Ge­orge, he re­ally was the BEST

Mov­ing ex­tract from Michael Parkin­son’s new book on the North­ern Ir­ish soc­cer ge­nius

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE - BY MICHAEL PARKIN­SON Ge­orge Best: A Mem­oir is pub­lished by Hod­der & Stoughton, €20.30.

Ifirst met Ge­orge when he was 17 and suck­ing a sweet. It was 1963 in Manch­ester, and the city tin­gled with ex­pec­ta­tion that this foot­baller with the physique of a tooth­pick might be some­thing spe­cial. I asked him what he thought about his sud­den fame, about the sacks of un­opened mail clut­ter­ing the bed­room in his digs. ‘Very nice,’ he said, and popped an­other sweet into his mouth.

Over the next 40 years or more, to the time he died, we were friends. I in­ter­viewed him more than a dozen times, wrote a book about him, watched his glo­ri­ous triumphs, vis­ited him in prison.

I in­ter­viewed him on his 50th birth­day and he tried to an­swer the ques­tion posed in the most fa­mous Ge­orge Best anec­dote of them all: ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ He said: ‘All of a sud­den, as a teenager from Belfast, I had to em­ploy three full-time sec­re­taries to an­swer 10,000 let­ters a week. I didn’t know how to cope, nor did any­one else. In those days, foot­ballers didn’t have peo­ple to pro­tect and ad­vise them.’

‘Ge­nius’ is a word bandied around like con­fetti nowa­days, but it is a de­scrip­tion that hangs lightly on those slim shoul­ders. Best was the great­est player I have ever seen. But he did not ar­rive as the com­plete player; he made him­self one. He worked on his head­ing, his fin­ish­ing and his tack­ling.

I’ve al­ways won­dered what would have hap­pened if Ge­orge had been in his early 20s now.

What would he have achieved in a game that is nowa­days vir­tu­ally a non-con­tact sport? Lionel Messi and Cris­tiano Ron­aldo might be bat­tling over sec­ond and third place in the Bal­lon d’Or. Imag­ine Best work­ing with a Guardiola! How much would such a com­plete player be worth to­day?

Best’s im­pact on the game went far beyond his feats on the pitch. A few years be­fore Ge­orge played for Manch­ester United, the max­i­mum wage for a pro­fes­sional foot­baller was set at £20 a week. Foot­ballers were or­di­nary work­ing men. Un­til Jimmy Hill stuck his chin above the para­pet and won a fight to abol­ish the max­i­mum wage in 1961, most foot­ballers had sec­ond jobs.

Even af­ter the revo­lu­tion there was lit­tle that was glamorous about the game. Ge­orge changed the way foot­ball and play­ers were viewed.

HE STOLE MONEY FROM A GIRL’S PURSE AT THE BAR TO BUY A DRINK

I first in­ter­viewed him in 1971, but the BBC in its in­fi­nite wis­dom de­cided that the first se­ries of Parkin­son was not worth pre­serv­ing.

The next oc­ca­sion was in 1973, when he quit Manch­ester United for the first time. I asked him about the pres­sures he faced out­side the game af­ter re­ports that he’d been in­volved in punch-ups.

‘I don’t go into pubs and walk up to peo­ple and ask them if they want a fight,’ he said. ‘If I walk into a bar or a club, there’s al­ways some­one who wants to come up and hit you over the head with a pint pot and then go to work on Mon­day morn­ing and tell their mates. I used to put up with it, but if they’re go­ing to walk up and threaten you, if you smack them in the mouth first, they’re not go­ing to go and tell their mates they sorted you out, are they? It hap­pens ev­ery­where. I’ve been hit over the head by a 65year-old woman! I was sit­ting watch­ing a show, and she walked up and hit me over the head with her hand­bag. I don’t know [why]. Maybe she wasn’t en­joy­ing the show!’

Two years later, in an­other TV in­ter­view, he told me why he still lived in digs de­spite his wealth.

‘I had a house built and moved in there,’ he said. ‘And it was like liv­ing in a gold­fish bowl. I had daytrip­pers com­ing up, coachloads park­ing out­side. I was afraid to an­swer the tele­phone. I wouldn’t an­swer the door. I had to hide in my own house.

‘I got a phone call from the head­mas­ter at a lo­cal school once. He said he’d had a cou­ple of young kids come into school that morn­ing, and they were go­ing around swap­ping the gold­fish from my pond. They were get­ting six Dandys and Beanos for one gold­fish. And he wasn’t both­ered that they were do­ing it. He just wanted to check that they were my gold­fish. In case they were telling lies.’

It would be eight years be­fore I in­ter­viewed him again, and it was at a low point in his life.

The Amer­i­can dream had gone sour, as well as his mar­riage to for­mer model Angie, a mar­riage that had pro­duced one son, Calum, from whom he was now also

es­tranged. His drink­ing had spi­ralled out of con­trol to such an ex­tent that he was at last hav­ing treat­ment for al­co­holism. Ge­orge said then: ‘I be­came a bad drinker. I think the long­est I went was 22 days drink­ing solidly. With­out food. That’s when I fig­ured it was a prob­lem.’ By the time of our fi­nal in­ter­view, in 2001, he had been di­ag­nosed with se­vere liver dam­age and was on a wait­ing list for a trans­plant. Ge­orge was on with David Beck­ham, then more known for his prow­ess on the foot­ball field than for pos­ing in his pants, build­ing Brand Beck­ham. There sat two men – in one chair a young man hold­ing hands with his pop-star wife at his side, cer­tain of his fu­ture, se­cure in him­self, while in the other sat a di­min­ished fig­ure, look­ing older than his 55 years and still strug­gling to come to terms with him­self and find­ing a way to live. Of all the in­ter­views, this was the clos­est I ever got to Ge­orge be­ing hon­est about him­self. He told me of his low­est point in Amer­ica. ‘I was des­per­ate for a drink one night, and I stole from a girl’s purse at the bar while she went to the ladies. ‘Then I knew it was some­thing a bit se­ri­ous, be­cause I’ve never been a dis­hon­est per­son – or I hope I haven’t. ‘I made up for it. I went back and gave it back to her. But the fact that I’d done it in the first place – I thought, what am I do­ing here? You know, steal­ing for some stupid crav­ing that was killing me.’

He told how he had tried to get help but he added: ‘Al­co­holics Anony­mous works for a lot of peo­ple and it saves their lives, but it didn’t work for me.’

He told me that a coun­sel­lor once said to him, ‘You have to choose: do you switch the light on or off?’ Ge­orge chose the lat­ter.

But that didn’t stop me try­ing to help him.

We’d talk for hours about his drink­ing and self-de­struc­tive be­hav­iour, and I tried to per­suade him that the choices he was mak­ing would only lead him down the wrong road.

If ever he was in trou­ble I would of­fer him a bed at my house. A dou­ble bed, of course, with one side oc­cu­pied by a dif­fer­ent leggy blonde model each time. Ge­orge would al­ways bring a foot­ball and pre­ferred to play with my three sons rather than put up with me try­ing to ad­vise him.

One time he went to a night­club and the next morn­ing my wife Mary was mak­ing her­self a cup of cof­fee when down the stairs from Ge­orge’s bed­room walked a young woman in an evening dress, smok­ing a Balkan So­branie cig­a­rette.

Ge­orge had brought her home from his night out but had omit­ted to tell us. She was a nice girl and of­fered to do the wash­ing-up. Mary thought she might ruin her dress, so the girl, de­ter­mined to im­press, started tot­ter­ing round the house on high heels do­ing the hoover­ing.

What I soon re­alised, and I wasn’t the only one, was that Ge­orge didn’t want sav­ing.

Matt Busby once said to me: ‘I keep hav­ing this ter­ri­ble thought that one day Ge­orge will end it all. That he’ll com­mit sui­cide.’ He was right. It just took him longer than ei­ther of us thought.

I once asked Ge­orge if he would change any­thing about his life. ‘Noth­ing,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a great time.’

I be­lieve there was some­thing more than just the fact he was suf­fer­ing from a ge­netic ill­ness that sprang to life the mo­ment he took a drink. He was an al­co­holic. He was one when I was a friend of his in Manch­ester, but then it is dif­fi­cult to start point­ing a fin­ger at some­one when your own drink­ing is at bacchanalian pro­por­tions.

I’ve writ­ten in the past about my own strug­gles with drink. There was a time, fol­low­ing my fa­ther’s death, when I got so bad that Mary gave me an ul­ti­ma­tum. I, in Ge­orge’s words, de­cided to keep the light on. It doesn’t make me a bet­ter per­son, just dif­fer­ent. Un­like me, there was some­thing in Ge­orge that made him not care enough to want to carry on liv­ing.

Ge­orge’s life ef­fec­tively stopped when he was 27 and he walked out of Old Traf­ford. He be­came stuck in a cy­cle of be­hav­iour. It was as if he was look­ing for some­thing he had lost and had to keep dou­bling back to find it be­fore he could move on. He could find no pur­pose. He didn’t know how to live. His life story has a mythic tone: a young boy touched by the gods, and led to a des­tiny he had lit­tle con­trol over.

IT’S HARD TO START POINT­ING A FIN­GER WHEN YOUR OWN DRINK­ING IS AT BACCHANALIAN PRO­POR­TIONS

CLOCK­WISE: Best with his first wife Angie in the early Seven­ties; par­ty­ing in 1969; with Bobby Charlton at Old Traf­ford in 1968; play­ing for Manch­ester United in the late 1960s. Op­po­site page: Michael Parkin­son in­ter­view­ing Best in 1975

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