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George Best's early boyhood crush wasn't on a footballer. It was on the fictional Hollywood character Zorro, the dashing Spanish nobleman who wore a black sackcloth mask and a black silk cape and righted social wrongs with a rapier in one hand and a bullwhip in the other.
After watching him at the cinema near his home Best tied his school gabardine around his neck, pretending it was Zorro's cape, and took part in imaginary swordfights on the pavement. He came to play the way he saw Zorro fight. Zorro mocked his opponents. He outwitted through cunning instead of force. He taunted them to the extent that most became embarrassed and then angry. That was Best's aim, too. 'If I could rile whoever was there to stop me I knew there was more chance of them making a mistake,' he said. 'They were too preoccupied trying to get their own back to think sensibly.' Early on, and irrespective of reputation, he always tried to stick the ball through opponents' legs to prove who was the boss on the pitch. Nor was he averse to letting someone know verbally that he regarded them as his inferior.
'You're too slow' and 'too old', he would tell them, or 'not good enough'. He did things no one else could do. Against Burnley, during an FA Cup tie, he made two goals while wearing only one boot; the left came off in a tackle. United were losing 1-0 and there were less than ten minutes to save them. Not wanting to waste a second, Best tried to throw the boot over the touchline, where someone unhelpfully hurled it back at him. So he carried the boot in his right hand, laying on each goal with a foot that had only a stocking to protect it. Newspapers christened him 'The Bootless Wonder'.
There were defenders who would take small shuffled steps, like stammered speech, towards him, each hesitation highlighting a reluctance to commit themselves. Others would foolishly tear towards Best in a futile effort to crowd and hurry him into a mistake. Whatever technique was employed against him, Best found an answer to it. He was rarely corralled or confined to the touchline. 'Sometimes,' he said, 'I'm marked by even two or three defenders. Often, I can see the defender thinking that the only thing I can do is pass. This is often the time I choose to dribble...Zorro fought when his opponents expected him to run.'
He was easily piqued. When David Sadler griped that he was holding on to the ball too long, Best took offence. In retaliation he decided that his first ten touches during the next game would all be passes to his friend. 'He must have been a bit bemused,' said Best, 'because he was playing centre-half that day.' Other objectives were more virtuous. While still an embryonic player Best had accepted a challenge from another friend, John Fitzpatrick, to get a goal direct from the kick-off in a youth game. The grass was invisible beneath two inches of snow. Best took the ball across it, beating umpteen attempts to stop him, before popping the ball into the net. 'Is that what you wanted?' he asked Fitzpatrick, skittishly. When he knew a match was being televised, Best dearly wanted to score from the half-way line, and would frequently attempt it without success, always believing his next long-range shot would bring him a goal so memorable that Match of the Day would have to screen it during the opening credits. 'I would look up and see if I could lob the goalkeeper. If I thought it was on, I wouldn't hesitate to try it.'
The game in the 1960s was a particularly brutal business. It could turn into a free-for-all form of caged combat. If contemporary strictures - about high tackling, challenges from behind, elbows and the use of studs - had been in force then, most games would have ended seven-a-side. In getting under the skin of defenders Best substantially increased his chances of leaving the field on a stretcher. But, during his first full season in Division One, he didn't think that anyone was fast enough to catch or pin him to the turf. 'And if I did feel any pain, I didn't show it,' he said. 'I got up fast and tried to pretend I'd barely been touched.' Zorro did that, too.
The most uncompromising of the defenders were as mean as bare-knuckle fighters who believed the Queensberry Rules were for cissies. Ron 'Chopper' Harris of Chelsea called himself a 'butcher' and knew how to carve the joint. With that scarred looking, scowling face and narrow eyes, Tommy Smith at Liverpool looked as if he might eat someone whole and be found chewing on their bones afterwards. Aged 69, Dixie Dean had part of his right leg amputated after a blood clot. Entering a room full of fellow amputees he looked around him and announced quietly: 'I see Tommy Smith's already been here.'
But Leeds - or 'Dirty Leeds' as the terrace fans were soon chanting - had the blackest reputation for Best. Some thought of them as the antithesis of fair play. Don Revie preferred to think of their approach as an example of 'professionalism', a term used derogatorily in current parlance to describe something underhand. In Revie's vocabulary 'professionalism' meant employing modern methods. Unquestionably, his was a skilful side; but the glint of hard steel within it was sometimes flashed too often to reveal the finery beneath. If either were playing today, Billy Bremner and Bobby Collins would be booked simply for getting off the team bus.
As Best saw it, fish rots from the head down. The sort of team Leeds became followed inexorably from the kind of person Revie was - the polar opposite of Matt Busby. Best argued that football was basically a 'simple game', which ought never to be over-complicated. 'I don't like tactics. They bore me,' he said. 'Everything I do is off the cuff. That's where the buzz is for me. I just like those spontaneous moments.' What Best found particularly pointless were chalkboards used to elaborately illustrate where the opposition might attack or the movements a specific player could make. In Busby, he was paired with a manager who thought identically.
'Immortal' is out now, and you can by it here.
Duncan Hamilton is an acclaimed sports writer who has written several football books, including the award-winning 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me' about his life covering Brian Clough, and 'The Footballer Who Could Fly' about the players he and his father shared.