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  • Writer's pictureIan Hyde-Lay

Ain't As Good As I Once Was

Bed beckons, but I take a last, quick surf of the Internet. Suddenly, a Youtube video pops up on Facebook. It leads me back down memory lane.

Springtime, 1964. A Saturday morning in Mill Hill, a few miles northwest of London.

Chores complete, I eagerly await my weekly allowance. A sixpence, a king’s ransom way back then to a young boy.

My brother in tow, we race down the street to the corner store.

There, next to the candy bars, in neat rows lie packs of soccer cards. After some deliberation, I choose one. Credit card in size, it contains three cards and a pink stick of gum. My fingers tremble as I tear away the plastic wrapping. I hope beyond hope to add new players to my growing collection.

My heart skips a beat. Because there he is. Young, shy eyed, with dark Beatle like mop-top hair. Resplendent in a red Manchester United jersey.

He is George Best.

Born in Belfast in 1946 and spotted by a talent scout at age fifteen, he goes on make his club debut two years later. Over eleven mostly star-studded seasons, he notches 179 goals in 470 appearances. Widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, he displays electric pace, dazzling dribbling, and extraordinary skill. In addition, his uncanny balance and sublime passing fully capture the public’s imagination.

My father’s teaching sabbatical soon ends, and our family returns to Canada. Still, from afar, my newfound obsession with soccer continues. As they become available, I pore over British newspapers, husband faded magazines, anything to remain connected to my favourite players and their teams. To Bonetti, the acrobatic Chelsea goalkeeper, to Bremner, the spiky Leeds United midfielder, to Callaghan, the tireless Liverpool centre half.

And, of course, among Manchester’s galaxy of stars, to Best.

The maverick, by now destroying defenders for fun in the English Premiership, soon catapults to fame on the European scene. Starting with a magical, two goal performance in a 1966 European Cup quarterfinal vs Benfica, he then goes on to lead United, this time in blue strip, to the championship two seasons later against the same Portuguese opponent. With the game in extra time, Best settles the match with the winning goal. The victory, underscored by his winning the coveted Ballon D’Or as Player of the Year, is the pinnacle of his career.

Alas, from these intoxicating heights, a disappointingly rapid decline soon begins.

While continuing to enjoy some success with United for a few more seasons, over the next decade he also drifts between clubs in South Africa, Scotland, Australia, and USA. And, though capped 37 times, a combination of his country’s erratic performances and his own deteriorating fitness ensure he never features in a World Cup or major international tournament.

Indeed, an extravagant, playboy lifestyle leads to a raft of personal problems, most notably alcoholism. Despite celebrity status and a pop star image, or perhaps because of them, discipline slips entirely. He skips training sessions, misses games, is fined, is suspended. Financial and health issues mount as he staggers towards retirement from the game. Skills seriously dulled by age, women, and booze, he plays his last competitive fixture for United on New Year’s Day 1974.

It is against this backdrop that I return to the present. To the Facebook post. And to the highlight video.

The computer screen fills with images from a 1976 World Cup qualifying match. 56,000 passionate fans fill Rotterdam’s Stadion de Kuip. A powerful Netherlands side, inventors of “Totaalvoetbal” (Total Soccer) and a dominant force on the world stage, entertain lowly Northern Ireland. Dutch legends, Cruyff, Neeskens and Krol, each in their pomp and at the peak of their powers. The visitors set to be lambs to a slaughter.

Yet, what transpires becomes part of soccer folklore.

His career definitely on the wane, now over 30 and hardly in optimum physical condition, Best returns to the squad after three years in the international wilderness. Somewhat surprisingly, he is selected to start by the new team manager.

Literally, within minutes, he makes good on a pre-game promise to outduel Cruyff. Securing possession of the ball, he flies down the left wing, cuts sharply to the middle of the field. Once there, he utterly bamboozles three orange clad defenders before having the audacity to nutmeg his famous opponent.

The scintillating move clearly rattles the hosts, and, by extension, the capacity crowd. Incredibly, the unfancied visitors score early to take a shock 1-0 lead. The Dutch do eventually settle down, recover to move in front. Yet, undeterred, sparked throughout by Best’s simply magnificent performance, Northern Ireland registers a late equalizer. The 2-2 final score line deemed by the press both unbelievable and a miracle.

Years pass by and are not kind to Best. Unfortunately, there are various unsavory incidents and controversies. His alcohol dependence worsens. He subsequently dies in 2005, aged 59, due to complications from immunosuppressive drugs needed after a liver transplant.

Still, I choose to forget for a minute his hedonistic lifestyle and sad, painful demise. Instead, I opt to recall the sheer genius of a player even Pele, himself an absolute icon of the sport, rated as “the greatest ever.”

In particular, as I reminisce, I think back fondly to a set of soccer cards and a stick of gum. To a Facebook message and therefore a chilly October night long ago in Rotterdam.

And so, as my laptop fades to black, I salute the efforts of an aging superstar, well past his prime. Summoning one last special effort.

Undaunted, but perhaps channeling the lyrics of Toby Keith. The country music artist who sang “I ain’t as good as I once was……but I’m as good once, as I ever was.”


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