“In 1969 I gave up women and booze – it was the worst 20 minutes of my life”. Yes, that was George Best alright. ‘Genius’, ‘maverick’ and ‘legend’ have become apt ways to describe the former European Footballer of the Year.
To grow up in Belfast in the 20th century is challenging to say the least but when you’re a Protestant and your only means of attending school is to traipse through a staunch Catholic area, the challenges are greater; to put it lightly. George Best would get kicked and punched throughout his journey by Catholic boys marking their territory. However to avoid this, he had an agenda and also a plan.
During his daily routine, Best decided it was time he brought a football along, dribbling the ball with pace and determination. His religious counterparts rarely came close, yet when they did, he’d keep his balance or get straight back up again. This process would replay itself again and again, but with one major change – it would be with football league opponents and in front of 60,000 crazy supporters during the 1960s. The agenda was to improve his ability; the plan was to avoid bullying by nasty religiously orientated children.
Born on 22nd May 1946 to Dickie and Anne Best in Cregagh, Belfast, it wasn’t long before his footballing talent was evident. Manchester United were soon to come calling and he almost didn’t take his chance. The first opportunity George had was a trial with the biggest club in the world in 1963, but homesickness saw him leave Manchester early and return to Belfast. However legendary manager Sir Matt Busby never gave up and soon convinced George to give it another go.
Every football supporter knew how gifted Best was, but what was never fully acknowledged was the effort George to become the world’s greatest. At a young age he was head and shoulders above the opposition, so much so that to improve his seemingly weaker left foot, he would play full matches using only that foot.
Best former Manchester United team-mate Brian Kidd said of him: “I used to watch him in training and he was quite unbelievable. In most of those training games you play one or two-touch football. George could beat his marker without having even one touch. He let his body do the work without touching the ball. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”
The plaudits that Lionel Messi receives these days are warranted without a doubt, but an argument stating that he was better than Manchester United’s Belfast boy has noticeable flaws. Messi graces state of the art pitches, in wonderful conditions with a football that moves much easier. And most importantly refereeing protection is a massive advantage. Sir Alex Ferguson had the following to say about George Best’s remarkable bravery: “There were serious guys – you didn’t mess with them – and it was a time when you needed to be struck down by a tomahawk just for them to be booked, yet he rode all that. Every time he went down he went down he got up again and just said ‘give me the ball’.”
However being that famous, successful and brilliant can also have its downfalls and flaws. George’s was alcohol. His addiction along with a natural interest in gorgeous women allied by his own good looks, took his eye off the ball. He would hang out with the then Manchester City footballer Mike Summerbee and the pair proved a bad influence on each other. One bar to another, nightclubs and then late-late bars. George didn’t know when to stop. Many believed United could have done more to protect him, but Summerbee, who made George his best man at his wedding, believes otherwise: “ I walked down the streets of Manchester with him and saw the girls flock to him; girls of all ages, office workers in mini-skirts and bouffant hair, and old ladies with walking sticks. I saw the traffic stop. I saw that the world was invading George in a way that went far beyond football. A club like United, who were aware of what an asset they had, were also invaded by this new attention, this crazy onset of celebrity.”
George had been labelled the fifth Beatle by the press and became football’s first ever pop-star. Summerbee described Best’s ascent thus: “There were music stars like Wayne Fontana and the Hollies, you bumped into them in the clubs all the time, but no one was bigger than George.”
George Best left Manchester United Football Club in 1974 at the tender age of 27. He could no longer cope with both football and alcohol and because of this went missing time after time when he should have been at matches or training. This led to his relationship with manager at the time Tommy Docherty becoming fractious.
George played for Fulham FC and many other lesser teams in the USA but was never the player that was famously labelled El Beatle by Benfica fans, due to his footballing talents allied with the iconic Beatles haircut.
After countless years as a ladies man, Best finally settled down in 1978 – marrying girlfriend of three years Angie McDonald Janes. However similarly to his top level footballing career, this marriage ended prematurely. The pair separated in 1982, a year after their son Calum was born and they divorced in 1986.
Best then married model Alex Pursey in 1995 but they divorced too, this time after a nine year marriage. The excessive drinking proved to be the main reason. This situation was epitomised when in 1979 he said: “I don’t drink everyday but when I do it’s usually for four or five days on the trot”. His problems were obvious but he could never win the battle with the bottle.
George had liver transplants and all procedures imaginable to save him, but nothing could. The maverick remained witty throughout however. An example of his renowned wit came after the blood transfusion for his liver transplant: “I was in for 10 hours and 40 pints – beating my previous record by 20 minutes.”
While guest starring on BBC’s A Question of Sport, he was quizzed by Sue Barker on what happened next? George replied, “There’s no point asking me what happened next. I don’t even remember what happened last night”.
On the 25th November 2005, aged 59, George succumbed to death after all treatment was stopped. His funeral was held in East Belfast, where it all began, and the route that took him to Roselawn Cemetery was filled with 100,000 mourners. Just like in his footballing pomp – thousands had come to see George.
In the aftermath of his death, he is still vividly remembered, with Belfast International Airport being renamed as George Best International Airport and a statue of him next to Denis Law and Bobby Charlton standing proudly outside Old Trafford. This only highlighted how all the alcohol abuse should be forgotten because to Manchester United fans, he will always be remembered as Genius, Maverick, Legend.