They say that you should never meet your heroes because you will always be disappointed. Thankfully, I did not experience this when I had the privilege of spending time with one of the greatest players in the history of the game, twenty years ago in the summer of 1993. My father, Sean, had always organized the local summer soccer schools in my hometown of Omagh alongside Northern Ireland star Gerry Armstrong. The highlight of the camp was that every year they brought over a famous name for all the young players to meet. In 1993, we hit the jackpot as former Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend, George Best would be the guest of honor. I had seen videos of George Best in action, had posters of him on my wall, and of course, heard many stories about his exploits both on and off the field. When my Dad informed me that it was his responsibility to transport and act as a tour guide to George and his son Calum, of course I volunteered to help!
I don’t know who was more excited, my father or myself in the build-up to George Best’s arrival. He had made a name for himself in the media as being slightly unreliable, to say the least, but as we drove to Belfast Airport to pick him up, it was us who was the guilty party. We were running about ten minutes late, and when my Dad arrived at the airport and walked into baggage claim, he was informed by a fellow passenger that George had already left. Disaster! Without cell phones or emails, it took us hours to track him down in a famous hotel in Belfast city center and around the same time for my Dad to gain his trust and persuade him to keep his original commitment. I don’t think George appreciated being made to wait at the airport, but as we made the journey to Omagh, thankfully it did not take him long to forget about it. He did tell us that less than twenty minutes after arriving in the lounge of the famous Belfast hotel, one of the staff received a phone call from a man who had went to primary school with George over 40 years ago and already heard that he was in town. He was having a birthday celebration at his house and wanted to extend an invitation to his old classmate. Thankfully George declined the offer and chose the soccer camp over the party. Not often you heard stories like that in the papers!
Spending two days with George Best was an unbelievable experience. I was old enough to read the papers and the stories of how temperamental and unpredictable he could be but that perception could not have been further from the truth. He was quiet, shy, but very friendly and an absolute gentleman. There were about two hundred young players participating at the camp and George treated every one of them like they were the celebrities. He paid every group a visit, smiled for every photo and answered the same questions with the same patience and enthusiasm: “What do you think of United winning the league?” and “Who is better, you or Ryan Giggs?” A lot of the campers were too young to see George play so they all asked for a demonstration of his skills. At fifty years old, he was juggling and taking shots at whatever goal keeper volunteered for the job. He still loved the game, and you could see it anytime someone put a ball anywhere near him. His son Calum had the same enthusiasm for the game and challenged his Dad throughout the day to skill challenges, which always ended in a lot of laughs even though Best Junior could never get the upper hand.
George Best did not pass on tactical knowledge to the staff or technical points for the young players that would take their game to the next level. However, what he gave all the young players, including myself, was something more important than that. Every group asked him the same question: What advice would you give for us to be a professional player? His answer never changed. He smiled and told every group to make sure they have fun and always remember to love the game. Not really rocket science you may think, but watch old footage of Best in action and you could see how he lived by those words. Whether it was tackling his own teammate Rodney Marsh, offering Terry Yorath to tackle him while he removed one of his boots, or attempting to kick the ball out of England goalkeeper, Gordon Banks’ hands, George Best had fun when he was on the pitch. It defined him as a player and even though the level and pressure increased, this love of the game took him past every challenge. When he left Manchester United in 1973 at the age of 28, his next challenge was playing for Dunstable Town, who averaged crowds of less than 50 people. Towards the end of his career, it was always the love of the game over big money contracts and publicity.
I recently listened to English FA National Development Manager, Nick Levett, on TalkSport and it brought back memories of my experience twenty years ago. Nick was asked about how we are going to develop the next generation of English players who can compete at the World Cup level. He calmly explained that the job of grassroots coaches was not to develop players for the England team, but instead to give the kids a “Fantastic love of football that makes them stay in the game forever.” Nick believes that if young players can develop a love of the game primarily, even if they do not become a professional player, they will come back as coaches, referees or administrators – areas which are vital for development of the game. It takes so much to be a professional soccer player today; athleticism, power, speed, mental strength, and phenomenal technical skills. These are the areas that academy and elite programs focus on. But there must first be a base. If you don’t develop a love of the game, you are never going to take the time and want to make the necessary commitments down the road. This should be the role of grassroots football and youth coaches. If we try to cultivate professional players before they develop a love of the game, they will walk away from football forever. We talk about lack of creative players in the English game today, but it is not far to see why they are disappearing. Negative energy and negative thoughts, block creative thoughts from occurring and the next George Best or Paul Gascoigne will not develop from a high pressured, results focused environment.
George Best left an incredible legacy to the world of soccer with his skills and accomplishments, but maybe we should listen closer to his views on the game if we are to unearth the next genius. After all, he should know. As coaches blame games consoles and a changing society for reasons why young children do not seem to want to practice on their own maybe we should ask questions of ourselves. Is the environment fun? Do they get to play games? Will they get yelled at if they make mistakes? As coaches, we may not be able to instill this love of the game to our players, but we can certainly facilitate it with the right approach. Simply by always using first names, listening as well as speaking, moving on from mistakes quickly, and always looking for players doing things right, we can create an environment where young players want to be a part of and are excited every time they arrive at practice. If fun is not part of your criteria when you are working with young players, then you are not doing the players or the game justice. Football has changed a lot in twenty years, and has changed even more since George Best was a kid himself in the 1960s. Tremendous financial rewards have led to increased pressure on coaches, referees and especially, the players. But it will always be a game. Let’s always remember that and allow the younger kids to experience it with the same joy and innocence as we did ourselves.