Has there ever been a more aptly named footballer than George Best?
Probably not, though another player from the same golden era was able to give the Belfast boy a run for his money — on and off the park.
Mike Summerbee, a rival but also a great friend of Best, buzzed on the right wing for the Manchester City side which won the First Division title in 1968, rendering immortal in the blue half of the city such men as Frannie Lee, Colin Bell, Tony Book and Summerbee himself.
Those of us of a certain age will accrue little comfort from the realisation that the dashing winger turns 70 in December yet Summerbee’s profile is probably the highest its been since the days when he was tormenting full-backs at Maine Road. Now an ambassador for the club, Summerbee’s tears as he watched City sensationally lift the title last season have become part of the folklore of the most famous day in the club’s history.
“You couldn’t write a script for an end to the season like that,” he said yesterday, speaking ahead of City’s game at Thomond Park against Limerick tomorrow evening. “And it was very emotional. Tony Book and Francis Lee were sat behind me. And so was Patrick Vieira, a man who has won the World Cup and so many honours.
“And the emotions were unbelievable, especially when it went from depression to jubilation in a matter of seconds. This was the thing that mattered most of all to the club and I thought it had gone — everyone thought it had gone. And if the incident with Joey Barton hadn’t occurred, then we probably would have lost it.
“The added time was something else. I think Dzeko and Balotelli turned the game when they came on, one with the header and one with the stretched out leg that pushed the ball to Aguero. I’m an emotional person and I know a lot of people around me felt the same. It was something very special and something that, in your lifetime, in the whole world of sport, you’ll probably never see anything remotely like it again.”
44 years before, Summerbee had been in a City team which had also pipped United to the title on the final day, the Blues winning 4-3 in Newcastle while the Reds were beaten 1-2 at home by Sunderland — coincidentally, the same club they were up against on the last day last season.
“It did bring back memories of ’68 though the finish wasn’t remotely like that at all,” Summerbee said. “I know 4-3 sounds tight but we actually won the game in Newcastle quite comfortably. But the game against QPR was totally different — everyone around the world was watching Manchester United and Manchester City fighting for the Premier League title on the last day and for it to turn into something like that, well, you’ll never ever see anything like that again.”
Unavoidably, I had to ask Mike how he reckoned the City boys of 1968 would have fared against the class of 2012?
“You can’t really compare because the conditions are so different,” he replied.
“The pitches are beautiful and there’s no real physical contact in the game now compared with ours. There were great players in my day just as there are fantastic players today but I can’t really compare them. But I would have to say this: to see Colin Bell and George Best playing on beautiful pitches like they have now, with no physical contact, that would be frightening to watch.
“There were lots of creative players in my era, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, Francis Lee, Dave Mackay. The pitches are perfect now and that enhances people passing the ball so there are lots of players from that era who would do well today. And you wouldn’t have the likes of Ron Harris and people like him getting stuck in like they used to. It was a physical game in those days.”
Delving deep into his memory banks Summerbee recalled previous visits to this island, including a narrow 2-1 win for City in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup against Linfield in Windsor Park in 1970 — “They played us off the park” — and, even earlier than that, a friendly in Dublin for his first club Swindon — in which Summerbee scored in a 2-3 win over Drumcondra — at a time when games in England fell had victim to the big freeze of 1963.
“I enjoy going to Ireland and the enthusiasm of the supporters,” said the City legend. “There’s always a great atmosphere.”
nA crowd of up to 20,000 is expected to watch Limerick host Man City at Thomond Park. Kick-off is at 7pm.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved