Even in the very beginning, 50 years ago today, there were symptoms of the struggle that would go unappreciated in the years of sunshine and champagne that lay ahead for George Best.
He had been called up to the Manchester United first team for the home match with West Bromwich Albion though Matt Busby, that “master handler of men” as Best would later call him, listed him as “reserve”, to preserve him from stage fright, when he scrawled out the team-sheet in ballpoint. It was the distraught Best’s desperate introspection – a part of him, always – which persuaded the then 17-year-old that this selection, in the days before substitutes were used, must be some kind of punishment. That he had trained so poorly, played so poorly, said or done something so amiss that he was denied a Central League game to run errands for the first team.
He made his debut, of course – and so invincibly that Busby later wondered aloud whether what he had observed had been a dream. But the angst would be the consistent, forgotten subtext to what has always been characterised as an uncomplicated, if extreme, morality tale about the boy in whose fame, wealth and fortune lay the seeds of his pitiful decline.
The new biography of Best, Immortal, by Duncan Hamilton – a marriage of prose and detail so fine and fastidious that it takes the breath away at times – certainly doesn’t grant Best any sentimentality, even though it is the first to be written with the cooperation of his family. “Like the sun, everything revolved around him,” Hamilton writes – chronicling insults to those opponents he danced around (“You’re too old!”) and the sheer vanity of the man thrust into fame when it was a very good time to be young. Best declared flatly back then that “there’s room for freedom of expression in football now and I’m afraid it’s up to the older generation to accept it”.
For so storied a life, there has been a surprising abundance of undiscovered evidence with which to test the long-established narrative. Hamilton has gone searching among those who were minor players in this drama – Steve Fullaway, the son of Best’s legendary Aycliffe Avenue landlady Mary, and David Stanley, the son of his agent Ken. These are the contemporaries whose company Best would seek out during the endless afternoons after training, long before the drink set in. Their testimony unravels the picture of an individual so unshackled and liberated for the 90 minutes of a football match that he tried to score Hollywood goals in televised games, just to get on the Match of the Day credits, and who displayed not one iota of anxiety once he knew his big moment had come on 14 September 1963. The spaces in between games were the problem. They took him to some very dark places when he had not matched his own extreme expectations.
Take the night history has defined as one of Best’s finest – United’s 1968 European Cup final triumph over Benfica at Wembley. As always, he had mapped out every detail of the evening in his mind – a hat-trick, taking Wembley like a storm and Eusebio for a fool. (“No man is exempt from thinking silly things,” Hamilton wisely observes.) To an ordered mind, victory that night would have been a possession to cherish for a lifetime. But Best was inconsolable; unable to forgive himself for providing only a contribution, rather than domination. He stole away from the celebrations early and took a taxi to the Chelsea flat of Jackie Glass – his first serious girlfriend, whose testimony is another invaluable part of the book. “He seemed drained of emotion,” she says.
Best’s mind was as inquiring as it was complex. The stories, previously untold, of how he duelled with cryptic crossword compilers of The Times and The Daily Telegraph reveal that much. After a debate at The Ivy over the source of the Niger, he vanished for an hour and reappeared with a textbook in his hand. More evidence of a personality “that was near monomaniacal in the need to come out on top”, as Hamilton puts it.
This was the individual who, after the Wembley euphoria of 1968, was being asked to come to terms with a declining United, slipping into a barren age rather than the golden one he had envisaged. By the time he made his legendary flit to Marbella in 1972, abandoning United and the dream home Che Sera Sera that became a prison, he had reached the pit of despair and alcohol was the established antidote.
The reporter who perhaps knew him best and who followed him to Marbella was John Roberts, the former Independent journalist – ghostwriter of Best’s Daily Express column during that tumultuous period of decline for club and player, between 1971 and 1973. Yes, Roberts tells me, there was a mental disintegration which went beyond the simple equation of a drinker and a vodka bottle. “You would describe it as depression today,” he tells me. “These days there would be people at a club who would help to sort it. It was different then.”
Others saw it, too. “You don’t select the time when you have severe mental depression,” says Ken Stanley, his agent. Even amid the mayhem, there was also always a deep loneliness and introspection in him, says his great friend Mike Summerbee – touching one of this book’s recurring themes. Glass, to whose intellect Best was drawn, urged him to be more outgoing – perverse though that may sound.
Busby, that visionary, sought help for Best, telling him he should “go and see somebody” rather than intimidate him with the word “psychiatry”. Best complied but, perhaps resentful of the individual with dark-framed glasses who was peering at him, refused to accept he needed clinical help. “He looked at me in a funny way and then jotted something down…”
Perhaps further psychiatric help would have curtailed the drinking before it turned to full alcoholic dependency – because the two are most certainly often intertwined. And perhaps it would not. It’s history, now. But the definitive work on Best raises again that most beguiling question of what his contribution to football’s story might have been in a world which was only equipped to guide him.
Lineker’s criticisms would work better on the inside
Gary Neville, who for my money is first pick for Greg Dyke’s four-man commission on the future of England’s football team, has chosen the written press to articulate so well his views on the national game’s ills. Gary Lineker has chosen Twitter. If he feels these matters are compressible into 140 characters that’s his prerogative but you do wonder what kind of value one of the national team’s most personable and articulate individuals might be on the inside of the Football Association tent pissing out, as Lyndon B Johnson once put it. And if football politics don’t float his boat, then why don’t the BBC have him in a chair where we can hear his opinions? They’re light years ahead of some of those men whom he so amiably hosts on a Saturday night.
The real pain in Ukraine was felt in basketball
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