James Lawton: Best's death wish comes from terrible sense of emptiness

Former Manchester United winger who abandoned unique gifts as a footballer seems determined to extend pattern of waste with his own life
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The Independent Football

When George Best finally kills himself, for surely that is his fate if not his ambition, we will probably be no nearer to unlocking the mystery of his long and painful journey.

That is as much as we can say as the abyss, National Health liver transplant not withstanding, has once again opened up before eyes which even when they carried the fire of youth always had an element of sadness.

Certainly none of us, not those who remember the brilliance and the beauty of a sublime young footballer, nor the others who see him simply as a symbol of waste and self-indulgence, can feign surprise; neither his critics, nor his doctors, nor even those friends who, before this grim hour, spent much of their time celebrating his wild, laddish ways.

His friend, and one of many biographers, Michael Parkinson was not among that last number - and he admitted his own deepest fears with his reaction to the latest Best crisis. He reported that he had drawn encouragement from Best's recent decision at a dinner they shared to reject a trifle because it contained sherry. But then Parky added that maybe he had wanted too much to believe that the worst days were over.

In truth, the recent bleak episodes were an integral part of a script that has been unfolding for more than 30 years and when the news of his latest walk along the edge of the volcano came in it was accompanied by all the old images of self-destruction.

Yesterday an old pro, who fought some fierce battles with Best and would never be regarded by the superstar as a natural ally but who numbers himself among the cognoscenti who believe that the Northern Irishman may have been the most naturally gifted player who ever lived, identified the time when it was clear that his capacity for self-hurt was unlimited.

It was on 20 May 1972, when Best, who was a little short of his 26th birthday, drunkenly told a gathering of Fleet Street reporters in Marbella, that he had officially retired.

The old pro recalls: "If you thought about it at all, you knew right then there was probably no limit to George's death wish. If he could give up playing, even think about it, at that stage of his life, what could he not give up? I loved to see George play, but I hated what he had been doing to himself. I kicked him once and said he was a disgrace - and he has never forgotten that. He provoked anger then among pros who did all they could to get the best out of the talent they had been given. And here was somebody who had astonishing skills - and a real genius to play the game, and he was destroying himself before your eyes. Now there is just this terrible sadness."

Best concluded his hauntingly revealing 2001 autobiography with some poignant words. He said: "All the bad times cannot wipe away those [good] memories, and despite all the ups and downs, when I look at my life as a whole, it is impossible for me not to feel blessed."

Blessed? No doubt in his ability to play the football of the gods, to perform with a stunning precocity, with timing and speed and power and courage that shattered the mighty Benfica in their own Estado da Luz in 1965, and inspired one of United's senior players to say: "It's just as well that when Matt [Busby] told us to take it easy in the first 20 minutes, the kid wasn't listening." The Kid buried Benfica - and then set about inferring his own greatness.

Best called his life story Blessed, but Cursed would have been a little more accurate.

What Blessed revealed most relentlessly was Best's utter failure to take responsibility for his own actions. His tragedy was that he didn't begin to grasp the concept of cause and effect. He couldn't look outside of himself, which meant he was obliged to contemplate an ever widening pool of sadness and lack of real fulfilment. Reflected there most tragically was that no one, not even the rampaging Diego Maradona, had abandoned his talent so quickly, so irrevocably. Best was a circus act from his mid-twenties.

He didn't play football. He did gigs. One of the most futile of them came in Vancouver when he was still in his thirties. He came to town, where I happened to be working at the time, to do a coaching course and speak at a dinner. At that dinner I was asked to make an introduction, which was of course no hardship. Best, after confiding that he couldn't have a drink because of the pills that had been sown into his stomach as instant, nausea-creating deterrents - he claimed to have had a fresh implant at the weekend - got up to charm his audience. He was the best of George that night, friendly, unpretentious, funny, and at the end of the evening he suggested I join him for dinner at the local racetrack the following night.

Exhibition Park is a beautiful setting, the dirt track stretching out beside an inlet of the Pacific and beneath snow-capped mountains, but that night the shadows which plainly crossed George Best's life were long indeed. He didn't take a drink. But he bet on every race, despite unreliable form and the presence of some notoriously opportunistic trainers, and he lost every race. It was reasonable to calculate that he had squandered every cent he had earned from his trip. George shrugged his shoulders. It was a gesture that said he was compelled to behave compulsively.

Of course, the anarchy inherent in Best's character has taken many more extreme forms, but the nature of his pain was inescapable that warm summer night. It was of a terrible emptiness, one that takes us right up to yesterday's verdict by the old pro.

If George Best could throw away in his mid-twenties unique gifts as a footballer, what couldn't he abandon, because it wasn't just the football he was walking away from. It was his meaning, his point, and all the sad, wry, well-practised jokes - "If I'd been born ugly, no one would have heard of Pele" - cannot obscure this truth, and especially, not now, when he seems intent on throwing away his last gift of life.

We have surely passed the point of lecturing George Best. Many will do so, of course, as they did the great Jimmy Baxter when he was in receipt of a new liver, and some will puff themselves up into a great head of righteous indignation. No doubt they have a case. But some of us will never have the stomach for the job.

Once someone wrote that he would never take his young son to watch the fading Best because, however great he was as a player, he was a man impossible to admire. He was self-indulgent and weak and all the things he didn't want his son to be. Again the case is arguable, but maybe there is also another point to make.

George Best was a shy kid from a Belfast housing estate. He saw his mother die of alcoholism. He was embraced by the world, and his rich and powerful club, Manchester United, didn't have a clue about handling the unprecedented convergence of extraordinary talent and celebrity. That's not an excuse but maybe it is the nearest we'll ever get to an explanation. George Best couldn't cope back then when he was the Fifth Beatle... no more, it seems, than he can now. Lecturing plainly cannot help him. So what is left. Nothing it seems beyond a prayer.