My full adolescence coincides perfectly with Philip Larkin's Annus Mirabilis, the Beatles' first LP and the appearance of George Best. It was stiff competition for a fifteen year old, deeply insecure teenager with a big nose, always on the fringes of the school team, making the odd appearance in the First Eleven but much more likely in the Second. The England dream had long gone. I was fast (I got to run for the county, once) but I was short-sighted, lacked that 'vital first touch' and, had I been observing myself play, I would generally have awarded myself 6 out of 10). My actual position was out on the right-wing. I had no functioning left foot. I was OK at best.
Nor did I lead the social life of the other footballing boys. No girlfriends until I was seventeen and always awkward, not only with girls but with other boys, in fact with pretty well everybody. I know every teenage boy feels this, but factor in the foreigness that never quite went away and you get some idea.
Then came the great mid-Sixties team who were a glory to my imagination. Numinous names doesn't cover it! Stepney, Brennan, Dunne, Crerand, Foulkes, Stiles, Best, Charlton, Sadler, Aston, Cantwell, Herd and Connelly. In compiling that list I am aware that it fades a little after Aston, but the light doesn't altogether go. I have clear memories of Herd and Connelly. This was the miracle team, that played thrilling, dynamic football. It was the first triumph of hope.
What do I mean by dynamic, thrilling football? I must try to write a little about that for those who are indifferent to the game and will do so later. For now I mean that the ball moved fast and accurately from player to player. That defenders tried to make thoughtful passes, that Stepney behind that defence was reliable and more, that Foulkes was a rock, that Stiles, unlikely as he looked (he resembled an electrician my dad knew, little, with glasses, in Stiles's case off the field of course) was fierce and capable of dealing with some of the best forwards in the world. But above all, there was Charlton cruising the midfield, Law appearing here and there, sharp, brilliant, deadly, magnificent as a bird in flight, and, above all, Best, who was something else altogether, a small, willowy, handsome wizard such as wingers are dreamt to be, spinning, slipping by people, turning at impossible angles, clearly a world star.
And that is what he was. The Fifth Beatle as the foreign press labelled him. I now think he was Ryan Giggs, born into a football version of the Restoration. Best was a Restoration rake in what had been a Puritan game in England. And the team too had something of the flamboyant rake about it. They were what one could aspire to in late adolescence.
Denis Law in flight
It was beautiful football. Not all the time, not in every game, but at its high-points it had what commentators now occasionally call poetry. Poetry was what I needed, though I didn't know that at the time. Football didn't save my life, but it offered somewhere for my imagined life to be.
And behind them all stood Matt Busby, the manager, of whom more next time.