It was Van Morrison who put George Best into proper context, which was apt. “Too long in exile,” sang the Man on the title track of his hugely underrated 1993 album. “Just like George Best, baby… just like Alex Higgins.”
Three of maybe half a dozen authentic geniuses of popular culture to have emerged from Ireland in the last half century, and they had this in common, that they were tight wee working class Protestants from Belfast, and never at ease with celebrity.
Had they been Catholics, Nationalists, they might have slid into riches and fame as if this were their natural environment and begun talking celeb like native speakers.
But there’s an awkwardness about Prods, particularly Prods from a proletarian background, as they make their way, if they can, in the upper reaches of the wider world.
This is sometimes expressed in drunkenness, grumpiness or uncool outbursts of atavism, perhaps resenting the way their identity isn’t esteemed, perhaps resenting their identity. Or maybe just confused. Northern Protestants have never been any good at guff.
George Best left for Manchester in 1961, made the break definitive when he signed at 17 as a pro for United in May 1963, the month after the release of the Beatles’ first LP.
He was soon to be dubbed “the fifth Beatle” and it’s plain he seized on the soubriquet with alacrity. Pictures from the period show him modelled on the Fab Four — collarless jacket, mop-top hair-style and all.
Back in Belfast in 1963, the Unionist leader Lord Brookeborough departed for retirement to the fastness of Fermanagh and was replaced by Terence O’Neill, from the drawling room school of Unionism.
The first stirrings of change were everywhere, but as yet there was no pervasive sense of threat.
The youth-quake epicentred on Liverpool had sent its shudders of anticipation rippling across to the North, seeming to suggest, as the old order rapidly faded — or so it seemed — that the young and the urgent of Ulster might find a new sense of themselves in rock and roll and freedom.
George was the exquisitely timed, perfect epitome. No one who saw him live in the flowering of his genius can ever forget, because it’s on permanent play on a loop in the mind, his feint and dribble, his slalom and surge, the way he’d pause and sway and then spasm in an instant through a cluster of defenders to arrive as an apparition in the area, his nonchalance and daring, his beauty.
He had such balance as, it was observed, might have made Isaac Newton think again about gravity. Plus, he was a great header of the ball, a great reader of the game, a great tackler back when he had to be. He was everything a footballer could or should be. He was brilliant. Millions draped their dreams around him.
In Blessed — published in 2001, sharply intelligent and much the most thoughtful of his unsatisfactory drafts for an autobiography — he recalled with wonder the pride of his neighbours on the Cregagh Estate on the occasions he went home after making it big-time.
He scored his first goal for United in a Christmas 1963 fixture against Burnley and was home next day when the Belfast Telegraph shouted it out from an exultant back page. “[It] just seemed so unreal to me and to all my mates. Kicking a ball around in the streets, we had all pretended to be playing for some big club.
“Now I had scored for Manchester United, and there was the picture in the Belfast Telegraph to prove it! There was a sense of disbelief among Tommy, Robin and the others…
“My goal was a big talking point on the estate. It was as if I’d scored for them, too, which made me a bit weepy.” You have to wonder if he was weepy because he sensed, too, this was sort of goodbye.
The age when footballers came home from the top flight for the off-season and bought pints for their mates and shared glory around the neighbourhood were gone, or at least going.
After that first senior goal, there is no indication that he ever celebrated another footballing feat as a sort of communal achievement. Tommy, Robin, and the others aren’t mentioned again in Blessed. His visits home became fewer and fewer.
“Off the field in 1964,” he wrote, “something odd was happening. All the old values in life were changing as the Sixties began to take hold, led by pop groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones…
“I didn’t mix with the other first-team players socially, partly because they were older and many of them were married. I was part of this new generation…”
Part of the price of being the first pop celebrity footballer was that he was detached from players around him even as he was tugged out of contact with the people he’d come from.
It was commonly remarked that there was a vulnerability about him, a sense of him always standing alone, even, or especially, as applause cascaded upon him. He was always out on his own.
No guru, no method, no teacher is all very well, except if, really, you’re lost.
In Blessed, George strove to describe his roots in the Protestant community but managed only to make clear his uncertainties.
He’d spent a mere three of his teenage years on the Cregagh Estate, during the least rowdy interlude in Northern Ireland’s existence.
The material realities of Belfast life impacted upon him lightly. The intersections between politics and popular culture eluded him. “In those days, even football support was divided on sectarian grounds,” he wrote. “If you were a Protestant, you automatically supported Linfield, and if you were a Catholic you supported Glentoran.”
George just didn’t get it about the Belfast Big Two, that while the Glens, unlike Linfield, weren’t characterised by strident Loyalism and had some Catholic support, their fans, too, were overwhelmingly Protestant.
He tells that his family were “Protestant, Free Presbyterians to be exact”. But they were not. If they had been, they’d have had no time for secular fripperies like football.
There is a startling naivety about his suggestion that, “We used to get a few taunts from the Catholics, calling us Proddy bastards and we would call them Fenians… It was a bit like being a member of the Rotary Club or the Freemasons.”
These are the observations of a man, not recalling at leisure the culture which had shaped him but trying and failing to imagine what its content must have been. He’d been exiled too long, too far, too soon, to feel secured by a real rootedness.
We have to hope that he knew in the end how much he was loved and that he found in this the solace and validation which was surely his entitlement for the delirium of joy which his genius gave to us all.
Eamonn McCann will be speaking about his new book The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, 6.30pm, Friday 9 December, Bookmarks bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury St, London WC1. To reserve places phone 020 7637 1848