Best of Best

George Best drank immoderately and self-destructively. Saved once by an expert surgeon with a liver operation, he died after a string of sordid episodes. But at his peak, what a talent he was, recalls Brian Glanville.

“If I’d been born ugly,” said George Best, “you’d never have heard of Pele.”

Meaning, were it not for his great appeal to women, he would have been a still finer footballer than he was. A new biography with the somewhat ironic title of ‘Immortal’, by that accomplished writer Duncan Hamilton, has been published on the 50th anniversary of Best’s debut for Manchester United as a 17-year-old. Hamilton has previously written a fascinating biography on Brian Clough, the remarkable idiosyncratic manager of an unfashionable Nottingham Forest team, with which, against all the odds, he succeeded in winning the European Cup twice in a row.

Hamilton knew Clough for 20 years, initially as little more than an office junior, later as a senior local journalist, and painted a memorable picture of a man, and a manager, of infinite contradictions. One, who, alas, like Best himself was a pitiful alcoholic.

Hamilton knew Clough well but never knew Best at all. I, in fact, did know him from when he was that shy seventeen-year-old, then a figure of charm, modesty and of course spectacular natural talent. What could he not do on the football pitch?

His ball control was mesmerically good, his pace exceptional, his capacity for sudden unexpected invention phenomenal. And though he stood only five feet eight inches tall, he could be formidably effective with his head.

He was well known for being able to flip a coin into the air, then catch it in his top pocket. He admitted that when he beat an opponent, which happened very often, he would sometimes get an erotic charge.

Matt Busby, the Manchester United manager who signed him, but only after Best, from the Protestant area of Belfast, had returned then homesick as a 15-year-old and been persuaded to return to Old Trafford, said that he was lucky enough to find two great players: Best and Duncan Edwards. Two players, who could hardly be more sharply contrasted, not least physically. Edwards, a formidably precocious left half, a United debutant at 17, like Best, was large, muscular with a formidable left foot. Alas, he was doomed to die in the appalling Munich airport crash of February 1958, which almost killed Busby himself.

The trouble was that to save Best ultimately from himself and his growing excesses, his endless womanising, sometimes ruthlessly predatory, it needed a highly trained psychiatrist rather than, like Busby, a former star footballer who had come from a Scottish mining area and for all his soccer managerial skills was essentially an unsophisticated man. Best once admitted that on one of the many occasions when Busby would call him into his office to admonish or advice him, far from listening to Busby he would examine the pattern of the wallpaper behind his manager’s desk.

Best, before alcohol got the sad better of him, had great charm and engaging humour. I remember once sitting behind him on the Manchester United team coach when it was passing through London when he turned to me and said, “They’re making Malcolm Allison (the flamboyant manager of Manchester City) the new England coach. They’re putting the seats in his mouth!”

The word was that Best had come from a somewhat unstable family background, but it would surely be hard for any young man to have resisted the manifold temptations provided by the women who swarmed around him. He was nicknamed ‘The Fifth Beatle’. There was a scandalous occasion when he refused to travel to London with United for a game at Chelsea, where he had played some of his finest football, but came to the capital to spend that Saturday afternoon in a flat belonging to a young actress Sinead Cusack, besieged by reporters and photographers.

Attempts by one reviewer of the book to diminish Best’s stature in terms of statistics are a question of confusing quality with quantity. Saying that he had never played in a World Cup or a European Nations Cup final tournament is massively irrelevant. The great Real Madrid centre forward, Alfredo De Stefano, never played in a World Cup either, yet still for me comes second only to Pele as the game’s greatest player. George didn’t play in a World Cup because the Northern Ireland team he represented was at that time simply not good enough. And to assess him in the overall number of goals he scored is to ignore the astonishing goals he sometimes did score.

I was at Old Trafford to watch him go up the right wing — right, left, centre was all the same to him — beating five Sheffield United opponents before shooting to score. At Wembley once, playing for Northern Ireland against England, he spun away effortlessly from the tight marking of that little terrier Nobby Stiles, his colleagues at Old Trafford, to score a spectacular goal.

In Lisbon in the 1965/66 European Cup tournament, where United were expected to have a hard time against Benfica, Best simply mesmerised the Portuguese. In six minutes, Best leaped to head a goal any centre forward might have relished. Six minutes more, in a glorious slalom, he went past three men to score again. United ran out winners, 5-1.

But arguably the most important goal he scored against Benfica came at the start of extra-time in the European Cup final of 1968 at Wembley. United had looked a tired team but when Best picked up a ball, headed to him by young Brian Kidd, in an inside left position, whipped past Jacinto leaving the Benfica defence square and helpless, dodged past the keeper Henrique, coolly turned and put the ball in the net to give United the lead. They won 4-1 but according to Hamilton, Best was so depressed by the supposed inadequacy of his prestigious display that he drank himself into oblivion. The victim of his own perfectionism.

That Manchester United team was not truly a band of brothers. There were two factions, the Celtics — the Scots and Irish — and the English, the first reviewing Best, the second extolling Bobby Charlton, then scoring goals for England. “He’s an imposter!” one of the Scottish players said to me one lunch time in Manchester. Best himself once went into a pub and threw eggs at a portrait of Charlton which hung on the wall. Best the eternal rebel, Charlton the essence of loyal normality.

Suddenly and still well under 30, Best retired, only to come back again, much heavier. I recall a bleak afternoon at Queens Park Rangers when the home crowd cruelly jeered a player they once surely idolised. The revenge of the untalented.

He found his way to Los Angeles, playing for the local club and I visited him there in his house right opposite the beach, when we strolled. “People are asking who is George Best,” he told me. “Before, they were asking what is football.”

Alas, things went rapidly downhill. He drank immoderately and self-destructively. Saved once by an expert surgeon with a liver operation, he died after a string of sordid episodes. But at his peak, what a talent!