BLESSED... AND CURSED
By Martin Knight
I wouldn’t mind betting that George Best holds the distinction of being the person that people have wanted to be at some time in their lives more than any other. There was a time when millions of schoolboys the world over wished they were Georgie – Georgie – Georgie – Best. This was a simpler time when climate change was known as spring, summer, autumn and winter and the world marched to the tunes of the Beatles. The Fab Four were another phenomenon to behold and although millions idolised them and wanted to be near them they didn’t necessarily want to be them. Here, perhaps, is the key to the public’s passionate and turbulent relationship with this extraordinarily gifted but seemingly self-destructive man. I would also wager that there were times George himself was one of the people that had no desire to be George Best.
George was born in working-class Belfast in 1946. His father worked at the Harland & Wolff shipyard and his mother in the Gallaher tobacco factory. From a very early age he displayed dazzling skills with a football at his feet and in 1961 a scout for Manchester United whisked the ‘boy genius’ over to England. Over the next few years Matt Busby, the Manchester United manager, the Northern Ireland international selectors and the Old Trafford faithful were blissfully aware that this shy slip of a kid was something special but it was not until a live televised European Cup quarter-final tie against Benfica did George enter the public consciousness at large. United won 5-1 against a pre-eminent Benfica who boasted in their team Eusebio – the European Player of the Year. But it was George Best that staged the virtuoso performance by running, dribbling, nutmegging, scoring twice and generally making the Benfica defenders look like bewildered cart-horses. The television watching millions had never seen an individual performance like it and on his return from Lisbon George received a pop star airport welcome, the press dubbed him El Beatle and the ride had begun.
Two years on in 1968 George figured prominently in helping United become the first English club to win the European Cup beating Benfica again at Wembley Stadium. For the club this was the fairytale ending to the long journey led by Matt Busby from the dark days of the Munich air disaster where the cream of the Busby Babes team had perished ten years earlier. Few living rooms across Britain remained dry-eyed when manager and protégé embraced like father and son at the end of the game. George was awarded English and European Footballer of the Year and was arguably now the most famous man on the planet. His playing performances continually delighted and amazed and the exquisite triumvirate of Best, Law and Charlton in attack was an Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman story that for opposing teams was far from a joke.
His on-field impudence and flamboyance was contrasted by his shyness off it and one can only imagine the impact that extreme fame and adulation had on a far from worldly-wise kid from Belfast. Few people have been in the position of being feted by the great and good, worshipped by millions of boys and men, lusted over by most young women he came into contact with (and plenty he didn’t) whilst simultaneously arousing the maternal instincts of the nation’s housewives. None of us can really say how we would have coped. George made light of it all often by trotting out his well-worn Where Did It All Go Wrong? hotel porter story but many of those close to him are convinced that it was this pressure cooker existence that led him into becoming a heavy drinker.
Over indulgence in alcohol is far from rare among young men and if the opportunity to live the champagne lifestyle is presented few would reject it. Many will embrace the clubs, the birds and the booze with gusto and only drop out only when relationships, careers and a quieter life start to appear more enticing. Tragically, this was not the case for George, as his own group of close and loyal friends gradually threw in their partying towels he seemed to accelerate his drinking habit. Medical science has yet to be able to prove this theory either way but it may be that George, like thousands of others, possessed some sort of alcoholic gene and that he had little choice in the matter. Possibly, it is no coincidence that George’s mother who had did not have a long history of drinking died from alcoholism in her fifties.
By 1970 George’s footballing star was waning. Over enthusiastic hard-men defenders were determined to take him out, this often led to trouble with referees, which in turn caused problems with the FA’s disciplinary commission. In the middle of all this though was the glorious, now legendary, spectacle of him scoring six goals against a shell-shocked Northampton Town in the FA Cup. As the decade progressed George was making the headlines more for his missing training and even matches than for his brilliance and skill and his relationship with Manchester United inevitably deteriorated. In 1974 aged only 27 George played his last game for the team. His subsequent career was a series of cameo roles for such diverse clubs as Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, LA Aztecs, Hibernian, San Jose Earthquakes, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lyons and most notably Fulham. Here he teamed up with Bobby Moore and Rodney Marsh and although out of condition managed to fleetingly enthral and entertain English crowds once again with his genius.
George’s first marriage to Angie Macdonald ended in divorce although the union did produce a son, Calum, in 1981. The following year George was made bankrupt and then in 1984 he hit his personal nadir when he also hit a policeman who was attempting to arrest him in connection with a drink-drive charge and he subsequently served eight weeks in prison. Although George’s drinking exploits were by now legendary and the subject of much urban myth an appearance on Terry Wogan’s early evening chat show in 1990 where he was paraded live and very drunk possibly marked a turning point in the public’s robust affection for him, cancelling out the goodwill generated by several sober and charismatic appearances on the Michael Parkinson show.
However, as his public profile dimmed, his personal life began to recover. He was discharged from bankruptcy and under the strong but sensitive management of his closest friend Phil Hughes he kept busy with personal appearances and punditry. For the first time in many years his finances were in order and there was a structure to his day-to-day life. In 1995 he married Alex Pursey and relative domesticity ensued. His searingly honest autobiography Blessed was enthusiastically received by the British public and if sales are anything to go by it was proof that the people had forgiven their wayward son. It seemed that the George Best story could have a happy ending after all. In 2000 though his liver failed and due to the efforts of Professor Williams and the staff at the Cromwell Hospital he was stabilised but his name was urgently added to the waiting list for a liver transplant. A condition of being allowed on the list was that George give up drinking and this he did. Two years later a transplant was successfully performed.
I met George at this time when he was recuperating at his and Alex’s lovely barn conversion in the Surrey countryside. I had been invited to work with him on a follow-up to Blessed. Although shocked by his frailty I felt that he was truly happy with his two red setters and Alex tenderly and lovingly caring for him. I was saddened when their marriage collapsed later because they seemed so well matched, always affectionately calling each other Bestie. Over the following weeks as we met regularly and worked on the book I watched him grow in strength and relished his company. He was reserved, humble, self-deprecating and natural also intelligent with a quick wit. It was impossible not to like him. He was a nice man.
On a couple of occasions he was very reflective. He told me how Sir Matt Busby was a lovely man, and how Denis Law was a lovely man and dear Shay Brennan was a lovely man and how much he missed him. These were not empty compliments. There were no cameras – just me, him and a red setter – and his eyes were moist. I asked him if he had any regrets and he looked at me sternly – ‘Of course,’ he said. He joked about his drinking and remarked that he went from El Beatle to El Vino in six years but felt that he would never drink again. That evening he really believed it and so did I.
It could be frustrating doing the book with him. His attention could wander. Heaven knows he had told these stories a thousand times and it was the devil’s job to fish out something new. It didn’t help when he said ‘Do you mind if I just watch Fifteen to One?’ and when that finished, him having answered nearly every question correctly, he zapped over to Countdown or The Weakest Link and then we I finally got down to switching the tape recorder on I’d look up and he was sucking his pen bent over the Telegraph crossword. As he returned to health he began using the local gym where he would tell me which horses he would be backing that afternoon. Then he started to visit the betting office where he was gambling modest sums and I wondered how he could stand for hours in there amid the smoke and the banter. It was like being in a pub. Then I realised that was why he was spending the hours in there.
George Best’s final tumble off the wagon has been painfully and painstakingly documented over recent months. His last battle with death has been reminiscent of the man at his peak. Dipping, swerving and pulling back at the last minute. You think he has lost his balance, fallen and lost the ball and suddenly, somehow, he is up, regaining possession and charging goalward with his hair streaming in the wind, socks rolled down and shirt hanging out. The staff at the Cromwell Hospital has said they had never seen a patient fight against the odds like he did. Ever. As far back as a week ago, at one point his doctors, were measuring his life expectancy in hours. On Friday, the final, final whistle was blown and George Best left the arena for the last time. History will record him as the greatest British footballer of all time.
Debate will rage over whether George wasted his talent, he will be condemned for destroying his liver and someone else’s; he will be accused of throwing away his own life. I believe that George would not see it that way. He wanted to live a full life and he did. Although he has died prematurely he notched up several lifetimes awarding himself a small percentage of the pleasure he had given others in his heyday. His heroic fight to stay alive is proof enough that he loved life and adored those close to him; his dear, tough old Dad, his brothers and sisters and their families, Calum, Phil and the others. He did not want to leave them and cause them pain. His alcoholism was a disease that had blighted him since he was in his twenties. He did not want to drink himself to death. George Best called his definitive autobiography Blessed but he could have just as aptly named it Cursed.
© Martin Knight