The Day I Met George Best

15 Jan
commodore64_grande

A Commodore 64 Yesterday

Back in the eighties there were many things that were cool and the Commodore C64 was one of them. At the height of its popularity I was busy working for Commodore Business Machines, where one of the highlights of the year was the annual Commodore show which took place at the Novotel in Hammersmith.

Showtime

Commodore always premiered at least one new games title at every show and this year it was the turn of Astronomy and International Soccer. Roger, the rising star of Marketing decided it would be a brilliant idea to get Patrick Moore on board for a bit of interactive planet spotting and quickly signed him up. Not to be outdone, his pal Dick set off in hot pursuit of George Best. However, during negotiations he failed to explain to George in plain English what was required of him, and George being George, simply forgot to ask.

The show lasted three days, with the first day pitched at business and each of the weekend days aimed at the consumer. Saturday and Sunday were each split into two sessions – the morning and the afternoon. On Saturday morning, George was up first; his job was to challenge all comers at International Soccer for a full thirty minutes. Marketing imagined they’d get at least five games out of George, a slew of publicity photos and a sackfull of autographed footballs. George had an entirely different agenda – get the one game over as quickly as possible, grab a pair of the tastiest models he could find from the promotions agency and squat the bar until closing time.

It was about halfway through game two when George realised he’d been had. By now, a sizeable crowd of over enthusiastic dads had gathered around him and there was no way he could sneak off without causing a scene. So he put on a brave face, smiled sweetly and leaked goals like Lichtenstein away, losing heavily to a succession of kids who had never even seen International Soccer until that day, let alone played it. A string of embarrassing defeats later and George was not a happy man, having conceded 50 goals yet scored only 1. Onstage a perfect gent, backstage he had a sense of humour failure and absolutely refused to go home until he’d had a damn fine drink and was as damn well drunk as it was humanly possible to be.

Ten thirty in the bar, my boss collared me. “This George thing – it’s out of hand.”
“Is he still here?”
“He’s just left for a nightclub with three of the models. But he’s refusing to come back tomorrow unless his list of demands is met.”
“Which are?”
“Put it this way, it’s going to be a long old night for those idiots from marketing while they try and think of a solution. They’ll come to me eventually for answers, they always do, but as I owe them big time for misdemeanours past and I want them to sweat like a fat lass scoffing curry in a sauna before I let them off the hook. Meanwhile, I want you to assemble your boys and getting cracking on a fix. And if anyone asks, deny everything. This conversation didn’t take place. You know nothing.”
“I do?”
“Good lad.”

Sorcery

george_best_manchester_united_668

Georgie Best Superstar

George’s demands, as relayed by his agent were really quite simple: George Best is a world class footballer who doesn’t get beaten by children. He’s also a busy man. Give him the best training you can, in thirty minutes, so he can defeat everyone he plays tomorrow. Otherwise no George, regardless of what it says in the contract. And he wants a special something, preferable shaped like an ex-Miss World, as compensation for embarrassment suffered today.

To the job in hand. For the price of a disk crammed with hacked copies of newly released games, myself and the aforementioned boys blagged the keys to the main hall from an obliging security guard and sat down with a pot of strong, syrupy coffee to plot how we might save Georgie Best, Superstar from public humiliation on the morrow. All apart from Mac and von Bismark, who set about locating the helium cylinder used for filling the show’s balloons and proceeded to get very silly and become a right old nuisance to low flying aircraft for the remainder of the night.

“What do you reckon?” I asked of the remaining boys.
FAB was the best games player in our gang, and as he’d been testing International Soccer exclusively for the last three months, his was the first say. “Hmmm. We could try and teach GB some sneaky game-winning moves, but the kids coming in tomorrow are all the competition winners from the promotions we’ve been doing in the computer mags. Some of them are gonna be good. Real good.”
“So how do we hamper them?”
“Not with helium, obviously – Mac’s made off with that.”
“Let’s electrify their joysticks,” suggested Rambo, the resident hardware engineer, helpfully.
“We can’t be seen to purposefully shock any children, even though some of them undoubtedly deserve it,” I retorted. “And we can’t use mantraps or exploding lemons, or any of your other favourite dangerous things.”
“Awww.”
“It’s the rules – we’re not at work now.”
“There’s only one option left” said FAB, “I’ll have to impersonate George.”
“I know you’ve had your eye on those models all day,” sighed Rambo, “but there’s no way, even with state of the art prosthetics that you could pass for such a well known star. You’ll be spotted in seconds and the dads will scrag you and debag you for heinous crimes against football.”
“Then we’ll have to use sorcery,” I concluded. “Between us we’re good at that – or at least I am, being the reincarnation of the Wizard of Frobozz. So thinking caps on, we’ve been entrusted with saving a superstar.”

Kung Fu Fighting

The morning came. Marketing, who’d spent most of the night bravely propping up the bar became ever more frantic and descended on our table at breakfast mob-handed, all shouting different demands at once. My boss simply shrugged his shoulders and denied it was his problem, until the shouting subsided and the pleading began, in pathetic, whiney voices. Only at this point did the offer of maybe, possibly some training for George materialise. As we all know, desperation is the mother of inflation, and Marketing being as desperate as an enclave of desperados watching a poncho clad Clint Eastwood ride slowly into town on a pale horse, chewing a cigar butt, capitulated, agreeing instantly to pay my boss ‘anything he wanted’.

SONY DSC

Remember these?

“Considering my price,” my boss grinned, “I hope you can deliver.”
“I know nothing about anything.”
“Good lad.”
“FAB will train George,” I whispered. “He’s the best player we’ve got. He’ll show him one or two tricks that aren’t in the manual – overhead kick, super speed mode and kung-fu fighting, although technically killing other players is a red card offence. But we can disable that.”
“Excellent. You’re going to get George all tooled-up.”
“Something like that.”

Sometime later that morning FAB, Rambo and I duly got to meet George Best, shake his hand and tell him how good he was at football, whilst he in turn paid no attention whatsoever to any us, preferring instead to pinch a couple of bums and make the odd lewd remark, which got him a breathtaking smile in return, but when I tried the same lines later that day, got me nothing but a stinging slap. Even when Mac and von Bismark turned up, with a lungful of helium each, giggling like a pair of little girls with a powder puff and a kitten, George remained unmoved. He was charming, with a certain je ne sais quoi, but what he really wanted wasn’t adulation or a conversation, but guarantees. He looked at me, grimaced at Rambo, scowled at FAB, dismissed the two bemused wreckheads with a wave of his hand and turned his full attention to Dick from marketing.
“If this training goes wrong mate, I’m sending Mel Smith and the lads round to kick your car in. Then they’ll eat your ears. Mel likes eating ears, especially in pairs, fried up with mushrooms and a little claret. Understand?”
“Yes, Mr Best,” stammed Dick, covering his ears and running off to move his Porsche into a more secure parking spot.

George Versus

In the days before the Internet and Facebook, there was a much more magical grapevine that functioned just as quickly and just as efficiently, although quite invisibly to the naked eye. Thus it should have come as no surprise that word had gone around town overnight, faster than an amphetamine fuelled cheetah with a rocket pack, resulting in half of London turning up to see George Best play soccer with a joystick, badly, and lose. Security were not prepared for the numbers that followed. At the doors, punters without tickets were initially let in, until the hotel owners began to twitch about fire regulations, after which they were turned away in droves. The guards and bouncers were doubled, trebled and then beefed up again. By the afternoon, the hall was packed, the tension palpable, the atmosphere electric.

International_Soccer_Farbe_PokalGame one started slowly, Best Vs a chap calling himself ‘Lizardman2.0’. George was a nervous bag of ticks, his hands covered in sweat. By 3-0 up, he was starting to enjoy himself, and relaxed somewhat, handing the joystick to Dick, whilst he shook himself down and cracked his knuckles, allowing Lizardman2.0 to get a goal back.
“Watch this,” he laughed, turning to the crowd and scoring a fourth with an impossible back-heel from outside the box.
Final score 5-2 to Best.

Game Two, and George was out of the traps like a bullet, scoring within four seconds against the WerePig and setting a new record. He moved, he grooved, he mesmerised the opposition, slipping past the back four with ease and scoring a couple from close range, before hammering in a belter from the halfway line. Final score 4-0 George, the WerePig retiring beaten.

By Game Three, George was asking for a football, which he kept up with his head, whilst running circles around Bam Stroker, seemingly scoring at will. The crowd stood transfixed, not quite believing what they were seeing. George was supposed to be past it, on the wrong end of a mauling, but the canny old master was back from the dead. Score 3-1 to Best.

Game Four saw George pitted against the Code Mangler. From the off, it was all Best. Best, Best, Bessst! Watch him dribble, such skill, see him nutmeg the goalie. Oh! Best! Unbelievable goal! George loosened up, showboating and ran around 11 players, slipping one in at the far corner and winning 4-0, to a round of raucous applause.

The final scheduled game and George was up against the Mighty Warlock, a rotund gamer dressed from head to toe in finest gothic black, with many years experience behind the stick of pleasure, and who – if rumours are to be believed – went on to become THE top level wizard in World of Warcraft. The Warlock wasn’t having any of George’s aura, and set to like the grizzled old pro he was, slipping two past Best’s defence in a matter of seconds. The crowd became silent, the Warlock smirked.
“Bow down to the true master,” he slobbered.
Half time and it was 3-1 to the Warlock. George faltered, thinking for a second that his new found magical skills had deserted him and immediately the Warlock stuffed in a fourth.
“George!” someone shouted. “We believe in you. You’re the Best.”
“Best! Best! Best!” echoed the dads.
Picking himself up, George weaved around the pitch, stringing a series of stabbing passes together and grabbed one back. 4-2 to the Warlock. From the restart, George’s man threw what looked like a Ninja star, decapitating one of the opposition. Streaming forward, over the blood spattered head, he belted it route one straight down the pitch, where one of his strikers collected, rounded the goalie and dribbled the head over the line into the back of an empty net. 4-3.
“That was cheating!” spat the Warlock.
“Best! Best! Best!” shouted the dads.
Time ticked down, and the Warlock opted for the passing game, trying to annoy George into making a mistake. George’s players backed off, a hole opened up and the Warlock drilled an unstoppable shot into the top corner. Amazingly, Best’s goalie elongated like Mr Stretch from the Fantastic Four, and made the save, smacking the ball up the pitch onto the head of a waiting striker who met it ferociously, sending an unstoppable bullet past the Warlock’s stranded goalie. 4-4, with ten seconds to play.
What happened next happened in slow motion. Literally. The Warlock’s players became wooden, Best’s became a blur. And that was that, Best hacked down clumsily in the box, penalty to Best in the last two seconds of normal time. Best steps up to take it, he sends the goalie the wrong way and taps it in low, beating the Warlock 5-4 and prompting the crowd to break into a bout of uncontrollable hysteria.

What George won during that afternoon session was more than a game – he got his dignity and self-respect back. For a while, he was George Best the legend once more, George the star, adored by millions. He took his bows, to a standing ovation, autographed everything and anything for all and sundry, posed for photos, kissed babes on the forehead, wives full on the lips and was generally just amazing, exactly as you’d expect a superstar to be. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be on top of him and even though games would become much more realistic and absorbing over the ensuing years, the kids who were there that day knew they’d seen something ultra-special. Even the Warlock shook George’s hand, begrudgingly at first, before he too became swept up in the euphoria of the display, and then he wouldn’t let go, pumping up and down like crazy, eventually posing for a photo that made it onto Page 5 of the Sun.

The Thing

Many hours later, once everything had calmed down, the crowds had dispersed, replete, and George had left the building with a gorgeous girl draped across each arm and a couple of spares in tow for later, my over suspicious boss came to have a word.
“What happened there was incredible,” he said, “totally amazing. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed it possible.”
“It was quite a show,” said Rambo. “Quite a show indeed.”
“George at his best,” I added.
“Most definitely,” concluded FAB sneakily.
“I didn’t get where I am today by believing everything I see,” said my boss. He pointed. “Show me what’s going on behind those banks of computers and monitors.”
“We don’t have the key,” said Rambo, FAB and I simultaneously.
My boss glared at the three of us. “Too rehearsed. Now, the truth.”
“The truth,” I admitted, “is that we weren’t convinced George would remember all the moves…”
“…So we took precautions,” finished Rambo.
“What kind of precautions?”
“The sort of precautions you’ve spent the last two years of your life teaching us to take.”
“Show me. Now.”

150px-InternationalSoccer(Commodore)(Cartridge)FrontCoverThe backstage of the stand was accessed via a concealed doorway with invisible hinges, carefully hidden by the joiners and it was there that all the spare bits of hardware and software were stored away, in case of calamity or worse – theft. In between the various piles of spare cables, spare monitors, boxed computers and shrink wrapped software was a carefully placed executive chair, facing a large, precariously balanced video screen, with a rat’s nest of tangled wires protruding from its rear, terminating in a makeshift circuit board.
My boss understood what was going on within seconds. “You built your own video signal splitter from scratch, to run multiple monitors from the same source. Given the timescales, utterly ingenious.”
“Why, thank you,” grinned Rambo.
“Let me guess,” continued my boss, “FAB, you sat there. George’s joystick – was it even plugged in?”
“Fully switchable between here and there,” said Rambo proudly. “As a concept, that mess of wires is light years ahead of anything you can buy in the shops.”
My boss pursed his lips and stared hard at the three of us.
“I only helped George out when he needed it,” said the software maestro embarrassedly. “That was the plan – Pogo insisted, assist not impersonate.”
I nodded. “That I did.”
“The first game was all me, I freely admit that,” continued FAB. “But by the third game George found his stride and got himself into a rhythm. I didn’t even play in the fourth game, that was all Best. Honest.”
“Tell me,” ruminated my boss, “if I were to turn this ‘thing’ into a commercial venture – just how reliable is it?”
“Well,” admitted Rambo, “the ‘thing’ is not quite there yet. There was a moment in that last game when I had to get my soldering iron out for running repairs. There was smoke and melted wires everywhere, I was convinced we were done for. It was a good job I made two of them last night, just in case.”
“So that’s how George went 3-0 down.”
“We had to dig deep that game,” confessed FAB. “It took all my skill to get the game level. I’ve been after that Warlock for years, he’s the bane of my gaming career, a very good player indeed. Without my help, George would have been toast.”
“Just how much does George know?” asked my boss, the enormity of the deception suddenly dawning.
“What do you think?” I answered.
“I think he has absolutely no idea whatsoever that this Skunkworks exists. Outside of this room, who else is aware?”
“We operate strictly on a needs-to-know basis,” grunted Rambo.
“Absolutely,” said I.
FAB nodded in agreement.
“Have you any idea what will happen if your plot comes to light?” scowled my boss. “The press will have a field day, the company name will become mud and George will be a laughing stock. This secret must stay secret, you’re not to tell anyone what you did today. Least of all Marketing, or they’ll insist on doing it again next year.”
“Whatever do you mean?” I asked. “We didn’t do anything, did we boys?”
“Absolutely not.”
“Never dream of it.”
“One last question, which I really shouldn’t ask, but I’m going to anyway: who scored the winning penalty?”
“Impossible to say,” mused Rambo. “We overloaded a circuit and blew a fuse, just as the ball was kicked. The ‘thing’ is scrap metal, until I build another.”
“I was aiming where the Warlock’s goalie dived,” admitted FAB. “Either I miskicked the ball, which I find unlikely, or by the will of the hardware gods Best got a foot to it.”
“As far as the world outside is concerned,” declared my boss, “it was all Best – and long may it stay that way. That guy was my footballing idol back in the day, it’s a bit sad how it’s turned out for him. Hopefully though, George turned a corner today, and that string of victories put him back on the straight and narrow. We’ll let him have it, and speak no more on the subject. Now, I want your word – all of you – that none of this will out until well after he’s departed this mortal coil.”
“Done.”
“Done.”
“Done.”
Fingers Crossed“Now again, this time with your fingers uncrossed, where I can see them – not hidden behind your backs.”

Epilogue

The footnote to this tale was penned on the Monday morning after the show, when a computer dealer from Tottenham Court Road phoned Commodore to check that the Commodore 64 portable that a certain footballing legend was trying to hawk was not in fact stolen. The ‘special something’ that George was given as compensation by Marketing was not the Miss World he wanted, but rather one of only five C64 portables in the country. Weighing in at a good thirty kilos with a screen no bigger than a modern digital camera, each one looked like a sewing machine in a carrying case. In today’s money, one new would cost a good £10,000, and many collectors would kill for one. But not George. To him it had no intrinsic value whatsoever, its only use being as an instrument of barter for the money of booze.

Good old George, a diamond-encrusted inspiration to the last.

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