James Lawton: Blessed with gifts from gods, but cursed by his own nature

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The Independent Online

George Best's fight for life was ebbing away yesterday in London's Cromwell hospital at the age of 59 but, if that is the record, it is maybe not the truth, not all of it anyway.

Something inside him died long ago and, even in his last hours, there was a forlorn echo of that when his doctor, Professor Roger Williams, clearly moved, reported he had told the family of the great, fallen football icon that all hope of his recovery had gone. He might live another 24 hours but, in effect, the story of George Best was over.

Some, and they included his deepest admirers, might have said that, in one way, that was true even before his final few years of pain and controversy, when some questioned even his right to what was left of his life. Others will see a terrible irony in that the end of Best's losing battle against alcoholism coincided with the arrival of 24-hour drinking licences.

What had died in Best somewhere along the uncharted days was something that once burnt so fiercely that the chances of it surviving to a wise and mellow age were probably always remote.

It was the fire of his conviction that he could do something he loved maybe better than anyone else on earth, a view that was mirrored later in his droll, maybe unconsciously sad reflection that, had he been born ugly, the world might not have settled on the Brazilian Pele as the greatest player in the history of the game. That doesn't make the jolt of Best's passing any less intense, at least for those - and they still number in their millions - who will never forget the magical promise and so much of the dazzling fulfillment of his youth.

It is so because even if you cannot join the righteous indignation of those who complain he threw away the gift of a transplanted liver that might have been more rewardingly placed, at least in the sober preservation of an individual life, as he did so many of the other advantages that were heaped upon him, there is nothing so tragic as a wasted life.

Wasted? Maybe it is a matter of degree when you consider the density of the brilliance he produced in the brief years he allowed for a full expression of his talent. However, the fact that cannot be avoided, even by those who loved him dearly, at the end of Best's booze-washed journey is that in his world of football perhaps no one had wasted quite so much, quite so quickly.

This will no doubt offend the romantic view of Best's impact on the game to which he brought such unique and mesmerising gifts.

Even in the final months of his desperately sad existence, some still gloried in the wildness of his ways, as though they were some inevitable consequence of genius. They weren't. They were the long played-out results of his own weakness in the face of unprecedented celebrity - and also the failure of football in the Sixties to adequately protect such a luminous young star from the rush of fame.

No one in football had a greater reputation for wisdom, on both sides of the touchline, than Best's manager at Manchester United, Sir Matt Busby. But in the end even he was forced to wash his hands of the prodigal son, though any suggestion of abdication by the great manager has to be tempered by the fact that football, and indeed few aspects of English life, had ever seen a young man so besieged as this essentially shy Irishman.

One of Busby's successors, Frank O'Farrell, delivered a haunting prophecy when Best, still in his mid-twenties, ran away from Old Trafford and told a media pack in the Spanish holiday resort of Marbella that he was putting back a bottle of vodka a day.

Said O'Farrell: "The worry is not so much for George today, he is still young, he has his looks and his celebrity and no doubt he will be able to make some sort of living outside of football. But I worry about him in the future, when he has lost those looks, when he cannot be fit again, and then I wonder how he will feel."

We will never quite know because, somewhere along the line, George Best reinvented himself. He became a pundit, a sage of the game and in the process he seemed to lose sight of the fact that when he should have been in the prime of his talent, someone standing alongside the likes of Pele and Cruyff and his United clubmate, Bobby Charlton, he was drifting into an irreversible descent.

He was playing for second division Fulham, for Dunstable, for the Los Angeles Aztecs, the San Jose Earthquakes, for Hibs and Stockport County, for the Toronto Indoor Soccer School, Cork Celtic and the Jewish Guild FC, South Africa; he was getting arrested for drunk-driving, he was meandering from one failed marriage or liaison to another, he was falling on his face. When he was taken down from the dock on his way to prison, he cracked to a bystander, "I suppose that's blown the knighthood," but only he was laughing, and not with his eyes.

No doubt it is the right of any man to live his own life, though some of his fiercest critics will probably say that ceased, morally, to be true when he took possession of someone else's liver, but then George Best carried an extra burden. The world took a proprietary view of the gifts he had displayed so unforgettably and this, in the end, was where he most exhausted forgiveness.

He left Old Trafford, finally, in 1974. He was 26 years old. Now it seems impossible that he did so much so quickly, that his football remains so vivid for all those who witnessed it.

Before he was 20 he played like a man but no ordinary one: he did everything you could do on a football field with astonishing grace and courage and power, and that he had the looks of a film star, and was christened the "Fifth Beatle" by the Portuguese press after he had eviscerated Benfica, one of the greatest teams in Europe in their own stronghold, ensured attention unprecedented in football. He was a magnet for young actresses and assorted celebrity-seekers.

Everything he had was used up so quickly, as much by an adoring world as himself. He left his landlady in a house nominated as suitable by Manchester United for a young footballer who had grown up on a council estate in Belfast and moved to one he built in a leafy, up-market Cheshire suburb. He was proud of its modern design, hurt when he read in one newspaper that it resembled a public lavatory. The attention was relentless and overwhelming and soon enough it began to douse the exquisite flame of his football.

Not so long ago he told one of his ghostwriters: "I recall moments which most fans wouldn't remember, but which meant a lot to me, like scoring twice against West Bromwich in the dying minutes to win a game we were losing 2-1. West Brom will always have a special place in my memory because it was against them that I walked out of the Old Trafford tunnel for the first time and experienced that feeling of the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. They still stand up sometimes when my mind reels back to that day, and others like it.

"All the bad days cannot wipe away those memories. And despite all the ups and downs, when I look back at my life as a whole it is impossible not to feel blessed."

Blessed, no doubt, with gifts from the gods but also cursed with the fault line of his own nature, and perhaps also the timing of his days in the sun.

If he was incapable of protecting his talent beyond that first rush of glory which brought bewitching performances in places such as Benfica's Estado da Luz, when he was still a teenager, and Wembley, when he helped Manchester United to their first European Cup at the age of 22, then so was his great club and the wider football world.

Twenty years later a young star at Old Trafford, Ryan Giggs, was described as the second George Best. It was a wild assertion, and a heavy burden for an intelligent and talented player but it provoked a fierce reaction from Busby's great successor, Sir Alex Ferguson. He threw up a protective screen that was never damagingly breached. By comparison, Best drove a Rolls-Royce while living in a council house.

He was haunted by the prospects of fame even as he flashed a beautiful smile for the cameras. There was the pain of his mother's death as a result of alcoholism. Part of Best's re-invention of himself and the nature of his life, was that he had all that the world could offer. The reality was that the more he had, the more he lost.

Soon enough, the greatest of his assets was gone. It was the ability to play breathtaking football, to display courage and timing and skills that brought a tear to the eye.

There is now a particular desolation if you happened to be at Old Trafford that day he walked out for the first time.

He was 17, and though he did not instantly light up the grey sky, there was a beguiling maturity about everything he did out on the field. Out on the street he was the quietest of boys, one who two years earlier had run home to Belfast because he was homesick.

In one way, George Best, brilliant and doomed, never stopped running. But from what? Sometimes it seemed that it was from the white heat of his own talent. In the premature end, he destroyed that talent, but not the meaning or the memory of it.

Yesterday his tearful friend and agent Phil Hughes said that one of George Best's last wishes was to be an organ donor. Another terrible irony, some would say, but then it is also true that the last thing to fail him was his heart, as it was his first unforgettable gift to those who now mourn not only a departing superstar but some of the magic of their own lives.

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