Some months back on a social media page about George Best's career in Britain and the USA a public commentator drew attention to a particularly quirky aspect of a contemporary Seventies press photograph. The picture is of Best walking past the wire mesh frontage of a stand packed with supporters at a football ground clearly somewhere in the British Isles by all downbeat and gritty aesthetic appearance.
It is hard to clarify whether the match is still in play or if it was a domestic or international tie. Either way the footballer as ever carries off his rugged male bearing with effortless charismatic ease - he appears lost in thought about the game with his hand covering his mouth and a white jersey draped over his bare shoulders as he passes the ranks of male attendees on the terraces.
Many of these appear to be still watching other activity on the football field though some follow the path of his exit. None however can match the attention of two teenage girls at the extreme bottom right hand corner of the photograph whose utterly besotted love for the Northern Irish star is clearly observable to an almost hypnotic degree - their smitten eyes and rapt smiles are affectionately focused on him and him alone across the universe and in utter dazed adoration. It is a wonderful hidden pictorial detail.
Another classic Best image worth retrospective consideration is from the 18th April 1970 British Home International Championship match in Belfast against Scotland - a game long recalled for his sending off by the referee after he threw mud in the direction of the official following a contretemps. The black and white picture captures his return up the players' entrance at the corner of the ground following the dismissal. Another oft-published photograph from the same match - used generically on many occasions to symbolise his stormy lifepath as a celtic hellraiser - is of an angry Best being restrained previously on the pitch by Wolverhampton Wanderers' Derek Dougan.
This was the 23-year-old George Best's twentieth international appearance for Northern Ireland and his thirteenth at Windsor Park in the south of the city. Northern Ireland lost all three ties in this 1969-70 Championship. His footballing career at Manchester United by this stage of his career - alike his equally high profile and media-engaged personal life - was already highly problematic, becoming more volatile by the day and clearly spiralling out of control.
In terms of the three groupings of human actors composing the photograph - and as arraigned around the seething departing sportsman - we see several policemen whose facial expressions range across a wide spectrum of sternness and with one in particular bordering on rank supercilious contempt. Interestingly, an equally well known picture of Best taking a corner kick at Swansea's Vetch Field on the British mainland seven days later also sees him surrounded by officers of much more benign hue in Wales than here at home at Windsor off the Lisburn Road. There are also two middle-aged or elderly members of the groundstaff clad in the ubiquitous flat cap of Belfast sartorial vintage - the gentleman on the right physically emanating the generational bewilderment that would track Best's entire career path as a metaphorical headshaking shadow. Finally we have teenage boys draped over the barriers who are either dead excited at the turn of events or just struck dumb by proximity to such heightened, grown up and anarchic bad boy behaviour.
It is such a strange and brooding image in so many respects - let alone the fact that the player appears to be physically floating his way up the concrete incline - and with the even more melancholy backdrop that Best would only play in the international stadium five times again for Northern Ireland between then and 1977. In turn 1970 represented a complex political interregnum for the country itself as heightened civil disorder gradually gave way to the arrival of concrete terrorist onslaughts and concomitant mass murder. The violence in Ulster would continue on for another 28 years. Best would only outlive the qualified political consolidation in 1998 by a further seven.
Forging deeper into the dynamics behind this famous sports photograph again and there is clearly a sad forlorn atmosphere pervading it without question. Desperate times ahead for all parties concerned as the mood of the late Sixties quickly dissipated and much more complicated and fractious times arrived on Ireland's northern shores - for Best, the working classes, the cops and the kids. Everything was about to go very very wrong and just perhaps something reflective of this discordant fall is captured in the photo's composition and tone.
Indeed this international fixture which saw Best sent off in April 1970 took place just three months after the Irish Republican Army split into Official and Provisional paramilitary wings and only weeks after massive civil disturbances erupted between the British Army and Republicans in the Springfield Road area of West Belfast following an Orange Order parade. At the end of June major disorder erupted again across the capital between the IRA and Loyalists with six fatalities on the Crumlin Road in the north of the city and in Best's native East Belfast.
So George Best took his long deflated walk back up the player's entrance in just the first third of the first year of the decade. By the time he walked down again for the four springtime Home International and World Cup qualifying fixtures in 1971 Ulster would be on the brink of utter disaster and catastrophe. The escalation of violence after the introduction of internment without trial of terrorist suspects in August that year would burn all remaining intercommunal bridges and herald barely contained civil war against a gargantuan military infusion. Hence the great port city of Belfast around and about the thousands of fans packed together on that sunny Saturday 15th May afternoon to watch Bestie outmanoeuvre the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks and tease the English defenders to take the ball from him would in many fundamental respects soon be gone forever in substantial form and spirit.
Needless to say the British Home International Championships are long defunct and unlikely to reappear in the game's currently demented commercial constitution. In the 1976-77 season Northern Ireland would compete under that specific national title as opposed to "Ireland" for the first time, in 1980-81 the entire competition was cancelled off the back of unrest in Ulster associated with the IRA hunger strikes at The Maze prison and the last ever tournament in 1983-84 was won by Billy Bingham's legendary squad. Northern Ireland thus remain the reigning British champions alongside being victors in 1979-80 and joint-winners with England in 1957-58 and 1958-59. (Prior to the national partition Ireland won in 1913-14 and jointly with England and Scotland in 1902-03).
Ironically the picture under discussion also perfectly compliments the artistic representation of a literally crucified Georgie Best Superstar which graced the cover of his friend Derek Dougan's own study of the changing face of the game from 1981 - How Not To Run Football. Whether or not that professional martyrdom was essentially self-inflicted in the main or not, the photograph from Windsor Park that day is a truly fascinating encapsulation of the rise and fall of one of Ireland's greatest sons. From what we can glean from all written, visual and oral historical evidence Best's faults were clearly cancelled out by his priceless and breathtaking talent within a sporting field he revolutionised singlehandedly and his fundamental grace, decency and warmth in private. His memory remains a steady pure white light in the hopeless and unsustainable morass of our days.