Learn to love me
Assemble the ways
Now, today, tomorrow and always
My only weakness is a list of crime
My only weakness is … well, never mind, never mind.
– The Smiths, Shoplifters of the World Unite, 1987.
It seems remarkable to recite these lyrics minus Morrisey’s associated campness and self-parodying with his crotch thrust rotations, but it has haunting resonance in the delicate process of looking back on the career of George Best.
Of course, this is not just down to the Smiths being from Manchester or because Morrisey (22 May) shares the same birthday as Best, but, rather, it relates to the fact that Best – who history ‘infallibly’ paints as the talent that prematurely peaked at twenty-two of years of age – descended into an alcoholic abyss so rapidly as his life progressed.
Sure, the immediate connotations of looking back on Best’s principal flaw, his alcoholism, are of his post-playing career – from spending the Christmas of 1984 in prison for drink-driving to his harrowing yellowing and rapid disintegration and death in November, 2005 – but his once near-unsociable shyness as a terribly homesick Belfast adolescent and the initial handling of his growing ego, as, arguably, football’s first celebrity were not managed in the careful way that they would be today. So, while there is no doubting the fact that Best was the master of his own destiny – despite alcoholism undoubtedly passing through the genes (his mother, Anne, took her first drink aged forty-six and died within ten years from alcohol-related heart disease) – and had several chances to admit, reform and withdraw, one cannot help but think what might have happened had Best matured in a more astute footballing era.
The 1990s, for example, saw the likes of Tony Adams and Paul Merson – admittedly, cases, like Paul McGrath and Paul Gascoigne served as antitheses of sorts during their playing careers, but they were, nonetheless, offered help – being carefully monitored, tested and aided to allow their talent to prosper. Sure, it would have been near-inevitable that Best would have descended eventually and, admittedly, he had his motivational and admittance problems, but the rate of his devolution – from the leggy, fresh-faced and pointy-featured bachelor to the unrecognisable, globetrotting, scruffy, stocky-legged and broad-waisted twenty-eight year old – was frightening. To this day, it seems remarkable that this stark, unhealthy image of Best is often overlooked in favour of the ‘simple’, post-football account of Best’s rapid decline from the late ‘80s.
However, that is only half of the story. George Best was one of the greatest players Europe ever produced and is likely to remain the best player that Northern Ireland ever bred for a century. Still, from that, a tragedy remains: Best emerged and peaked at the wrong time. Firstly, Northern Ireland played in World Cups in 1958 (an incredible fate-like plethora with Harry Gregg (26), Dick Keith (25), Alf McMichael (31), Danny Blanchflower (31), Willie Cunningham (28), Bertie Peacock (30), Billy Bingham (27),Wilbur Cush (30), Jimmy McIlroy (27), Peter McParland (24) and Derek Dougan (20); and 1982 (aside from Pat Jennings (37) and Chris Nicholl (35), Jimmy Nicholl (25), Mal Donaghy (24), David McCreery (24), John McClelland (26), Martin O’Neill (30), Sammy McIlroy (27), Billy Hamilton (25), Gerry Armstrong (28) and Norman Whiteside (17) were coming into/at their pre-peaks) – exactly six years before Best’s first cap and six years after his globetrotting decline from 1976.
Then – without even addressing the hacking he had to withstand and the lax refereeing of the time – just as he, Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law inspired Manchester United to the European Cup in 1968, Sir Matt Busby’s rapidly ageing core (Shay Brennan was 31; Bill Foulkes was 36; Charlton was 31; and Paddy Crerand and Law were 29) were, for the most part, deemed good enough to carry on with Best into what should have been his peak years and, ultimately, the 1968 European Cup would be Best’s last footballing honour – with a whooping sixteen years of his professional career to go, yet.
Best was born to Dickie, a shipyard worker, and Anne Best, a full-time parent of their four daughters and one son, on the Cregagh Estate in south-east Belfast on 22 May, 1946. Brought up as a Free Presbyterian, a denomination founded by one Reverend Ian Paisley in 1951, the church and Orange Order (Dickie was a member) would prove key elements of Best’s rearing, with George even carrying the strings of the banner in his local Crenagh lodge as a child. Still, despite this, politics and religion would not prove to be Best’s calling. Rather, even from the age of fourteen months – when he could, astonishingly, control a ball – it was football. Unsurprisingly, from this, Dickie was a key influence – after getting George to play Sunday League matches solely with his weaker foot (echoed in that infamous sock pass for United decades later) – and had Best playing adeptly with both feet by the age of six.
Far from his talent being Dickie-influenced, though, Best adored playing football at his local pitch at Burren Way and kicked the ball to school, on the way home for lunch and on the trip home after school. He passed his 11+ to attend Grosvenor High, a rugby-focused grammar school, and although George eventually transferred to Lisnassaragh Intermediate School, his partaking in line-outs proved useful to his soon to be remarkable jumping and heading abilities. Still, due to his delayed growth spurt and small height as a thirteen year old – barely reaching five feet and weighing just over eight stone – Best found finding a club difficult and was rejected by Glentoran. Undeterred, he played on and Bob Bishop, Manchester United’s one-time scout, spotted him when he was fifteen.
Bishop had been on an envoy for Sir Matt Busby, who was incredibly determined to restore Manchester United’s youth-driven squad and dynasty following the tragic Munich air disaster on 6 February, 1958 – where eight incredibly talented United players, all under the age of twenty-eight, perished. Bishop was convinced Best could be what the likes of Billy Whelan, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor would have been: a long-term prospect who would evolve into one of Europe’s top talents in a forward position. From this, in his telegram report to Busby, Bishop remarked: “I think I’ve found you a genius.” Even though Best’s favourite team as a youth had been Wolves and despite being an idoliser of their then manager, Stan Cullis, he did not hesitate about United’s offer and joined Eric McMordie in heading over for a trial within days.
The pair were, naturally, incredibly nervous – having never been away from the island of Ireland before and embarking on, by today’s standards, a lengthy boat trip across the Irish Sea – and, unsurprisingly, suffered near-instant homesickness. After all, such was the duo’s innocence, they did not know that there were two Old Traffords (other for cricket purposes) and the taxi driver dropped them at the cricket ground, 3km away, once they reached Manchester. Staying with Mrs. Fulloway at Aycliffe Avenue in Chorlton, with Barry Fry introducing them to the squad, McMordie was the more vocal of the two about his homesickness – even if Best was feeling similarly anxious, but was not so readily able to voice it due to his immense shyness. The pair played a trial match against an older age group but within two days, they returned home to Belfast. Best had impressed Joe Armstrong, United’s then legendary chief scout, though, and, from this, Busby wrote to Best to assure him of his qualities and to offer him a series of near-unprecedented dispensations to return regularly to Belfast if he joined United.
McMordie was not picked up, instead choosing to stay at school and become a plasterer, but headed over to Middlesbrough at the age of eighteen to begin a successful fourteen-year professional footballing career. Best, though, soon adjusted and this was much owed to his ‘playground’ style transferring so effectively, with his nutmegs, lobbing, patient dribbling, agility, balance, jumping and remarkable athleticism with a low centre of gravity. Many clubs at the time would have taught these hallmarks out of Best – feeling that they could not be consistently used and replicated at a top-level match – but Best was encouraged by Wilf McGuinness and Jack Crompton, United’s then reserve and youth coaches, to use them. McGuinness even had to adapt his training methods, with two touch drills proving too easy for Best in getting past players, but even in using one-touch scenarios, Best found a way round it by deftly hitting the ball off his opponents shins to get past him.
Best was making an impression on the first-team, too, with the reserves regularly playing some of the seniors in five-a-side matches that used barely four-foot wide goals. In one of these, Harry Gregg – one of the British Isles’ greatest ever goalkeepers, who Best was once in incredible awe in as much as Law and Charlton – was beaten three times in a row by Best, who, audaciously, rounded him each time. It left Gregg fuming but not only was a key moment in Best proving himself to the seniors, but, also, in him blossoming confidence wise – having been unable to utter a word to Law, for example, when he met him for the first time a few months previously. Mirroring this, in rooming with David Sadler at Fulloway’s digs, Best soon became more self-assured and was given a key to the house as a present for his seventeenth birthday on 22 May, 1963. Then, Best, who had cleaned the first-team’s boots in 1962/1963, was given his own place in the boot room for the beginning of the 1963/1964 season. It was at this point that Best knew he had arrived and he was handed his first-team debut against West Brom on 14 September, 1963.
Stuart Williams, the thirty-three year old full back who had amassed nearly forty international caps for Wales at the time, was Best’s first professional opponent at that time but the Northern Irishman – who, initially, wore his shirt tucked in and refused to wear shinpads (continued, like Johan Cruyff, throughout his career, rarely fearing or retaliating to hacking) – was undaunted by Williams’ physical style and nutmegged and rounded him numerous times in the 1-0 victory at Old Trafford. Best, who was competing with the likes of Willie Anderson, Phil Chisnall and Albert Quixall for just one position, initially, found it difficult to maintain his selection but – having made an impressive goalscoring second appearance of the season in the 5-1 victory against Burnley on 28 December – did play with Charlton and Law for the first time in the 1-4 reverse win over West Brom at the Hawthorns on 18 January, 1964. Best also scored in this match, again tormenting Williams, and by the end of the season – following a sustained run in the first XI – the Northern Irishman had made twenty-six appearances and scored six goals in helping United finish 2nd behind Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in 1963/1964.
With Gregg’s continued advocation and Best’s sustained form, Best’s name was put forward by the goalkeeper to Bertie Peacock, Northern Ireland’s then manager, and, from this, he was capped for the first time, against Wales, on 15 April, 1964. Club wise, John Connelly’s arrival from Burnley in the summer of 1964 meant that Best did not get to keep his soon to be ‘trademark’ number seven shirt (right-wing), but, in actual fact, Best wore a variety of numbers in his eleven years at Old Trafford, including seven, eight (inside right), ten (inside left) and eleven (left-wing), due to the fact that numbering, generally, depended on what position one played in that era. Another of Best’s trademarks – his off the field activities – though had, clearly, not yet manifested:
In the afternoons, I either play snooker or go bowling. [I go to the] Pictures perhaps once or twice a week. I read a bit. Horror stories, comics, that sort of thing.
I don’t drink or smoke. Perhaps, on a rare occasion, I might have a lager. Then it gets back to the boss, Mr Busby, that you’re drinking.
Best had an even better second season, scoring ten goals in forty-one league matches to help United to their first title in eight seasons, and memorable goals were becoming commonplace, such as his finish against Chelsea in a 4-0 rout on 13 March, 1965. With Eddie McCreadie, Chelsea’s then twenty-five year old Scottish international full back, collecting the ball from a short throw out from Peter Bonetti, the Scot sought to hit a long ball to Bobby Tambling. Sensing this, Best quickly closed McCreadle down, flicked the rebounded ball over his head – before McCreadie momentarily recovered, but Best again persevered to reclaim the ball – to curl a magnificent lofted finish from an acute angle at the corner of the box into the gaping top right-hand corner of Bonetti’s goal. Best’s previous and reputation certainly played a part in this goal, with McCreadie momentarily freezing, and a similar situation would be repeated against Arsenal’s uncharacteristically nervy Peter Storey and Bob Wilson on 24 February, 1968.
From winning the 1965/1966 title, Best’s first ever piece of silverware, United gained entry into the sixteen teamed European Cup. With only Real Madrid (five), Benfica (two), Internazionale (two) and Milan (one) making up the previous nine winners of the competition, it was the perfect platform for Best and United to upset the European pantheon and their performance in the quarter-final second-leg against Benfica on 9 March, 1966 did just that. Having scraped through the first-leg 3-2 at Old Trafford, Busby knew early containment was key at the Estádio da Luz to achieve a result. After all, Benfica had been unbeaten at home in the European Cup since its foundation in 1955 and in their last seventeen European matches there, they had scored an average of 4.3 goals per game and had even beaten Real Madrid 5-1 in the 1964/1965 quarter-final first-leg on 24 February, 1965. Still, Best, in particular, was undaunted and, in Busby’s words, “had cotton wool in his ears” in scoring twice within just thirteen minutes.
It was the birth of ‘El Beatle’ – with Best, somewhat ironically, having previously appeared in the audience on the Rolling Stones’ performance of ‘The Last Time’ on Top of the Pops in 1965 – and the Northern Irishman lapped it up by wearing a sombrero and leather trenchcoat upon gracing Manchester Airport’s tarmac after returning from Lisbon. Gregg was unimpressed, telling Best that “you don’t need a gimmick”, but it suited the media perfectly. Best’s collar-length locks (which a Benfica fan desperately tried to cut a lock of after the match), undoubted natural ability and poster boy status as a nineteen year old gave British football its very own Gigi Meroni, that is, a stylish superstar who could also dabble in fashion and celebrity. Even though Best went on to miss both legs of the semi-final against Partizan Belgrade through injury, with United disappointingly losing 2-1 on aggregate, but his life would never be the same following his virtuoso performance (for both United and the media) in Lisbon. It would, ultimately, have a detrimental impact on Best’s determination and focus, though, and it was no surprise that he would later remark:
If I’d been ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé.
Best’s antics did not go unnoticed, but, initially, they were not curbed seriously. For example, Busby would discipline him only by a word in his office and Best would merely switch off and count the emblems on the wallpaper behind Busby’s head as he, fairly, calmly addressed the Northern Irishman. Busby believed marriage would be the answer for Best and, in summing up the duo’s relationship and Best’s literal heeding of Busby’s words, the Northern Irishman got engaged (never came to fruition) within weeks as a twenty year old. Ultimately, Best never meant to disrespect Busby, who, arguably, was the only manager he would go on to ever rate and later paid tribute to him as a “genius” and “the nicest human being” he had ever met. On the pitch, Best’s nine goals in thirty-one league games helped United win the title in 1966/1967 and, from this, Best, and United, would soon get another crack at the European Cup. It would be in 1967/1968 that Best had his most wholly influential season, with his magnificent individual performance in the 1-0 win for Northern Ireland against Scotland on 21 October, 1967 proving to be, arguably, the greatest one-man performance Windsor Park has ever seen.
With broadening horizons, Best opened a boutique with Mike Summerbee (starred for Manchester City, but also an immigrant of sorts, from Swindon, and was a bachelor, too) on Bridge Street in 1967 and would open nightclubs, Oscar’s and Slack Alice’s, in the late ‘60s. The unveiling of the boutique would serve as Best’s epitaph, with the image of Best – changing earlier out of a chunky cardigan – in a tight pink tie-dye t-shirt gleefully pouring Moët on a champagne fountain sticking long in the memory. Still, Best’s performances remained unaffected in the short-term and Paul Reaney, Leeds’ physical full-back, was among those who did their utmost to provoke Best’s supposed immaturity and petulance as a twenty year old. Best, rarely, reacted, though, and, instead, knew his role as the terraces’ protagonist with regular ‘bring it’ motions to rally the crowd if opponents stood off to ready a hack. This side of Best did not sit well with Gregg or Charlton, in particular, with Charlton encapsulating the family-orientated ‘aloofness’ of the older members of the squad that Best, off the field, was separated from. Effectively, off the field, the squad was divided: those under twenty-five favoured the Brown Bull pub in Salford, while those who were married or above twenty-five chose not to attend these sessions.
The European Cup would, ultimately, prove United’s main focus in 1967/1968 – with Manchester City pipping them to the title by two points – and this was not only down to the fact that United had never won the competition or were aiming to atone for the 1958 crop. Rather, for much of United’s squad, they were nearing their last chance. Armed with this determination, United cruised to glory: scoring sixteen goals and conceding just six along the way in defeating Hibernians (of Malta, rather than Scotland), Sarajevo, Górnik Zabrze, Real Madrid and Benfica. Best, himself, netted three pivotal goals, with the 2-1 aggregate winner against Sarajevo on 29 November, 1967; the sole goal in the 1-0 semi-final first-leg victory over Real Madrid on 24 April, 1968; and the goal to put United 2-1 up in extra-time against Benfica in the final on 29 May, 1968. It led to a special embrace between Best and Busby after the final, with Busby seeking the Northern Irishman out for the first wholly mutual hug of the night after brief words with Brian Kidd and John Aston Jr.
Best’s contribution was recognised across the board, with all the singles titles of his career coming in that one one year, with a Football Writers’ Association Award, a Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award, the First Division’s Golden Boot and the Ballon d’Or. Becoming a world club champion proved much more difficult, though, and United badly struggled against the rough-house tactics of Estudiantes in both legs of the Inter-Continental Cup final in the autumn of 1968. In the first-leg, which finished 1-0 to Estudiantes at the Estadio Alberto J. Armando, Law had his hair pulled, Best was punched in the stomach and Charlton and Nobby Stiles required stitches on their knee and eye respectively. The 1-1 second-leg at Old Trafford was just as hostile, with a second-half fist fight between Best and José Hugo Medina leading to Best receiving a rare red card and Law requiring yet more stitches after a leg wound. Although the games were evidence of the contrasting fairplay and tactics of the two clubs, United’s inability to keep pace and weave through Estudiantes served as evidence, in Best’s eyes, of the need to strengthen while United were, seemingly, still at the top.
Busby, understandably for emotional and certain footballing reasons, relied on the remnants of the 1958 crop and did not see the need to disrupt his squad. After all, he felt vindicated with the European Cup win, with Alex Stepney being United’s only arrival between 1964 and 1968. However, United’s Academy was not producing the same top-class level of youngsters and Best was furious that bids for Mike England and Alan Ball were not made – having, himself, requested the team be built around himself as captain. While far from a leader, Best’s prophecy would prove right, with United continually sliding before once-unthinkable relegation in 1971/1972. As well as a lack of rejuvenation within the squad, United’s fall was much-owed to the fact that United never (Jock Stein could not be convinced) replaced Busby, with Wilf McGuinness (June, 1969 – December, 1970), Frank O’Farrell (June, 1971 – December, 1972) and Tommy Docherty (December, 1972 – July, 1977) lacking the presence and ingenuity to handle Best and inspire a flagging squad. Effectively, Best became the impatient figurehead and star of a team that was not far off over-reliance on the Northern Irishman:
My goals became all important, because others weren’t scoring them so frequently. Instead of revolving around me, the team now depended on me and I lacked the maturity to handle it. I began to drink more heavily and on the field, my list of bookings grew longer as my temper grew shorter.
So, while Best continued to provide moments of pure genius – such as a magnificent hat-trick against West Ham on 29 September, 1969; his double-hat-trick against Northampton Town in a 2-8 victory in the FA Cup fourth round on 7 February, 1970, with a telling non-plussed expression afterwards; his survival of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris’ onrushing, scything tackle to round Bonetti and score in a 2-1 victory over Chelsea in the League Cup on 1 January, 1971; and the infamous, legacy-defining plucking of the ball from Gordon Banks’ hands for Northern Ireland against England on 15 May, 1971 – the Northern Irishman’s interest and faith in football dropped dramatically. From this, occasions such as when he missed an away match against Chelsea on 9 January, 1971 – after opting to spend a weekend in Islington with Sinead Cusack, the Irish actress – became more and more commonplace for the then twenty-five year old:
In 1969 I gave up women and and alcohol – it was the worst twenty minutes of my life
Even the then neutral Joe Mercer, the man who departed as manager of Manchester City after six years, in 1971, could not hold back – despite being involved with a bitter dispute with his ex-assistant, Malcolm Allison, over an impending takeover of the club – in December, 1972:
The foundation of success is the strength of the weakest players. Genius is great when it’s on song. It’s more than a nuisance when it goes bad because it contaminates what’s around it.
Best’s unprofessional attitude, eventually, led to a long-standing feeling of a lack of patriotism from Northern Ireland, too, with Best playing just thirty-seven times (even in era before excessive friendlies, this was a fairly low number and Best even pulled out of the Home International against Scotland at the end of the 1970/1971 season for a holiday in Spain) for his country between 1964 and 1977. Best would later claim political influences played their part, with the forward pulling out of the squad to play Spain in the Euro ’72 qualifier on 15 February, 1972 after he was sent death threats by the I.R.A after supposedly funding Iain Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. Back in Manchester, O’Farrell desperately tried to re-locate Best to Mrs. Fulloway’s digs again in 1971/1972 – aiming to reflect the family-orientated image of Best’s Cookstown Sausages advertising campaign – after he did not turn up for the first week of training but Best’s punctuality was becoming non-existent, having received a then record £250 fine for turning up late to a FA hearing in 1971. So, even though he still managed an admirable twenty-six goals in fifty-three games (would be echoed by Ronaldinho’s twenty-nine goals and sixteen assists in fifty-seven matches for Barcelona in 2006/2007) in 1971/1972, the writing was on the wall – even in the words of Best, himself, at the time:
I’m off form and I’m sick about the way I’m playing.
Public support was dwindling for Best – particularly after crashing his Jaguar into Harrods after a session at Jemyn Street nightclub, that required fifty-five stitches – and Willie Morgan, his clean-cut United team-mate, served as his antithesis. The end to Best’s top-level career was near and – following a short-term retirement at the end of the 1971/1972 season – in the eighteen months between August, 1972 and January, 1974, he made just thirty-five appearances for United. The Northern Irishman particularly resented Tommy Docherty – who replaced O’Farrell in December, 1972 – and the Scot”s dangerous tactic of publicly blackening and criticising Best’s performances, habits and lifestyles. Best, at just twenty-seven, was exasperated and even after momentarily making peace with Docherty, his popularity with the United faithful had dwindled to such a degree that he was even jeered by sections of the crowd in his final match for United, against QPR in the FA Cup 3rd round on 1 January, 1974.
The impact of Best’s flagging enthusiasm had been starkly reflected in United’s First Division placings, with United having finished 8th in 1971/1972 when Best netted eighteen league goals in forty matches, but then plummeted to 18th in 1972/1973 when Best scored just four league goals in nineteen matches and were relegated in 1973/1974 when Best scored just two goals in twelve league games. Best joined the South African side, Jewish Guild, but in seeing it as a holiday, in only making five appearances to try and improve dwindling attendances, Best was, instead, more focused on gambling and drinking. These vices would prove the basis for the final ten years of Best’s career, but he would later have few regrets:
I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.
Ironically, there was a noble side in Best’s self-indulgence and this was seen in his three competitive appearances for Barry Fry’s Dunstable Town. Along with Jeff Astle, Best signed – much owed to the financial backing of Keith Cheesman – to help boost attendances and in remembering Fry’s care for him when he arrived for his trial in 1962, Best was happy to oblige. From this, Creasey Park’s attendance shifted from thirty-four people to an astonishing over-capacity 10,000 in Best’s first appearance. Best still refused to return to football full-time, though, and played for Stockport County (three games in 1974/1975), Cork Celtic (three appearances in 1975/1976, with a rolling contract meaning he did not take it seriously) and Los Angeles Aztecs (twenty-three matches in 1976).
Best’s time at the Aztecs revived his faith in football, having scored an impressive fifteen goals (65% strike-rate) and he revelled in the anonymity of his life off the field in the States. Feeling that he still had a lot to offer at thirty years of age, and having bonded with Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Rodney Marsh immensely, Best sought a return to England. It must be noted that it was not just Best’s renewed vigour that made this possible, as he was still able to supply moments of magic and this would soon be evident in the 1978 World Cup qualifier away to the Netherlands on 13 October, 1976, when Best audaciously nutmegged a non-plussed Johan Cruyff. Also, Best and Marsh saw their move to Fulham, who were then in the Second Division and were captained by the classy, ball-playing Bobby Moore, as something of a crusade in reviving the glamour and skill of English football, as Marsh once commented:
Football is a grey game played by grey people on grey days.
The duo soon captured the awe of the British footballing public again, following a masterclass in Fulham’s televised 4-1 victory over Hereford on 25 September, 1976. Yes, Best was stockier and Marsh’s once-unrivalled mullet had thinned out, but their link-up play, occasional globetrotting (both tried to steal the ball off eachother in the second-half), showmanship (flick up free-kick and double tens celebration) and fearlessness showed – while, admittedly, against poor opposition – that their footballing appetites were back. Best would play just one and a half seasons at Fulham, racking up eight goals in forty-two appearances, but would later call it the happiest period of his career. A move back to the Aztecs in January, 1978 proved too tempting – having won, what he rightly believed, would be his last cap for Northern Ireland, against the Netherlands on 12 October, 1977 – and Best matched his 1976 exploits with twelve goals in thirty-two matches for 1977 and 1978 combined. The second stint would prove memorable for Best and as well as opening Bestie’s Beach Club with his then manager, Ken Adam, he married (such was his alcoholism at the time, though, Best was drunk for his vows and the couple eventually divorced in 1986) Angela MacDonald-James on 24 January, 1978.
Best then sought to join Fort Lauderdale Strikers, which led to a momentary worldwide ban from football for him while Fulham claimed Best still owed them money, but he eventually joined and scored six goals in twenty-eight games in 1978 and 1979 combined. Even after a brief eighteen month interlude on a pay as you play (made seventeen appearances in just under twelve months) basis with Hibernian, Best remained a popular figure in the U.S and Best 4 Ever graffiti graced much of Florida’s underground. Best, again, increased average attendances but his alcoholism was seriously out of hand and Hibs momentarily sacked him after he went out on an astonishing binge with the French rugby team, who were in Edinburgh to play Scotland in the Five Nations. From this, Best began reluctant treatment for his drinking – influenced, too, by the birth of what would be his only child, Callum – but soon returned to the U.S, with the San Jose Earthquakes.
It was with San Jose that Best scored the “favourite goal” of his career and the moment of his time in America. Playing against his former club, Fort Lauredale, on 22 July, 1981, Best had only been in the side after Milan Mandaric, San Jose’s then owner, intervened – after Best arrived just five minutes before kick-off – to make sure that Best started the match. Best did not let the Serb down, weaving, toying and dummying past six Laurendale players before a calm sidefoot. Just like at Fulham, Best had sent a reminder to the world that he could still produce and Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland’s then manager, even scouted the then thirty-six year old with a view to a possible call-up for the 1982 World Cup. Unfortunately for Best, Bingham saw Best in a more competitive and unforgiving environment – when Best and San Jose toured Scotland and played Hibs – and even though Best looked relatively fit, he did not impress enough given the friendly nature of the game. Best returned to England, again, to play five games for the Third Division side, Bournemouth, in 1982/1983 and headed to Australia to play for the Brisbane Lions for four matches in 1983.
Best’s image in the ‘80s continued to be self-tarnished, though, with him desperately stealing from a stranger to buy a drink in 1981 and receiving a three-month prison sentence for drink-driving in the winter of 1984 (even played for the Ford Open Prison footballing team). Following a minor dispute over whether Best deserved a national testimonial, given his lack of caps more than his off the field problems, the IFA eventually relented and a Best XI (featuring Pat Jennings, Paul Breitner, Ruud Krol and Liam Brady) played an International XI (including the likes of Johan Neeskens, Jonny Rep and Ossie Ardiles) on 8 August, 1988 at Windsor Park. After this match, Best soon began working on the after-dinner circuit – despite his shyness as a sober individual – and, unsurprisingly, this serviced his drinking alongside the Phene Arms pub in Chelsea. Best was paid £5,000 per night for each session, but even with his second marriage to Alex Pursey in 1995, Best’s alcoholism reached even lower depths – not least in his newfound violent streak towards his wife.
As well as being vividly disorientated on Wogan in 1990, where he randomly exclaimed that he “liked screwing”, two other examples stuck out in the mid-‘90s: bumping into Albert Johanneson – the former Leeds United player who Best had not known previously, but knew he was also an alcoholic – and missing an after-dinner speech as a result; and trying to kiss Harry Gregg and being sent to bed by the former goalkeeper after getting drunk before the start of a joint-speech on the circuit. The Gregg exchange proved the most poignant, given the duo’s friendship, and Best, clearly, reached rock bottom in his weeping words towards Gregg:
It’s too late [to get back on the wagon].
Despite declaring interest in succeeding Jack Charlton as the Republic of Ireland’s manager in 1996 and starting work for Sky Sports in 1998, Best was diagnosed with severe liver damage in March, 2000. It led to him requiring Antabuse tablets being sewn into his stomach every three months for the foreseeable future, but even this would not prove enough and, as he was on the NHS, Best was, controversially, awarded a liver transplant at King’s College Hospital in London in August, 2002. Naturally, it was a testing operation and forty pints of blood were transfused in just ten hours by Professor Roger Williams. Even with his new liver, though, and the associated perception that it would breed new habits, Best could not recover – despite the sporting public’s backing with the 2002 BBC Sports’ Personality Award and being awarded the Freedom of Castleborough in the same year – and, within months, he was spotted sipping wine spritzers despite even avoiding sherry trifle in the immediate aftermath of the operation’s recovery.
On 2 February, 2004, Best was banned from driving for twenty months after yet another drink-driving offence and it was at this time that he finally, and truly for the first time, admitted he had a problem – which was, in truth, not entirely worsened by his divorce to Alex in 2004. It was too late and on 3 October, 2005, Best was admitted to intensive care at the Cromwell Hospital in London with flu-like symptoms and a kidney infection, somewhat ironically (showing just how bad his condition had become), caused by the side effects of immune-suppressive drugs used to prevent his body from rejecting his transplanted liver. Such was his rapid disintegration, on 27 October, Best was within hours of death but, despite recording a very short message for his loved ones, the Northern Irishman rallied and was released from intensive care. Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton visited him but even though Best was conscious, he was unable to talk.
Again, Best was handled by Professor Williams but by 20 November, Best weakened and poignantly requested an image of him in his yellow, frail and shell-like state be published in the News of the World as a warning of the dangers of alcohol. Despite his incredibly low blood pressure, Best survived until 13:06, 25 November but his newly-acquired lung infection and multiple organ failure were horrific evidence of his demise. A minute’s applause followed before all Premier League games that weekend – amid numerous tributes from Best’s former colleagues and team-mates – and before Manchester United’s first match at Old Trafford after Best’s death, against West Brom (the club that Best made his debut against on 14 September, 1963) in the 3rd round of the League Cup on 30 November, 2005, the fans held up placard images of Best with his birth and death dates.
On 3 December, Best’s funeral – lined with 100,000 mourners – took place at Stormont and he was buried alongside his mother, Anne, at Roselawn Cemetery. One image of that day particularly stood out in the procession and that was Sir Edward Carson’s towering statue in the steep journey to Stormont. Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party between 1910 and 1921, was given a state funeral (Best’s was not officially, but received very similar treatment with a host of dignitaries and a vast, televised procession) and also enjoyed a successful relationship with Britain (Tony Blair, the then British Prime Minister, commented that “Best was..one of the greatest footballers the UK has ever produced”) as a born and bred Protestant. In a way, like Blair, the ususually garrulous Bertie Ahern – the Republic’s then Taoiseach – encapsulated Northern Ireland’s claim to, arguably, their first continentally-known celebrity since partition in 1921 with excerpts of his ghost-written, encyclopaedic-like tribute from the South:
I am saddened to learn of the death of George Best.
He made his debut for Manchester United in 1963 at seventeen years of age and under the stewardship of the legendary Matt Busby, he helped the Old Trafford club to unprecedented success.
As a teenager, I remember being enthralled by George’s sensational performance in the 1968 European Cup final, which propelled United to a famous victory. Throughout a long and colourful career, George gave great pleasure to millions of football supporters across the globe. He fought a long difficult battle with alcoholism and I am sorry to hear today that he has finally succumbed to illness.
While Best was far from the right-wing, stubborn and ideological-obsessed figure that Carson was, it was far from hyperbole to suggest that he was to go one step further – with most Catholics’ backing – to becoming Northern Ireland’s first widely-immortalised and idolised figure. From this, it was little surprise that a series of posthumous honours followed: Belfast City Airport being renamed George Best Belfast City Airport on 22 May, 2006, which should, eventually, lay the basis for a more popular football stadium construction and naming in the coming decades near Lisburn; the commissioning of one million £5 Best notes by Ulster Bank on 25 November, 2006; and the success of the George Best Memorial Trust on 29 January, 2008, in receiving a sizable donation from Doug Elliott to build a life-cast bronze statue of Best.
Perhaps, George Best’s fall was even more regrettable and, in some ways, tragic that of, say, Garrincha’s. Both were world-class players, but Garrincha enjoyed a brilliant playing career that was not so horribly influenced by alcohol until he officially retired in 1972 as a multiple World Cup winner. Best, who to this day, remains as, arguably, the greatest player to never play in the World Cup, surely held regrets as his career at United flagged so badly and his enthusiasm for playing for Northern Ireland stagnated, but, to be fair, Best’s surroundings and circumstances did not help. Best’s ambition was not matched and in his era, a transfer to another English club or European league with its associated opportunity of winning more trophies, was not as readily accessible as it is today.
Even with his undoubted personal vice, it would have been intriguing to have seen how Best would have prospered as a professional footballer in an era where celebrity and football have become symbiotic and, from this, it is safe to say that he is one of football’s greatest anachronisms of all-time.