve shat on. More have moved away, seeking bigger things than one small corner of one small island can provide. Some have been promising, but never realised their promise. Some have flourished, but were thought to have ‘changed’, to have forgotten their roots. We’ve wished them well, but never warmed to them.
But some flourished, and stayed true to what we though of them. And we have loved them for it. Joey Dunlop was one of these, George Best was another. He had the world at his feet, he won medals galore and lit up people’s lives. Best liked a drink, but sure, lots of us do. He liked the girls, but sure, lots of us do. He made mistakes, but sure, lots of us do.
And in the end, he was buried from his family house, on a damp winter day, in a damp, often depressing city. But sure, lots of us will be.
1946 – 2005