Do we really need another biography of George Best? After all, he produced four autobiographies of his own, albeit with hefty assists, and a search of his name in Amazon’s book section returns 15,412 hits. Yet it’s a truism that people are often the least reliable witnesses to what actually happened in their lives.
Take the Best story we all know, the one with the punchline: “Where did it all go wrong, George?” Over the years he claimed variously the hotel in question was in London, Manchester or Birmingham, the supposed amount of casino winnings varied from £25,000 to £50,000, and as for the presence of former Miss World Marie Stavin, when asked she said firmly: “I wasn’t there.”
Duncan Hamilton put in an impressive amount of legwork, interviewing scores of family members (hence “The Approved”), friends and team-mates as he attempted to sift fact from myth. His foreword is a touch portentous in places, unfurling phrases such as: “Others detected… a poet’s tendency towards introspection and melancholia”, but once he gets into his stride he tells the shy boy from Belfast’s mesmerising story with a fairness unblighted by sensationalism or sentimentality. Attempting to define Best’s unique skills, he quotes Emlyn Hughes recollecting a match at Anfield in which Manchester United trounced Liverpool, thanks largely to Best. Afterwards, the home players sat silently in the dressing room, expecting “the most awful bollocking” from Bill Shankly. When the manager arrived, he said precisely seven words: “Boys, you have just seen a genius.”
And while acknowledging Best’s zenith was all too brief, Hamilton points to his record of 474 senior games and 181 goals for United between 1963-74, and notes that in 1981, at 35 and playing for San Jose Earthquakes, he was still capable of conjuring a legendary goal.
As for Best’s car crash – on several occasions literally – of a personal life, without glossing over or excusing the excesses Hamilton vividly captures the sheer suddenness, and unprecedented madness, of his fame, and explores the reasons for his slide into drink.
This compulsively readable book will not be the last written about Best, but it may prove to be the most illuminating.