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'The Best Years of our Lives' by Hugh McIlvanney

Sports Journalist

This piece, about the late George Best, is from Hugh McIlvanney's book, "McIlvanney on Football". It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

The Best years of our lives
The Observer Magazine, 18 October 1992


GEORGE BEST had come in along the goal line from the corner-flag in a blur of intricate deception. Having briskly embarrassed three or four challengers, he drove the ball high into the net with a fierce simplicity that made spectators wonder if the acuteness of the angle had been an optical illusion.

     `What was the time of that goal?' asked a young reporter in the Manchester United press box. `Never mind the time, son,' said an older voice beside him. `Just write down the date.'

     The date was in the '60s, and by 1974 Best had walked out of first-class football at the age of 27 and headed into another life shaped by a painful and continuing struggle with alcoholism. Yet when I accompanied him to a Tottenham Hotspur—Manchester United match recently, he stirred more excitement in the main lounge at White Hart Lane afterwards than any contemporary player other than Paul Gascoigne could have expected to generate. `I never do this, but I'll do it with him,' one middle-aged Spurs supporter said as he joined the polite scramble for autographs. `That,' he told his son, `is the best player that ever lived.'

     The assertion is a shade excessive. Pele, the Brazilian phenomenon who had a stunning impact on the World Cup finals of 1958 as a 17-year­old and was the orchestrator of the best team I ever saw when his country won the Cup again in 1970, has irresistible claims to being considered the supreme footballer of all time. Diego Maradona would be a popular nomination as the principal challenger and another, very different Argentine of an earlier generation, Alfredo Di Stefano, would have his advocates, as would the elegant, swift and cerebral Dutchman Johan Cruyff. But Best could run Pele as close as any of them. Where the Brazilian was superior (leaving aside his extraordinary longevity as a player) was in his far broader awareness of the imperatives of team play and in the humility with which he deployed vast abilities, his refusal to do anything complicated where something simple would cause more damage.

     Yet even Best's extravagances were a joy, so long as you weren't Denis Law making a killer run, only to find that the ball had not arrived because Georgie had opted to beat the defender twice. He was most likely to inflict such humiliation on desperadoes who had threatened to break his leg.

     With feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket's hands, his control of the ball under the most violent pressure was hypnotic. The bewildering repertoire of feints and swerves, sudden stops and demoralising spurts, exploited a freakish elasticity of limb and torso, tremendous physical strength and resilience for so slight a figure and balance that would have made Isaac Newton decide he might as well have eaten the apple. It was Paddy Crerand (whose service from midfield was so valued that Best says the Glaswegian's was the first name he looked for on the Manchester United team-sheet) who declared that the Irishman gave opponents twisted blood. He was an excellent header of the ball and a courageous, effective challenger when the opposition had it, and he reacted to scoring chances with a deadliness that made goalkeepers dread him.

     That was an attribute emphasised by Alex Ferguson, the present United manager, when he talked to me about the stupidity of likening his impressive young winger, Ryan Giggs, to Best. `He'll never be a Best,' said Ferguson. `Nobody will. George was unique, the greatest talent our football ever produced – easily! Look at the scoring record: 137 goals in 361 League games, a total of 179 goals for United in 466 matches played. That's phenomenal for a man who did not get the share of gift goals that come to specialist strikers, who nearly always had to beat men to score.. . Here at Old Trafford they reckon Bestie had double-jointed ankles. Seriously, it was a physical thing, an extreme flexibility there. You remember how he could do those 180-degree turns without going through a half-circle, simply by swivelling on his ankles. As well as devastating defenders, that helped him to avoid injuries because he was never really stationary for opponents to hurt him. He was always riding or spinning away from things.'

     Best, of course, was always capable of hurting himself, with help from the girls who were constantly willing to accompany him all the way through long boozy evenings and sexually hectic nights. Apart from the lithe grace of his body, his attractiveness had much to do with colouring, with the vivid blue eyes set wide in a dark, mischievous face framed by luxuriant black hair. `If I had been born ugly,' he once said to me, `you would never have heard of Pele.' In fact, he was never remotely as vain as the joke makes him out to be.

     The warmth felt towards him by so many old players is not merely a tribute to a man who embodied a beautiful fulfilment of the dreams they all started out with. It is a recognition of the extent to which, for all his pride in his gifts and his certainty that they were unique, he remained essentially unspoilt. My own memories of many hours spent in his company contain nothing but proof of how unaffected he was by finding himself the first British footballer to be treated like a pop star.

     One fresh image is of a night when, after a European Cup match at Old Trafford, a bunch of us gathered in the Brown Bull, a pub near the Granada television studios. No one had given much thought to dinner but, by the time the after-hours session was under way, hunger was a problem. At least it was until Best went round taking fish and chip orders from everyone in the bar, then disappeared. He returned half-an-hour later, not merely with all the orders accurately filled but with plates, knives and forks for everybody. The waiter seemed less like a superstar than the appealing boy who had worked small miracles with a tennis ball on the streets of the Cregagh housing estate in East Belfast.

     For those who witnessed Best's brief zenith in the '6os, the effect went beyond the realisation that we were seeing the world's most popular game played better than all but two or three men in its long history have ever played it. Sport at its finest is often poignant, if only because it is almost a caricature of the ephemerality of human achievements, and Best's performances were doubly affecting for some of us because they coincided with an uneasy suspicion that football was already in the process of separating itself from its roots. It would be dishonest to claim that we foresaw the pace and extent of the separation that was to occur over the ensuing 20 years. How could we? The true working-class foundations of the game were still incarnated and articulated all around us by managers like Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson, Matt Busby, Jock Stein and, regardless of what happened to his accent, Alf Ramsey. English football still contained dozens of highly gifted players (that would have been an insulting description of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Denis Law, Jimmy Greaves, Ray Wilson, John Giles and Gordon Banks) and they, like the managers, were bonded by shared background with the mass of ordinary supporters on the terraces.

     From the vantage point of such an era no one could accurately predict the hurtling decline in standards and the cynical distortion of priorities that have brought us to the lamentable mediocrity of the Premier League, a competition in which an unreconstructed hod-carrier called Vinny Jones not only qualifies for first-team wages but is enough of a roughneck celebrity to promote a video that purports to be a macho-man's guide to dirty tricks. Plenty of hod-carriers made it in football in the past but they had to learn to play first. The elevation of the plainest of the Joneses is, however, a lot less remarkable than it would have seemed two decades ago.

     In the intervening years a shameless emphasis on speed and muscle, on making the field claustrophobic with clattering bodies, has established his kind of negative physicality as a viable commodity. Well over £2 million has been spent on his transfers between clubs.

     The self-proclaimed hard case happens to be linked by the laying on of hands (an unapostolic grabbing of the testicles, actually) to the one player constantly put forward as comparable with any seen in English football before the current blight descended. Paul Gascoigne would undoubtedly have been recognised as an immense talent in any period. His feet are wonderfully deft, whether dribbling or passing the ball; he has the alertness and the imagination to see and exploit openings of which others have no inkling; he shoots with dramatic power and accuracy; and in the application of his skills he has more balls than a bully like Jones could ever hope to crush.

     But Gascoigne's qualities have to be weighed against an immaturity that has effortlessly survived his twenty-fifth birthday. However, even if the likeable man-boy from the North East did not have these problems the messianic status accorded him would be an alarming confirmation of the scarcity of exceptional performers in our national sport. If the midfields of England were peopled, as they once were simultaneously, by Charlton, Giles, Martin Peters, Colin Bell, Billy Bremner, Alan Ball, Alan Hudson, Paddy Crerand, Charlie Cooke and a few others nearly as distinguished, a Gascoigne would still be outstanding but he could not possibly have been singled out for the idolatry that was lavished on him before he moved to Italy. And mention of Best, of course, introduces another dimension altogether.

     Many will dismiss such speculation as an offensive lurch into nostalgia. But the real offence is perpetrated by those who try to persuade us everything in football is as good as it ever was, for that is an attempt to cheapen an experience that enriched millions of lives. What they are telling us is that the excitement and sense of aesthetic pleasure stirred in us by the football of that other time might, if we were unprejudiced, be just as readily created by the banalities encountered on an average day in the Premier League. It is a kind of mad sporting structuralism, the equivalent of suggesting that you can get as much from McGonagall as you can from Yeats.

     Of course, English football has not become an absolute wasteland. There are still skilled and entertaining players, matches that offer more than clamorous vigour, and apologists believe the fact that these are painfully rare must be set against evidence of a worldwide drop in standards. Italia '90 provided much the poorest World Cup finals most of us who attended have ever seen.

     But blaming global conditions for the technical impoverishment of England's domestic game is about as valid as making the same excuse for the state of the nation's economy. Diagnosis must start with the twisted values on and off the field.

     The Premier League itself is an unsightly symptom. Having instantly reneged on the original concept of reducing the number of clubs to raise the quality of play, the founders blithely trampled on the interests of their traditional public by selling television rights to a satellite company. Nothing they have done since – least of all their internecine squabbling over the spoils – has obscured the truth that their overwhelming priority is profit. Long after Thatcherism has been discredited, they appear happy to inhabit its mores.

     As the corporate entertainment boxes multiply in grandstands, and the cost of following football climbs almost as dramatically as the unemployment figures, the regular fans feel betrayed, left out on the edge of the sport their commitment built. They have good reason to fear that their game is being taken away from them. Rogan Taylor, a former chairman of the Football Supporters' Association who now works at the Centre for Football Research at Leicester University, defined the fear when he said that the current packaging was apparently designed to appeal to some imagined Home Counties family in which the husband would say to his wife on a Saturday morning: `Well, darling, is it to be the golf club today – or is it the Arsenal?'

     In such a time of poverty on the field, and threat from the indifference of the legislators, people who have grown up with football as a vital adjunct to their lives can hardly avoid a yearning for happier days. The longing does not have to reach back as far as the prime of George Best and his contemporaries.

     Long after he had made his disenchanted exit, Liverpool produced a team worth cherishing, constructed around Hansen, Souness, Dalglish and Rush. A later version, with Barnes, Beardsley and Whelan prominent, was rather memorable, too, and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest did their bit to sustain the morale of the discerning. But as we lament what has gone from our football, perhaps forever, it is inevitable that Best, the greatest player ever bred in these islands, should be the most potent symbol of the loss.

     Within the legend, a life has to be lived. Since the Brown Bull days, Best has owned the odd bar and night club and helped to pay for dozens of others, he has known a lot more bad times than good and the grey that is taking over his beard is not the only sign of what the world (often at his invitation) has done to him.

     When we went to that Spurs–Manchester United game two or three weeks back, the rendezvous, predictably, was in a pub. But it was one in which his celebrity brought no hazards. His home is in a street off the King's Road, Chelsea, and the pub, tucked around a quiet corner a few hundred yards away, is used by locals who regard him as one of them.

     Having tried drying out in clinics, attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and taking alcohol-deterrent drugs, both orally and by having them implanted in his body, he has convinced himself that the best compromise he can manage in his efforts to cope with his drink problem is an attempt to shorten the binges and lengthen the periods when the craving is under control.

     `I'd be sitting in AA meetings longing for them to end, so I could get to a bar,' he admits. `When I was supposed to be swallowing those tablets that make you allergic to alcohol – I was married to Angela, the mother of my son, at the time – I was sometimes hiding them behind my teeth and getting rid of them later. And even when I had the implants, I was saying to myself: when the effect of these pellets wears off, I'll have a good drink. So those therapies didn't have much chance of working. Now I have a drink when I feel like it and concentrate on preventing things getting out of hand. The better times are getting longer and longer, whereas a few years ago they were getting shorter and shorter.' The fear that this is another of the convenient rationalisations in which alcoholics become expert is at least partially allayed by some corroboration from Mary Shatila, who has been with him for five-and-half years in a relationship that has been the strongest mooring he has ever had since childhood. After all the years of frantic bedding, of lurching hazily from one brief embrace to the next, after the Miss Worlds and the actresses and a marriage that began drunkenly in Las Vegas and was too ill-starred to be saved by the birth 11 years ago of his son, Calum, he finds himself at 46 with an attractive, caring woman who has the intelligence, the tolerance and, perhaps most crucially, the stamina to go on trying to reduce the hurtful chaos into which he has habitually plunged himself.

     Mary Shatila has been matured by deep sadness in her own life. When her marriage in Lebanon broke up she brought her daughter, Layla, back to England but in 1988 her husband snatched the child away and Mary has not seen her since.

     She and Best both talk frequently of the children who are separated from them by thousands of miles, one in Beirut, the other in California. Best went to America in 1975 and stayed until 1981, combining his football-playing commitments in Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and San Jose with spells on this side of the Atlantic with Fulham and Hibernian, in Edinburgh. But the talent, not unnaturally, was suffering premature erosion, and the drinking became cataclysmic. When he returned to Britain he was met with a tax bill for £16,000. He offered £10,000 immediately and the rest in six months but was told that was not acceptable. The result was a marathon wrangle which, he estimates, cost him 10 times the original debt, and made him bankrupt. It was a tunnel without the smallest glimmer of light until he was introduced recently to Bryan Fugler, a solicitor who acts for Tottenham Hotspur. Fugler quickly made sense of the tax muddle and reached an agreement with the revenue men. With the help of £72,000 raised by a testimonial match and dinner in Belfast, Best was able at last to lift a shadow that had darkened his spirits for more than a decade. ('The people of Belfast have sorted my whole life out,' he says emotionally.)

     He is no longer a bankrupt and last June he was able to open a bank account for the first time since he was in the US. The account will not be threatened, as it once would have been, by betting fever. Though he claims he was never really a heavy hitter, that £50 was a big wager, there was a steady volume of activity. And two or three spectacular wins (like the night when he and a business partner were £17,000 down in a Manchester casino and then held the dice for an hour and 40 minutes and finished up cashing chips worth £26,000, or the £22 Yankee on the horses that brought Best more than £12,000) merely ensured that he stayed keen enough to be a long-term loser. `These days if I lose a fiver on a horse, I want to go into the toilet and throw up,' he told me. Quality paper crosswords have more interest for him now than the racing pages.

     His name is still a passport to lucrative employment. He works regularly as an analyst on LBC Radio's coverage of the Premier League, has been in demand lately for appearances on Sky Television and makes occasional sorties to the Middle East, where expatriates pay him handsomely for some coaching and a bit of chat about the great years. He can still turn out in celebrity matches but his right leg, ravaged by cartilage trouble and the thrombosis that gave him a major fright in the '70s, cannot withstand much strain. Strain of another kind is involved in his speaking engagements on the sporting dinner circuit. Though he is highly intelligent and the possessor of nuggets of knowledge on an unlikely range of subjects (like many drinkers, he is liable to be reading when others are sleeping), being publicly articulate has never been easy for him. The lifetime of headlines notwithstanding, he is shy. When he was a boy at Manchester United and travelled to the ground by bus, he had to make a change at a point that put him on the route driven by Matt Busby each morning, and the Boss was always eager to give him a lift. But Best, embarrassed by the need to make conversation, used to hide until the car went past. So rising to make a speech is an ordeal. `Going out to perform in front of a hundred thousand in a stadium never worried me, because I was doing something nobody could do better, but standing in front of an audience of two or three hundred to say a few words could frighten me to death.' However, in pursuit of solvency, he has overcome his nervousness, helped recently by the formation of a double-act with Denis Law.

     As the negotiator of his fees and organiser of his schedule, Mary has her share of difficulties. An obvious one is her man's reputation for failing to keep appointments. She insists there has been a substantial improvement of late but her armoury of excuses has to be in constant readiness. Of a booking he should have skipped, the infamous appearance on Wogan in 1990, she says (perhaps with more love than logic) his descent from controlled behaviour to lolling, swearing drunkenness in the studio was so abrupt that she wonders if someone doctored his pre-show drinks as a malicious joke. A persistent commercial handicap is the widespread assumption that Best's contracts are still handled by Bill McMurdo, the Scottish agent with whom he became associated after his return from the States. In fact, Best has been bitterly estranged from McMurdo for years.

     Best believes he has mellowed sufficiently to be disciplined by a diary well filled with entries that will earn money. In keeping with a long-established habit, he reacts to any disfiguring increase in weight by going to a health farm. There was a time when his first move on arrival was to set up an escape committee, but when I went to see him at Henlow Grange in Bedfordshire he and Mary were leaving their VIP room only to exercise or take the treatments. Admittedly, she made herself busier than he did but his visits to the gym were rather more serious. Back in a tracksuit, and with four days of abstinence already removing the smudged look from his features, he evoked moving echoes of his youth. He was always a voracious trainer, proudly torturing himself to keep pace with less indulgent team-mates. `I knew I had to be fit to avoid being battered by some of the guys who were after me on a Saturday. I wouldn't have stayed out of hospital very long if I'd been stumbling around with a hangover.'

     He has been through so many awful scenes, sometimes as the befuddled, brawling offender, often as the malevolently chosen victim, that a capacity for gallows humour was a necessary protection. Sober after an evening at the cinema, he slipped into a pub near Piccadilly Circus that was run by an elderly couple he knew would let him use the telephone to order a Chinese takeaway. As he was making the call, the mirror in front of him suddenly accommodated the nightmare vision of a drunken customer, a man he had never seen before, raising a heavy pint mug above his head. When the glass crashed into Best's skull (`I can still see the whole thing in detailed slow-motion'), the wound was so terrible that bar towels had to be stuffed into it. At the hospital, a doctor told him a brain scan was indicated. `Don't bother with that,' said Best, `I'm Irish.'

     After failing to appear in court on a drunk-driving charge in 1984, he was violently arrested at his home by a posse of police formidable enough to round up the Dalton Gang. When he eventually went to Southwark Crown Court to appeal against a prison sentence imposed earlier at Bow Street, his counsel somehow reasoned that it would be of assistance if Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail and I turned up as character witnesses. In the court canteen, I told George that having us on his side might make him the first man to be hanged for a driving offence. But such feeble efforts at cheering him up were soon stifled by the realisation that he was probably going to jail (he did, for two months), and before long everybody was staring into the bottom of the coffee cup, with nothing to say. Then he glanced across at me with a smile. `Well, I suppose that's the knighthood fucked,' he said.

     He thinks he can specify the day when his career at the top reached a similar condition. It was in January 1974, on a Saturday when Manchester United were at home to Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup.
Best, following the most prolonged of several defections from the club, had been persuaded into one more comeback by Tommy Docherty, the latest hopeful to step through the revolving door that appeared to have been fitted to the manager's office at Old Trafford. Having fought to regain a respectable percentage of his former fitness, the great footballer was beginning to feel the penetrative surge returning to his play, and he was sure the limited resistance of Plymouth would give him the chance to put on a show. Then he missed a morning's training in midweek. He went in and punished himself the same afternoon and, when Docherty made no complaint, assumed the lapse had been forgiven. But shortly before the kick-off (it had to be then, because Best never arrived early) he was called into the referee's room and told by Docherty that he would not be playing. He tried to remonstrate but Docherty was adamant.

     `When he and Paddy Crerand left me, I sat in that room and cried my eyes out,' Best recalled at Henlow Grange. `Then after the match I went up into the empty stands and sat on my own for about an hour. I knew I had ceased to be a part of Manchester United and it was a desperate feeling.'

     Considering that he was attached to United before he was properly into his adolescence, that the club was his world through the most exciting an fulfilling years of his life, the reaction was inevitable. Equally natural, perhaps, is his vehement assertion that disenchantment was entirely responsible for the shortening of his career. `It had nothing to do with women and booze, car crashes or court cases. It was purely and simply football. Losing wasn't in my vocabulary. I had been conditioned from boyhood to win, to go out and dominate the opposition. When the wonderful players I had been brought up with – Charlton, Law, Crerand, Stiles – went into decline, United made no real attempt to buy the best replacements available. I was left struggling among fellas who should not have been allowed through the door at Old Trafford. I was doing it on my own and I was just a kid. It sickened me to the heart that we ended up being just about the worst team in the First Division and went on to drop into the Second.'

     His conviction must be respected but the case is an over-simplification. Had his life and his personality not been in such confusion, he might have withstood those miseries on the field and refused to let the mediocrities who had invaded Manchester United drive him away from the most important means of expression he would ever know. His rationalisation of his departure at 27 is no more convincing than the argument of those who tell us that disillusionment with football provides a total explanation of his alcoholism.

     There is no doubt that great sportsmen are immensely vulnerable when their gifts, and the drama they create, begin to fade, when the rest of their lives may loom like a dreary anti-climax. But alcoholism is a complicated disease, one not readily susceptible to simplistic cause-and-effect analysis. Recent research suggests that there may well be a relationship between heredity and alcoholism and, whatever other factors have been at work in the case of George Best, there could be significance in the sad fact that his mother died an alcoholic.

     Best loved his mother, just as he loves his father, Dickie, a spirited, engaging little man who was an iron turner in the Harland and Wolff shipyard. They gave him a warm, carefree childhood. It was a Protestant upbringing but that was in the '40s and '50s and, though there were plenty of Catholics on the Cregagh council estate, he was not troubled by sectarian bitterness. His lack of bigotry shows in consistent advocacy of a united Ireland on the football field. He is proud of his origins and has a dream of having a house that would enable him to be near his father.

     There is another dream, one that comes to him repeatedly in his sleep. `The theme is always basically the same,' he says. `I am the age I am now but I have been brought back to play for Manchester United, along with some of the players from my own time and others of the present day. Sir Matt's in charge and he's put me in the previous week and I've played well. But I've been away for a while – well, I have, haven't I? – and I am worried about whether he will pick me. Bryan Robson of the current squad is often involved, and big Steve Bruce and young Giggs. And Paddy and Denis are nearly always there.'

     If George Best concentrates hard in his dream, he will see quite a few of us on the sidelines, straining to catch a glimpse of a footballer whose like we may never look upon again.


Hugh McIlvanney