The genuine story of George Best's babysitter

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The Independent Online

I t is prurience that tempts you to reach for Celia Walden's Babysitting George from the bookshelves; an itch to know how the scion of a distinguished political family – and The Daily Telegraph – could have antagonised all those women George Best left behind to the point of uniting them. It has almost been lost in the nest of spite, generated by Walden's "memoir" of her brief time "minding" Mail on Sunday columnist George Best for her editors at the paper, that it will be 50 years next month since a skinny, 15-year-old Irish kid first arrived for a trial at Manchester United.

The elegant marketing of Bloomsbury offers some hopes from Walden's book, and beyond the evocative image of an old pair of battered boots on the dust jacket there are certainly some degrees of revelation. Walden (inset below) discerns, for instance, that Best nursed an indignation about the perception that all footballers are dim. ("I would use books to escape on long coach journeys or fill in the time at hotels, but do you think anyone's going to care what I think?") We also now know that George Cockcroft cult thriller The Dice Man is one of the last books he read, which was written in 1971. Best lived in his glorious past until the end and Walden does spot the present tense when he says plaintively to her: "Do you really think because I'm a footballer, I'm thick?"

Her depiction of an alcoholic's capitulation is also as masterful, in its own way, as her dissection of the small physiological progressions towards death. And neither is there an attempt to hide the gory details of the journalistic process. Most depressingly accurate is Walden's admission that Best wanted to be left to the surrender to alcoholism which he knew would kill him, and yet her newspaper kept up the coverage. "Easily palatable messes are great fun, but the newspaper-reading public aren't too keen on gory close-ups," Walden writes.

Walden is a part of this malign process, though. Some doubt whether she actually spent any more than one week and a few hours in total with Best. "She conceals this with some wonderfully elastic phraseology," a dubious Private Eye suggested. It's tabloid kiss-and-tell, all right, except the juicy bits are dressed in so elegantly that you see why the BBC fell for the hype and made this its book of the week. "He pushed me clumsily against the door frame, threading a knee between my legs..."

All of which takes us a very long way from the book which really can claim to depict the art of Babysitting George. It is the memoir written by John Roberts, erstwhile of The Independent, of his time as Best's ghostwriter for the Daily Express during the player's tumultuous period of United decline, between 1971 and 1973. The book, Sod This, I'm Off to Marbella – a reference to Best's impulse decision to ignore United's orders and take a taxi to Manchester Airport to catch the first flight he fancied in 1972 – is built on rather firmer foundations, even though the similarities of the task he and Walden faced remind us how Best's life was one of history miserably repeating itself.

Walden's mission was to join Best in Malta and stop him breaching his contractual deal with her title by blabbing to others about his marital breakdown. Roberts was detailed to join him in Majorca after that perennial failure to stop himself ruminating aloud meant the player had forgotten his contractual obligations to the Express and given a stunning "Best Quits Football" exclusive to the rival Sunday Mirror instead.

First published in 1973 and reprinted last year, Sod This... has none other than Best as an advocate, who says of Roberts' script: "This book's honest." The author was the man with whom Best shared his thoughts each week during those roller-coaster three years and to whom, the book reveals, he one week presented four sheets of neat, handwritten copy, complete with crossings out. He had decided to take up arms against criticism of gamesmanship from Newcastle United's players and Manchester City's Malcolm Allison and Francis Lee, and penned the column himself.

This particular column does not reveal a great deal more than how wrapped up in himself and the world's opinion of him Best often was. But those spiralbound sheets, faithfully reprinted, are as genuine as many other incidental details discerned from a life lived alongside Best. His fear of swimming, for example: Best was aged 10 when a friend of his died while his family holidayed in Groomsport, Northern Ireland. He hoped that the heated swimming pool he had installed at his house might finally help him get over it.

Roberts' book tells us how the journalistic process has changed, too. It was as early as 1971 that Best told his amanuensis that he wanted to leave United, which would have been an incredible Express exclusive, but the player wanted an additional payment from the paper for the right to publish the fact. The Express said no. Some things never changed, though. The booze is there in Roberts' book, and The Grapes pub in Manchester is where you would sometimes find him in the afternoon when, as always, he trooped off last from training at The Cliff. It was where you would nearly always find him, come the evening, after his sleep.

"George is not a fill-up, fall-down drunk," Roberts reflects on the Majorca weeks. "My guess is that the effect on his system is steady and cumulative." Understated and apocryphal, these words might have been Best's epitaph. But since they do not belong to the prurient obsession with laying bare every aspect of a celebrity's disintegration, they remain virtually unknown.

United initially banned Roberts' book and allowed perhaps 100 copies to be sold "under the counter" at the United souvenir shop. By a rich irony, the reprint was taken on last year by Trinity Mirror, whose forebears clinched that "Best Quits" scoop all those years ago. It has sold a few thousand.