George Best

Mercurial football genius whose flamboyant lifestyle brought a premature end to his playing career


George Best, footballer: born Belfast 22 May 1946; played for Manchester United 1963-74, Stockport County 1975, Cork Celtic 1976, Los Angeles Aztecs 1976-78, Fulham 1976-77, Hibernian 1979-80, Fort Lauderdale Strikers 1979, San Jose Earthquakes 1980-81, Golden Bay 1981, Bournemouth 1983, Tobermore 1984; capped 37 times by Northern Ireland 1964-77; married 1978 Angela Macdonald Janes (one son; marriage dissolved 1986), 1995 Alex Pursey (marriage dissolved 2004); died London 25 November 2005.

'Genius" is a term so chronically overused in conjunction with sport that it is in danger of being comprehensively devalued. It should be rationed scrupulously, reserved for the truly sublime rather than being squandered on the merely remarkable. However, there should be no hesitation in dusting down the "g" word for a rare fitting recipient, and such a man was George Best.

Look beyond the lurid, fast-living image and set aside, for a moment, the alcoholism that was destined to transform his life so tragically. Like Stanley Matthews before him, Best was the symbol of footballing excellence for a whole generation. There were other magnificent players, including Bobby Charlton and Denis Law at his own club, Manchester United; but the mercurial Irishman was on a pedestal of his own.

As Matt Busby, his Old Trafford mentor, put it: "George had more ways of beating a player than anyone I've ever seen. He was unique in his gifts." Unfortunately, he was singular, too, in that he was the first "pop star" footballer whose every off-field action was scrutinised by the media. Relevant advice was scant, there being no precedent to his situation, and eventually the ceaseless attention, in which he revelled at first but which he subsequently reviled, goaded him inexorably towards self-destruction.

Best was born in 1946, the first of six children of an iron-turner at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. A Protestant, though not in the political sense, he was brought up on the Cregagh housing estate and was crazy for kicking a football from the age of nine months. Though his prodigious natural talent became evident early in his childhood, he was a skinny specimen, verging on the puny and embarrassed by his lack of stature, and his family considered him too small to tilt at a future in the professional game.

Nevertheless Best was fanatical about football and idolised the mid-1950s Wolverhampton Wanderers side, then the epitome of sporting glamour through their exploits in a series of Continental friendlies in the days before formal European competition. An intelligent boy, he passed the 11-plus examination only to find that his grammar school majored in rugby. His reaction - and how typical this would seem, later in life - was truancy, partly because he had been split from former friends and partly to play in soccer matches.

Soon he was transferred to a secondary modern which catered for his obsession and he progressed, though not enough to earn selection for Northern Ireland Schoolboys. However, Best's breathtaking ability was spotted by Bob Bishop, Manchester United's chief scout in Ulster, who rang Matt Busby and proclaimed: "I think I've found a genius."

Even then, the path to stardom was to be tortuous for the seemingly frail wisp of a 15-year-old who crossed the Irish Sea to Old Trafford in 1961. Having barely left his home city before, he travelled on an overnight ferry with the similarly unworldly Eric McMordie - later to enjoy success with Middlesbrough and Northern Ireland - and was distinctly underwhelmed by his reception in Manchester.

Little was done to welcome the painfully shy duo and they succumbed to homesickness, returning to Belfast and, in Best's case, to a likely future as a printer. Soon, though, he changed his mind and went back to Old Trafford where, before long, he was to stand the established order on its head in spectacular fashion.

He announced his limitless potential in training sessions, sparkling against star performers such as the goalkeeper and fellow Ulsterman Harry Gregg, whom Best duped too repeatedly for beginner's luck to have been a factor. Still only 17, he tasted senior action for the first time in September 1963 and by December he was a fixture in Busby's side, one of the final elements, and surely the most crucial, in the painstaking reconstruction process which had been under way since the Munich air disaster five years earlier.

Operating alongside fellow world-class forwards in Law and Charlton, Best was incandescent, a magical manipulator of a football and an entertainer supreme. Positioned nominally on the wing but roaming at will, he was capable of going past opponent after opponent, able and frequently eager to make brutal assailants look like clumsy buffoons, and he was as clinical a finisher as any in the land.

Much is made of his heavenly fusion of skill and speed, balance and timing, which made him sometimes virtually unplayable. In addition, though, Best was immensely brave and, in his early twenties, attained a resilient strength and an unshakeable self-belief which enabled him to laugh in the face of the vicious physical punishment to which he was routinely subjected. To enhance his worth still further, he was mentally acute, which allowed him to apply his instinctive flair to maximum advantage. In short, in a footballing sense he was flawless, possessing the assets to excel in any role.

True, there were times when team-mates would scream in exasperation when the Irishman, having dribbled past three defenders, would teeter on the verge of losing possession to a fourth. The chances were, though, that in the next breath they would be hailing a wonder goal, created from a seemingly impossible position.

Performing in this vein, Best contributed monumentally to League Championships in 1965 and 1967 and to the attainment of United's so-called holy grail, the European Cup, in 1968. Indeed it was, perhaps, during the exhilarating pursuit of that elusive prize that George Best the footballer made the quantum leap to Georgie Best the pop icon.

Early in 1966, the Red Devils had defeated mighty Benfica, the Portuguese champions, by three goals to two in the first leg of a European Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford. The second leg in Lisbon's Stadium of Light was a daunting prospect and Busby, with uncharacteristic caution, had urged his men to play it safe for the first 20 minutes.

Best had other ideas. Running at the Eagles' formidable rearguard with swashbuckling abandon, he scored two fabulous goals in the opening 12 minutes and inspired a scintillating 5-1 victory. His display was greeted rapturously but the impact was magnified still further when he donned a sombrero to descend from the plane's steps on his return to England. With his good looks, flowing locks and, now, his sense of the flamboyant away from the pitch, he was enshrined as "El Beatle".

Duly, his life took on a different dimension. Now he was public property as never before and he delighted in the advantages thus accrued. Commercial opportunities abounded, beautiful girls prostrated themselves before him and the attraction of alcohol became gradually more insistent. For a long time, though, despite dire warnings from Busby that he was going down the wrong road, that was not a problem to a young and exceptionally fit athlete.

Inklings that difficulties were brewing for Best surfaced after 1968, during which he was voted both English and European Footballer of the Year after contributing an opportunist goal to United's European Cup Final defeat of Benfica at Wembley. In the wake of that longed-for triumph, a perhaps understandable sense of complacency emanated from Old Trafford, where a 59-year-old manager with an ageing team might have been excused a little weariness after battling back from the horror of Munich.

Best, though, had a different agenda. He was still young and hungry for more honours, becoming increasingly frustrated at what he saw as lack of ambition around him. Not surprisingly, a gradual decline set in at the club, and the fact that it was largely masked by Best's individual splendour - he was top scorer in five successive campaigns from 1967-68 to 1971-72 and once netted six times in an FA Cup tie against Northampton Town - did little to placate United's principal asset.

Sadly, there was to be no consolation on the international front, where Best turned in occasional inspirational displays - notably in a stirring win over Scotland at Windsor Park, Belfast, in 1967 - but usually was hamstrung by the poor overall standard of the team. As a result, he would refer to his Northern Ireland efforts as "recreational football", a slight which reflected overweening gall at his unavoidable absence from the world's great tournaments rather than genuine malice.

Back in Manchester, his disillusionment was heightened when Busby refused to make him captain, citing his growing irresponsibility as the reason, and there followed a succession of disciplinary spats and absences without leave as Best turned ever more frequently towards the bottle. In addition, he fell out with Bobby Charlton, being sickened by what he perceived as the older man's holier-than-thou attitude over Best's playboy lifestyle. For his part, Charlton believed, with simple logic, that Best was letting the side down.

Meanwhile the Belfast boy's sexual conquests were spread regularly across the newspapers - he admitted that he saw most attractive women as a challenge - and his goldfish-bowl existence intensified when he moved into a custom-built, ultra-modern house in Sale which became a Mecca for rubberneckers.

After Busby's retirement, Best led his two successors as manager - first Wilf McGuinness and then Frank O'Farrell - a merry dance with his unscheduled absences, and by the spring of 1972 his situation was approaching crisis point. Though still playing superbly at times, and carrying an otherwise mediocre team, he could no longer shoulder the responsibility and his drinking spiralled dangerously out of control.

That May, unable to cope, he announced his retirement and decamped to Marbella, only to return for the start of the new season. But more strife was in store. By December he was transfer-listed after further indiscretions, only to be lured back by yet another new manager, Tommy Docherty. It was a dubious rapprochement which ended in acrimony when the team hit the skids, quickly followed by Best himself, who played his last game for relegation-doomed Manchester United as a distinctly portly 27-year-old, on New Year's Day 1974.

What followed was largely irrelevant to what made George Best special in the first place, his football career continuing for a further 10 years but playing second fiddle to drink, sex and gambling, and it constitutes a tale more edifying in summary than gruesome detail.

At various junctures he ran the Slack Alice night-club in Manchester and Bestie's Bar at Hermosa Beach, California. There was a spectacular fall-out with one Miss World, Marjorie Wallace, which resulted in Best's being charged with theft before being released without a stain on his character, and a fling with another holder of that title, Mary Stavin. There were marathon benders without number, and sundry brawls; a Christmas spent in prison for drink-driving; various hospitalisations for alcoholism; divorce from Angela Macdonald Janes, the long-suffering mother of his son, Calum; and admitted guilt over the emotional neglect of his mother, who died an alcoholic at the age of 54.

Post United, the pick of Best's footballing travels included three summers with Los Angeles Aztecs, during which he faced the likes of Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer and intermittently rediscovered the old flair, fitness and enthusiasm. Also there was an initially exhilarating but eventually unsatisfying brief stint with Second Division Fulham in harness with his fellow showman Rodney Marsh.

Then came turbulent sojourns with Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Hibernian, and fleeting service with San Jose Earthquakes, during which he contrived one goal of divine quality, which saw him mesmerise four defenders before beating the goalkeeper.

After his divorce from his first wife, there were long-term liaisons with the model Angie Lynn and with Mary Shatila, who also guided his business affairs as he earned a living through personal appearances. In 1995, still fighting alcoholism, he arranged to marry Alex Pursey, a Virgin flight attendant half his age, but failed to turn up for his own wedding because he had gone drinking with another girl. The ceremony took place a week later, but it didn't stop his drinking with other girls. They divorced after nine years.

Best continued to thrive as a professional celebrity, an after-dinner speaker and soccer pundit who was engagingly witty when sober, sometimes obnoxious when not. Despite that, despite everything, the game he illuminated so brilliantly remained his defining passion to the last.

"I didn't decide one day that I would drink myself to death," he announced after having a liver transplant in July 2002. "It is as a result of alcoholism. Alcoholism is a disease. It's the same with drugs. You don't decide suddenly, 'I'll be a drug addict.' " Best was addicted to alcohol - his continued drinking even after his transplant was to lose him much public sympathy - and he was addicted to women. But most of all he was addicted to football.

He leaves unanswerable questions behind him. How great might he have become but for the bottle? Had Matt Busby been younger, less scarred by past trauma, might he have imposed sufficient discipline to inspire the most naturally gifted player of modern times to scale even loftier peaks? At this distance, it doesn't matter. For seven or eight seasons George Best gave untold pleasure to countless fans all over the world, created so much that was beautiful and left a hoard of deathless memories. And that is enough.

Ivan Ponting

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