From the back streets of Belfast he emerged, the most complete footballing talent these islands ever produced. For a too-brief spell in the 1960s his talent lit up the world, burning with a phosphorescent glow in an era when our football was in the age of black and white. Honours fell around him, the highest coming in 1968 when he was crowned European Footballer of the Year. At that time, when he was right at the peak of his powers, the title understated his ability. The long, sad decline has been chronicled in a thousand mournful obituaries. The chaos, the emptiness and the bleak nihilism of Best's later years were summed up in an anecdote he liked to tell himself. It is the one were the playboy is lounging on a hotel bed with one or other of the Miss Worlds he took up with from time to time. Spent Champagne bottles litter the suite, and there is a tidy pile of banknotes overflowing a drawer. A little old Belfast guy comes in with room service and sighs, "Oh Mr Best - where did it all go wrong?" It was Best's tragedy that he never seemed to realise that the joke was on him. The abiding myth insists that Best wasted his career.
True, he did not play out his days quietly to his mid-30s, nor was he a man to meekly accept a testimonial before retiring to a life of golf dinners and running a pub. But in the decade he was a pro for Manchester United he won the European Cup and two Championships, scoring 178 goals in 466 games for United along the way. Not a bad haul for an under-achieving wastrel. Best never asked pity. For years he had known how his life would end, and he did not invite sympathy. There are enough quotes in this book about drinking and alcoholism to show that Best was aware of his fate. He did not embrace it, but neither did he evade it. There were thousands of defenders down the years thrown off Best's trail by a quicksilver shimmy. Death would not so easily be denied. All Best wanted was to be remembered most for his football, and not for his fatal affair with the bottle. In that spirit, the last word goes to Pele. He called Best: "The greatest footballer in the world." It was the six-word epitaph Best craved and deserved.