November 25th, 2015
Northern Ireland’s image to the rest of the world has not always been a positive or inviting one, with a bitter civil war blighting the country over many years.
However, the power of sport in forging a national identity for a country at times split due to religious divide has been immeasurable.
Although some fantastically gifted football players have originated from ‘Norn Iron’ over the decades, George Best’s name remains iconic and his origins are a real source of collective pride for today’s 1.8 million inhabitants.
The former Manchester United attacker is set to be remembered by a section of his old club’s fans this Wednesday night, as a new banner will be unveiled at the Stretford End in commemoration of the ten-year anniversary of Best’s death back on November 25, 2005.
The Belfast Boy is still fondly remembered by Red Devils’ fans for his scintillating 11-year stint at Old Trafford, with a statute of the Northern Irishman alongside other club icons Denis Law and Bobby Charlton proudly sitting outside the Manchester club’s stadium.
Northern Ireland’s Green and White Army of fans that follow the national side through thick and thin are commonly seen wearing commemorative t-shirts with the slogan ‘Pele good, Maradona better, George Best’ sprawled over them.
There is a belief in this part of the world that the scrawny youngster that made his debut for Manchester United as a fresh-faced 17-year-old and went on to win the Ballon d’Or in 1968 is the best player to ever don a pair of football boots – and with good reason.
United scout Bob Bishop was the man accredited with unearthing Best, telling legendary manager Sir Matt Busby that he had “found him a genius.”
From being too small and light for local side Glentoran, the starlet from the Cregagh estate crossed the Irish Sea and wasted little time in revolutionising the sport and captivating widespread audiences with his God-given talent.
United as a club had been devastated by the atrocities of the 1958 Munich air disaster, with the Northern Irishman having a pivotal role in bringing the team’s glory days back.
The flying winger’s unparalleled creativity and ability with the ball at his feet was something never seen before at Old Trafford, with his back catalogue of incredible individual goals and moments of magic still breathtaking today, over 40 years after he last played for the English club.
Best led United to two First Division titles but his crowning moment was scoring the decisive goal in the 1968 European Cup final against a star-studded Benfica team containing Portuguese legend Eusebio.
With the score at Wembley locked at 1-1 after 90 minutes, the Northern Irish superstar took the game by the scruff of the neck early in extra time to score an incredible individual strike to spearhead an eventual 4-1 victory.
Best’s role in helping United become European champions for the first-ever time is still immortalised, while at the age of 22 the lad from East Belfast had reached the game’s pinnacle.
It meant that at such a young age, Best had already been crowned an English champion, won the European Cup, been named the European Player of the Year and handed the Ballon d’Or accolade.
One of the tragedies of Best’s career was that he was never afforded the chance to compete in an international competition for Northern Ireland.
That said, the attacking talisman had some memorable moments in green, including a goal against England and a disallowed effort where he kicked the ball out of Gordon Banks hands and netted as the goalkeeper tried to clear, only for it to be cruelly chalked off.
It is somewhat fitting that Northern Irish football is on the rise once more with qualification for Euro 2016 after 30 years without participation in a major tournament.
However, the search goes on for a new local genius to be held in anywhere near the same regard as the nation’s favourite son, with the George Best Belfast City airport a reminder of his prominence in Northern Irish life.
Best’s swagger on the pitch has replicated away from the game, with his charisma and wit making him instantly likeable.
Although alcoholism blighted his life and perhaps prevented him from reaching his full potential over time, his playboy lifestyle is almost as fabled as his feats on the pitch.
Tributes have flooded in for Best over the decades, with the finest players to ever play the sport lauding his greatness.
Wednesday’s Champions League match between United and PSV Eindhoven will be a fitting occasion to celebrate Best’s life, ten years after his death.
Despite football entering a new era of professionalism and unchartered popularity, there is the very real possibility that United nor Northern Ireland will have a player of his unique abilities ever again.
The author Gareth McKnight is a freelance football journalist and a proud Northern Irishman.