“Nobody knows me.” George Best, 1971.
“Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.” F Scott Fitzgerald.
“The nice thing,” George Best said more than once late in his life, “is that when people come up to me, it’s the football they remember, not all the other rubbish.”
Oh, Georgie. That’s because the football was impossible to forget.
George Best, died in the early hours of Friday morning from multiple organ failure. He was 59. It’s been said that more words have been written about Best than about any other British sportsman. At the end of the last millennium, he was voted The Greatest British Sportsman of the Century by the British press, and his reputation as a footballer is such that practically no one would dispute that he was the greatest player ever to emerge from the British Isles. Indeed, his name belongs squarely along side the true immortals of the game: DiStefano, Pele, Cruyff and Maradona.
The ‘other rubbish’ Best was referring to, of course, was the outlandish, trouble-plagued life he led away from the field. Best’s career at the very top was curtailed at the age of 26, and his later life was consumed by his battle with alcoholism. In his most recent autobiography, Blessed (there have been four autobiographies, as well as two authorized biographies), Best wrote: “It’s been a hell of a life and sometimes, when I divide my life into two halves, I think ‘The first 27 years were sheer bliss and the last 27 have been a disaster.’” Yet part of Best’s inordinate charm was that for all the trouble and ruin he brought upon himself, he begged no pity from anyone. “I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I made all my own decisions.” And, at the end of his last book he wrote, “...When I look back on my life as a whole, it is impossible for me not to feel blessed.”
George Best was more than a footballer, more than the first truly modern superstar of the beautiful game. Long before his tragically early death, Best had become the stuff of myth. One might argue that the myth began with the famous telegram sent by Bob Bishop, Manchester United’s chief scout in Northern Ireland, in 1961. To United’s legendary manager of the time, Matt Busby, Bishop wrote simply, “I think I’ve found you a genius.‘“Yet the truth is, the myth began the very day George was born into a family named “Best”. More than one person has remarked that Best could only have arrived when he did, at the start of the pop era, and to the club he arrived at: Manchester United. Man U, the world’s most glamorous football club, a club then recovering from the Munich air disaster in which almost an entire generation of its younger players had been killed. But from the very beginning, Best’s name had an iconic ring to it, as though destiny was already pointing the way.
Best was a prodigy, a spindly though far-from-frail kid when he made his full Manchester United debut in 1963. It is impossible to overstate his impact not merely on football, but on the larger culture of that time. Dubbed “El Beatle” by the Portuguese press after a startling performance in Lisbon (this, in 1966, on account of his dark mop-top of hair. The game was against Benfica, giants of European football who’d never been beaten at home in a European tie. Best scored twice in the opening 10 minutes of a 5 - 1 mauling), Best soon came to be regarded in England, as “the Fifth Beatle”. This, remember, at the height of Beatlemania. As one wag later wrote, Best may have been the “Fifth Beatle”, but he lived like The Rolling Stones. Without Best, there could have been no Beckham (more of whom later), who today, of course, is one of the two or three most visible figures in all of sports.
What of Best’s gifts as a player? He was, to all intents and purposes, without weakness. Other stars may have shone longer, on more grandiose stages, but none lit the stage more brightly. Certainly, no one possessed a game more pleasing to the eye. Pele himself has at one time or another described Best as the greatest player ever. For years this claim used to show up almost solely on the cover of Best’s books and videos, so that it almost started to seem suspicious. More recently though, England’s Bobby Charlton pointed out that in his own conversations with the Brazilian legend, the two had shared similar sentiments.
Best possessed almost supernatural balance the key to success with most top sportsmen he possessed extraordinary pace and acceleration, he was strong, a great header of the ball, a fearless tackler, and he scored an abundance of goals. Matt Busby claimed Best had more ways of beating a player than anyone he’d ever seen, while United’s present day manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, remarking on various of his gifts, chose to single out George’s great physical courage.
While over the past 15 years Manchester United have enjoyed the greatest run of sustained success in their history, they have never fielded a trio of players to match their ‘Holy Trinity’ of Best, Law and Charlton. Likely, they never will again. Charlton was the English game’s greatest ambassador, a player of superior grace and power. Law was the goal-poacher supreme, a fiery Scot with remarkable instincts and agility. Best was athletic grace personified.
Several years ago, before Manchester United played an FA Cup Final, the BBC brought the three players together and showed highlights, a number of goals from each player’s career. Charlton’s goals were all of a similar vein, superbly hit shots, each from 20 and 30 yards out. Law’s goals were, without exception, struck or headed within the penalty area, miracles of striking improvisation. When Best’s goals came up, however, they came from everywhere, in every fashion: shots, headers, chips, break-aways, and brilliant individual solo runs. Des Lynam, the program host ,was moved to suggest, “I never knew there were so many ways to score,” and he was right. Best possessed a limitless imagination on the football field.
Hugh McIlvanney, seven times British Sportswriter of the year, said of Best that “When he walks onto the field, he carries with him the constant threat of the incredible.” His colleague, Geoffrey Green, who covered Manchester United for The Times newspaper throughout the ‘60s, used to tell a story of Best at an after-dinner function, taking a shilling piece (the equivalent in size and weight of a dime) and dropping it from his trouser pocket onto his foot. From where he would flick the coin into the air and catch it in his jacket pocket. He repeated this feat not once, but time and again
With his flare for the game, and through the unprecedented adulation he received, Best inspired an entire generation of football players. In magazines throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, whenever a player was asked to name his idol growing-up, the answer was invariably George Best. Yet Kevin Keegan, an England captain and twice winner of the European Footballer of the Year Award, once complained that Best had caused great harm to the English game, bringing the game into disrepute through his many discrepancies and foibles. Keegan personified the English style of play, a player of middling ability and precious little flair. He was, however, a phenomenon in the field of work-rate, the epitome of British bulldog spirt; a triumph of industry over talent. It was the satirical magazine Punch that said it most accurately at the time though, with a cartoon and caption that suggested Keegan was “Unfit to lace Best’s drinks”.
In the years since Best retired, being labeled ‘the new George Best’ has been a rite of passage for any gifted young player arriving on the scene. As if anyone could live up to such a billing. Key to Best’s appeal was the effortless, almost balletic grace he brought to the field of play, and in this respect, perhaps Arsenal’s Thierry Henry has come closest. Henry, too, with his great pace and elegance, his cool in front of the goal, is the type of player who sets pulses racing. It is Beckham though, who’s current fame and adulation most closely resembles that of Best at his peak.
There could have been no Beckham without Best. As far as a football comparison goes, there simply isn’t one to be made. Beckham is a fine player, but he’s never been considered amongst the top two or three players in the world, let alone one of the all-time greats. Best himself described Beckham as a “good player, but not great.” Such an evaluation may seem churlish without the benefit of embellishment: “He’s got no left foot, he can’t tackle, and he can’t head the ball,” Best suggested, “He hasn’t got any pace, and he doesn’t score enough goals. But, he’s got a great right foot, and he’s a great crosser of the ball.” All of which, really, could be considered a fair, if brutally frank, assessment.
Today, the likes of Beckham have international management teams to handle their affairs, whereas Best was amongst the first players to have an agent, period. Ken Stanley used to operate out of a small office in the Yorkshire backwater town of Huddersfield, and the 10,000 fan letters he used to receive weekly on Best’s behalf were utterly unheard of at the time. Certainly, Best has been cited as the example by which Alex Ferguson, in his development of a succession of young superstars from Beckham and Giggs, to the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo today has been forced to play caretaker.
Perhaps in terms of their life experience and impact on a particular sport though, the most accurate comparison you could make with George Best would be that of American footballer Joe Namath. Having read Mark Kriegel’s biography of “Broadway Joe”, I was astonished by the similarities between the two men’s lives. The careers of both athletes played out over the precise same time-line (late ‘60s to early ‘70s), each arriving at the dawn of the televised sports era and each, in turn, revolutionizing their respective sports.
In the new ‘media age’, both George and Joe transcended mere sports, wielding an impossible to define charisma, and in the process finding themselves worshipped by men and women alike as icons of the masculine ideal. Both enjoyed reputations for scoring big with the ladies, and late in life, faced chronic problems with alcohol. Indeed, Best and Namath owned numerous bars during their playing days, and each wreaked havoc on their careers with booze. In later years both men disgraced themselves on live national television making drunken comments about women. Both of them played it as they saw it.
This past Friday, there was a moment of devastating poignancy outside of Cromwell hospital, at the announcement of Best’s death. First Best’s son, 24-year-old Calum spoke, followed by a brief statement made on behalf of the family by Best’s sister, Barbara. As the family turned to walk away, Best’s 86-year-old father, Dickie unexpectedly added a few words. “I’d just like to add one thing to all of you,” he said, his tone somewhere between pleading and castigating and directed towards the waiting crush of media. These, largely the same men and women who’d been gathered outside of the hospital for the previous 55 days as Best lay in the Intensive Care Unit. “Can you please now go away? Can you just go away and leave us to grieve in peace?” And it was impossible to feel in that moment, anything other than the fact that Dickie Best was addressing the very beast he held responsible for his son’s death.
We’ll never know exactly what made Georgie run away . . . or at least, run towards the oblivion of the bottle. He will be buried besides his mother Ann, a woman he cherished from afar, and who also fell victim to the demons of alcoholism. Perhaps nothing had the capacity to invoke sorrow in Best as his sense of guilt over failing to care for his mother as he might have. Best was far too complicated for any one, simple psychological answer, though. Lord knows, the media played a part in his demise, and by implication, so did those of us who ate up the stories. And, of course, George was responsible in this manner, too.
Any Faustian pact George Best made was not over his football talent, but over the life he lived through the media. He explained it once in a story of how, in the early days, he’d gone away to Marbella, Spain with friends on holiday. At the end of the holiday he was approached by one of the Sunday newspapers to sell his story, “George Best’s Women on Holiday”, some such fluff. When he declined, he was told, “Well, we’ve been photographing you and your friends since you arrived, so we’ll run the story either way.” From that moment on, Best and the press abused each other in equal measure, up until the very end.
George Best, like all of us, was possessed of weaknesses. Yet outside of the talent he brandished like a gift given to all of us to share in, he was beloved, I think, because he never lost his essential decency. The stories of his humility are legion. He once described to his young wife, Alex, the life she was about to enter as “like being in a goldfish bowl in the middle of Trafalgar Square.” Yet for all that, he never blamed the disciples who came to worship him, those who troubled him for a moment of his life each and every day. With Best, paradox lies upon paradox, and he was, essentially, a shy man really, something of a loner, and equipped with a quiet intelligence. He liked nothing more than time alone to work on The Times crossword puzzle, or to read a book. Well except, perhaps, for intimate time with a glamorous blonde, or playing in a European cup-tie at the Theatre of Dreams.
Best was, to the end, a working-class hero from Belfast who lived out the dreams so many of us have. He was an astonishing football talent. To George, football was ‘all’ really, and you suspect that once the demands of fame took it away from him, nothing else mattered. “Genius”, they always said of him. I can think of no other sportsman so often cited as such, and you can hear it in the commentary of games from that long ago epoch. “Genius”, that over-used word, finally finding true resonance. Flawed, yes, but genius, all the same. Rest in peace.