Dermot Gilleece changes sport for this issue to record a meeting with George Best
Something different: In this, 60 years since George Best played his first senior game for Manchester United, I thought it might be appropriate to recall a personal memory.
Memories remain vivid for me of George Best standing in the dressing-room at Windsor Park. It was August 8th, 1988 and Northern Ireland’s greatest footballer had banked on the rank and file soccer followers from his native Belfast, supporting his testimonial. “The basic, committed fans, have always stood by me,” he said. “Now, it’s a nice feeling to carry through the rest of my life.”
It seemed ironic that these simple fans, most of whom would never have had the opportunity of meeting their idol, probably understood Best better than the countless acquaintances and would-be friends he had picked up during more than a quarter of a century in the sporting limelight.
Through the grind of daily living, they could appreciate the mental and emotional trauma their hero must have endured when he was whisked as a shy, withdrawn 15-year-old from kickabouts on the Cregagh estate and catapulted to soccer stardom with Manchester United at Old Trafford. They would share the joy of his many triumphs at club and country levels and sympathise with his lapse into problem drinking.
They might not have understood the problem, but they would have had first-hand knowledge of the ravages of alcoholism which ultimately claimed Best as a 59-year-old in November 2005, despite the benefit of a liver-transplant.
For reasons best known to himself, Best seemed to shy away from the term alcoholic. Sadly, this could be attributed in part to the social stigma which attaches to the illness, even in these enlightened times. “I accept that drink will always be a problem for me,” he acknowledged back in 1988, “but my attitude towards it has changed. I used to drive myself crazy, thinking about staying off it, whereas now, I can relax in the knowledge that if I feel like a drink, I’ll have one. In a curious way, this approach has allowed me to stay on the wagon for longer periods.”
So it was that he looked in splendid shape on the occasion of his testimonial. Fit and apparently healthy at 42, his weight of 11st 2lbs, was only six pounds heavier than at the peak of his glittering powers, 20 years previously.
Given his emotional make-up, it was possible he would have slipped into problem drinking at some stage of his life, irrespective of whether he had become a football idol. He was essentially a shy, introverted individual with an insecurity which made him crave affection and approval from those around him. All of which left him vulnerable to exploitation when he became a cult figure at Old Trafford during the Swinging Sixties. Long black hair and boyish good looks made him a perfect creation for Beatlemania.
“George was unfortunate in that he was the first real superstar of British football,” said Dublin’s Liam Brady, who trod a similarly gifted but saner path at Arsenal before moving on to a career in Italy. “His experiences taught a priceless lesson to those who came after him insofar as they could see the way he was exploited. Best was 17 when he played his first Football League match for United against West Brom at Old Trafford, 60 years ago. It was a United team studded with internationals of serious quality, players such as Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and Pat Crerand.
“It was an awesome challenge for one so young,” Best later recalled, “but looking back to that period, I must have coped OK, or they would not have persevered with me. As it happened, I was dropped back into junior ranks after the West Brom match, but when I was at home in Belfast for Christmas that year, I got the big break of my career. A telegram arrived from Old Trafford requesting that I return to Manchester immediately. United had a League match with Burnley on December 28th and I was drafted into the team for my second appearance. I scored my first goal in a 5-1 win and from that point on, I became a first-team regular.”
Even as a United regular, Best’s age still allowed him to play for the club’s youth team and in April 1964, he got an FA Youth Cup winner’s medal. Then came First Division Championship awards in 1965 and 1967, followed by a European Cup triumph in 1968. The only major award to have eluded him was an FA Cup winner’s medal.
Yet for all of that, his manager, Matt Busby, was remarkably naïve in public pronouncements about the increasingly unpredictable behaviour of his star player, especially with regard to night-club activities and problem drinking. “What George needs is to find himself the right girl and settle down and get married,” said Busby at the time.
Had he understood problem drinking, the manager would have known that where the vast majority of men are concerned, these difficulties tend to increase through marriage, if only for the fact that they now have the crutch of a partner to pick up the pieces and generally nurse them through the torment of the morning after. In the event, Best played 11 years with United, during which time he made 361 Football League appearances, scoring 137 goals. He also played in 45 FA Cup matches (21 goals), 24 League Cup ties (nine goals) and 34 European ties (11 goals). Those figures would tend to make something of a nonsense of the notion that he had wasted his football talent.
Gradually, however, his drinking became worse. And his personal decline happened to coincide with major changes at Old Trafford. It was during the brief reign of Ireland’s Frank O’Farrell as manager, that Best’s most notorious disappearing escapades occurred.
Fleet Street journalists, who hunted him down to Marbella on Spain’s Costa del Sol, wrote of the player’s fears of becoming an alcoholic, of his need to have a bottle close at hand for the lonely hours of early morning. This, while at Old Trafford, where medical expertise abounded yet nobody seemed willing or capable of taking remedial action.
It is interesting to note that nowadays, if an employee of a semi-state body or major enterprise happens to find themselves in a similar plight to the way Best was during the 1970s, they will be obliged to accept psychiatric help. Instead, Best’s tragic escapades became a rich vein of spicy copy, especially for the British media.
This was especially hurtful to the player’s father, Dickie, who said: “What people tend to overlook is that this is an illness, a sickness. George has never tried to make any secret of his problem, yet the papers seem to enjoy hounding him. I’ve never heard of anyone who has acquired alcohol problems by choice.”
Those words take on a particular poignancy against the background of the problems of Anne Best, George’s mother, with alcohol, demonstrating the genetic nature of the illness.
After leaving Old Trafford in 1974, Best had brief spells with Stockport County and Cork Celtic before spending two years at Fulham. Then, true to the form of the problem drinker, he sought a geographical cure during four years of relative obscurity in the North American league in Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and San Jose.
By 1980, it was all over, apart from charity and exhibition matches. Could his career have been significantly longer? Only if he had come to terms with his drink problem when it first became apparent during his twenties. As it was, he was incapable at that time of recognising the seriousness of his addiction. By the time he found himself in a Los Angeles clinic some years later, it was too late to save his career.
So he faced into the remainder of his life with increasing health problems.
“It was recommended that I should attend Alcoholics Anonymous, but in Britain, George Best can never be anonymous,” he once remarked, smiling at what he perceived as the great irony of his plight.