Nick Hornby's hero in the 1970's was Charlie George. Charlie was a footballing artist, and so much more...
Charlie George is one of the few seventies icons who has so far managed to avoid being deconstructed, possibly because he appears at first glance to be one of the identikit George Best/Rodney Marsh/Stan Bowles long-haired, wayward wasters who were two a new pee twenty years ago. It is true that he was as outrageously gifted as the best of the breed, and that these gifts were appaulingly underexploited throughout his career (he only played for England on two or three occasions, and towards the end of his time at Arsenal could not even gain a place in the first team); all this and more -- his temper, his problems with managers, the fierce devotion he attracted from younger fans and women -- was par for the course, commonplace at a time when football was beginning to resemble pop music in both its presentation and consumption.
Charlie George differed slightly from the rebel norm on two counts. Firstly, he had actually spent his early teenage years on the terraces of the club for which he later played; and though this is not unusual in itself -- plenty of Liverpool and Newcastle players supported these clubs when they were young -- George is one of the few genius misfits to have jumped straight over the perimeter fence into a club shirt and shorts. Best was Irish, Bowles and Marsh were itinerant...not only was George Arsenal's own, nurtured on the North Bank and in the youth team, but he looked and behaved as if running around on the pitch dressed as a player were the simplest way to avoid ejection from the stadium. Physically he did not fit the mould: he was powerfully built and over six feet tall, too big to be George Best. On my birthday in 1971, shortly before his goal against Newcastle, one of the frequent red mists that plagued him had descended, and he had grabbed a rugged Newcastle defender by the throat and lifted him from the ground. This was not misfit petulance, this was hard-man menace, and the likely lads on the terraces have never had a more convincing representative.
And secondly, he was not a media rebel. He could not give interviews (his inarticulacy was legendary and genuine); his long, lank hair remained unfeathered and unlayered right up until the time he unwisely decided upon a bubble perm from hell some time in the mid-seventies, and when he first played in the team, at the beginning of the 69/70 season, it looked suspiciously as if he were trying to grow out a number one crop; and he seemed uninterested in womanizing -- Susan Farge, the fiancee whose name I still remember, is intimidatingly prominent in most of the off-the-pitch photographs. He was a big star, and the media were interested, but they didn't know what to do with him. The Egg Marketing Board tried, but their slogan, 'E for B and Charlie George', was significantly incomprehensible. Somehow, he had made himself unpackageable, media-proof -- possibly the very last star of any iconic stature to do so. (For some reason, however, he managed to remain in the otherwise collander-like consciousness of my grandmother for some years after his retirement. 'Charlie George!' she spat disapprovingly and opaquely circa 1983, when I told her that I was off to Highbury to watch a game. What he means to her will, I fear, never be properly understood.)
[Exerpted from Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (Riverhead, 1992), p. 56.]