Published: 30 NOV 2005
AS MUSTARD BUT BEST OF ALL
To lose one United legend is sad, to lose two legends in the space of seven days is sadder still. Roy Keane and George Best wrote large chapters in the clubs history and will both be missed in different ways.
Both were proud Irishmen, albeit from different sides of the divide. Best was born a genius, and with it the flaws that accompany such a gift. Good with right and left foot, ability to hang in the air higher than larger opponents, and supreme balance and skill to outwit and torture anyone who dared to challenge him.
Keane worked hard to make himself into a combative player that could influence a game in a different way to Best, with passion, spirit, self-sacrifice. Both shared a brand of courage that made them the stars they were, George defied crippling tackles and returned for more, Roy overcame serious injuries and was frightened of no man, player, coach or official.
The Ulsterman walked out on Old Trafford twice in a permanent sense, Keano as a player will not be granted such a luxury. Both racked up over 450 appearances in a United shirt. Best made his debut as a skinny 17-year-old against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford in 1963. How fitting that the Red's next home game sees the Baggies back again. Keanes first game in the top flight in English football was for Nottingham Forest at Liverpool in 1990, his last for United was again at Anfield 15 years later. Fate is a strange mistress.
Best's time in the United first team was between 1963-74, Keane's began 30 years after George's in 1993 and ended in 2005. Both won European Cup winners medals, but in differing circumstances. Both scored critical goals in European Cup Semi-finals, Best against Real Madrid in 1968, Keane against Juventus in 1999. But whereas George scored a typical solo goal in the final against Benfica, Roy sacrified himself in Turin, for the good of his team, earning a yellow card that denied him a place in the team that dramatically overcame Bayern Munich in the 1999 Final in Barcelona but not a medal.
Both won League Championship medals, Best in the title-winning sides of 1965 and 1967, in the triumvirate of Charlton, Law and Best, before the club lurched into mediocrity. Keane joined a team of winners, already driven by Schmeichel, Bruce, Ince, and inspired by Eric Cantona. He also had a manager hungry to re-write the record books. Both were fortunate to be managed by the best two managers in Uniteds golden history, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson.
Keane won 4 FA Cup winners medals amongst a haul of 7 League, 1 European Cup and assorted others. Of the hundreds of players to appear in FA Cup Finals, George Best, probably the greatest player the British Isles has ever produced, was not one of them. The fickle nature of fate has already given the likes of Alan Davies, Danny Wallace and Darren Fletcher FA Cup winners medals. Keane appeared in a remarkable 5 FA Cup Finals in the 1990s.
Both were recognised as Footballers of the Year, Best going one better by being voted the best in Europe in 1968. Keane managed to tackle his problem with the demons of drink, prolonging his career to 34 at the top level with dedication. Best left United at 27 and spiralled into alcoholism and ruin.
When Best scored a goal, the opposing fans acknowledged his class, his genius. The tributes following his death have been astonishing by the football world in general, plus many who do not have an interest in sport. In contrast, Roy was loathed outside of Old Trafford, his hard, combative, abrasive nature and will to win endearing him only to his own.
Unlike Pele, Cruyff, Maradona, Best never managed to showcase his talents in a World Cup Finals, a big disappointment to him. Keane played for the Republic of Ireland in the 1994 Finals in the USA, but walked on the 2002 squad that was to play in South Korea and Japan.
Both were no strangers to indiscipline. Keane made enemies on the pitch and was not slow to settle scores. Best got frustrated by hatchet men and indulgent referees of his time.
What will be the lasting memories of these two greats? It was 1968 when I was first taken to see Best, and so my choices are more limited than others. One major one has to be the goal against Sheffield United in 1971, taking the ball from a Kidd flick, running fully 40 yards, evading numerous challenges but being driven wide of goal, but still managing to fire off a shot from an angle that clipped the far post and went in. A truly superb piece of brilliance.
Keane's finest showing has to be in Turin in 1999. The Reds went 0-2 down to the might of Juventus and a hostile crowd after 6 minutes, trailed 1-3 on aggregate and were looking beaten. The skipper thought otherwise, led by example, headed in a powerful reposte and cajoled his men to a 3-2 win on the night, and place in the final. Without his spirit, United would not have entered that promised land that made heroes of Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.
In the all-time United X1, many would choose Roy Maurice Keane, the Cork man, as a midfielder, ball-winner, captain, leader of men. The difference of greatness and genius is that George Best, the Belfast boy, would grace many a World X1.
In the future I hope that Keano returns to Old Trafford as a coach, for he has a lot to offer in the game. George will probably be honoured by a statue, to remind future generations that he was no ordinary player.
I have had the pleasure of going to watch Manchester United for 37 years and have seen many stars. Charlton, Law, Cantona were all special. But I will not see anyone as good as George Best.
Copyright © 2005 Red11. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission of the author.
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