His voice trails off, and then one of the police hollers out of the dark, "You're a fine target, standin' there in the light, Georgie. You'll catch a cold, too."
How strange it all still must seem to Best, that house, the police out in front of it, a life so frightfully remote from his gray smoke of an existence in Belfast: the front doors of the houses painted the same; scrawny privet hedges; ragged kids in the streets in the winter light, trying to dribble with balls made of binding rags; the streams of men, their breath on the air, hands deep in their pockets, returning from the shipyard where his father worked. "Every night after lessons we played football until bedtime, using the streetlamps as floodlights. Who cared how little money we all had? I never wanted pocket money. Only the game counted. We lived for Saturday afternoons when we would bundle our boots into schoolbags and dash off for the local bus to the pitch."
He was 15—"just a speck of a body"—when Bob Bishop first saw him. Bishop was the Irish scout for Manchester United, and he wired back to United, "I think I have found a genius." The scout went to the Best house and found the genius out front in the dark dancing with a tennis ball; he invited him to spend two weeks in Manchester. "When he arrived," says Mrs. Mary Fullaway, who was his landlady for years and would become another mother to him, "all I remember is this little head looking out of the car window, and I recall saying to myself, 'Well, he'll never make a footballer!'" The next night Best fled back to Belfast. "I felt I didn't belong," he says. "I was very home sick. When I got home my father was furious. He felt that I had thrown away a chance of a lifetime. I'm sure he felt like whacking me. Yet my mother understood. She put her arm around me and said, 'Never mind, son.' "
Best returned to United, which found him odd jobs, and when he was 17 the club signed him. Four months later he was in his first match; it was to be one of the most memorable debuts in British soccer. He brought the dribble back into the game, a lost art that had faded with Stanley Matthews and Len Shackleton and become obsolete with the genesis of the versatile player of the mid-'60s. "The memory that Best left in my mind after that game," recalls one critic, "was of frailty animated into intensely personal enterprise." Quickly, Best became firmly entrenched among the elite of the game, his innovation and instinct exploding into the sort of virtuosity that defied the pedestrian language of soccer. "I've never liked tactics," says Best. "Tactics bore me." The fans steadily came to agree with him, and few will ever forget the pass he once made for a United goal; like a street urchin, with mud crusting his wet black mane, Best made the pass with a stockinged foot while holding his boot high in the air.
That sort of acrobatic plainly excites Best. He sometimes imagines himself in a Cup Final at Wembley before the Queen with millions watching on television. He imagines Manchester leading by two goals with 20 minutes left; the team is invincible, so he says, "It is time to show off." First a long kick from the goalkeeper balloons down the field, and he traps it against the turf with his backside. "Can you hear the roar!" he says. "The cheek of it! A player so in control he can bring a ball under his spell by sitting on it. But I haven't finished." The crowd bays crazily. "They want more," he says. "I sweep past the left flank of the defense bouncing the ball on my thighs and never letting it touch the ground. Listen to that crowd," he suggests. "Then the final stroke. A center across the face of the opposition goal. Forget about the laws of balance, I fly into a headstand and volley the ball into the foot of the net with my feet. God, can you hear them!" Impossible? "No, I've done all these things in practice, and I've kept the ball off the ground in a lengthy dribble against West Ham."
Any talk of individualism, or of Best, personal or otherwise, usually invites comment on Sir Stanley Matthews, who was knighted for what he did on a soccer field. Matthews was a dour figure who typified the working class of the '30s, a part of England that could not have related to the glamour of any era and never thought of clawing its way out of anonymity, a silent horde that lived daily with dole and debt. By his every feature, Matthews was one of them. He had high cheekbones, pale lips, an unemotional face that seemed never to have known youth; if you were going to paint the face of Stanley Matthews it would be the classic worker's face. He never smoked, never drank, and two sentences back to back were a speech for him. Thrift directed his personal life and hard work wrought a career of tempered steel. Until 1965, when he finally retired at the age of 50, Stanley Matthews was an inexorable force of drama and dignity across the terraces of British stadiums.
"In a sense," remembers one fan, " Matthews' clinging to his playing days was very like the manner in which he played individual matches. When he moved with the ball, shuffling, leaning, edging ever closer to the defender, he was always the man teetering on the very brink of disaster, and we waited breathlessly to see whether this time he would fall or whether yet again he would come swaying back at the last possible moment to run on clear and free. We'll never know how he would have fared today against these faster, lighter, more tenacious defenders. Some think he would not have done well. Maybe, but if I were going to pick an all-time international team, I'd have Matthews, at 35, on my right wing and George Best [actually also a winger] at inside right, and invite the opposition to find the ball."
No quality of perception is required to say that Best and Matthews would be an attack for the ages, even though the only thing they would have in common would be their immense prestige and spare bodies. Unlike Matthews', Best's face implies that he would crumple in the presence of a hard day's work. It is a face, one thinks, that would bring a snicker from a workingman; surely he could not impute to it the stuff of heroism. But in England today as elsewhere, the worker, like those who play on Kings Road, wants his share. The prolix clich� now used to define his times is, after all, "the revolution of rising expectations," and more than ever he resents the grinding monotony of so much of his work, the obscurity of it all, the cloddish debasement of his being. He is as restless, as disconnected as any kid with a knapsack and a thumb on his way to London. Whatever it is out there they are expecting, he wants some of it, too, and through George Best he has a piece of today.
For all of his elastic appeal, the pop idolatry that seems to distract from his fathomless talent, it is only the Best on the pitch that is genuinely stirring. Out there, searching for space in which to start his long, truly beautiful dribbles, he offers the constant promise of the incredible. "If I had the whole of Britain to choose from," says Sir Alf Ramsey, manager of the English soccer team, "instead of just England, the only non-English player I would pick for my team would be George Best." Sir Matt Busby, a director of United, says that he would not put a price on him, but "in straight cash we'd need a million for him." Busby believes the knife-edged drama of Best taking a ball so close to an opponent to beat him defies imitation. "He is possibly the greatest player on the ball I have ever seen," says Busby. Danny Blanchflower, once one of the stars in Britain, says, " Matthews was, let's face it, a supreme dribbler who would tax even the most ruthless, sophisticated defenses of today. But he was primarily a provider. Tom Finney was perhaps a better all-rounder than Matthews. But George Best gets my vote. He's a master of control and manipulation, a superb combination of creator and finisher, and he can play anywhere along the line. But more than the others he seems to have a wider, more appreciative eye for any situation. He seldom passes to a colleague in a poor position. He is prepared to carry the responsibility himself. Best, it seems to me, makes a greater appeal to the senses.
"His movements are quicker, lighter, more balletic. He offers the greater surprise to the mind and the eye. Though you could do nothing about it, you usually knew how Matthews would beat you. In those terms, he was more predictable to the audience. Best, I feel, has the more refined, unexpected range. And with it all there is his utter disregard of physical danger. Just think of his ability to beat all of the giants in the game while in the air. He has timing and balance in his feet and ice in his veins. But I doubt if he will ever play as long as Matthews. George is one of the most closely marked players I have ever seen. Hatchet men track his every stride, and he takes terrible punishment."