LIAM MACKEY: The Best of times, the worst of times

Inevitably, the word ‘addiction’ features early in George Best: All By Himself, the documentary aired on the BBC this week.

The surprise is that, for once, the word is not used in the context of alcoholism.

Instead, the journalist Hugh McIlvanney — who was fortunate to have a ringside seat to see George at his incomparable best and who was later one of the more insightful observers of his terrible decline — talks about how, as a rising star at Old Trafford, the young lad from Belfast showed all the signs of being “addicted to football”.

Since the standard narrative about George Best’s life is that he “squandered” his talent, McIlvanney’s line is a useful corrective.

Not, of course, in the sense that anyone can deny that all the gifts Best was blessed with — his football, his intelligence, his charm, his looks and, ultimately, his life — were lost to alcoholism, but, rather, as a reminder that, long before he succumbed to its malign grip, he was willing to put in all the hard yards and long hours to make the most of what he’d got.

The footballer who would become notorious for missing training and going AWOL was once the most committed self-improver of them all.

Here is Best, in Joe Lovejoy’s biography of 1999, recalling that healthier devotion.

“When I was 15, United were playing Real Madrid, and I remember seeing (Francisco) Gento do something I had never seen before. It was during the pre-match warm-up and the goalkeeper was drop-kicking the ball to him.

“Gento had a great left foot and he pretended to shoot, but he put such backspin on the ball that, after it had gone about ten yards, it would spin back to him. I watched, spellbound. I had never seen anything like it.

“The next day, in training, I had to do it. I was right-footed, but Gento had done it with his left, so I had to do the same. That was probably the start, the thing that made me determined to be genuinely two-footed. I made up my mind that I was going to be able to do everything with my other foot.

“From then on, I worked on it all the time. I tried to keep the ball up with my left foot: if I could do it ten times, then I wanted to do it a dozen.

“After training, when everyone else had gone, I d take out six or seven balls and keep working at it. I set myself tasks. I would take corners with my left foot and try to score direct. Then, I would stand on the eighteen-yard line and try to hit the crossbar time after time. By the time I was 19 or 20, most people couldn’t tell which one was my stronger foot.”

Nobody taught George Best that will-o’-the wisp body swerve which, as they used to say, gave opponents “twisted blood”, but it was his determination to maximise his outrageous talent which ensured he would become one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen, right up there with Pele, Cruyff, Maradona, Messi, and Zidane, to nominate a personal pantheon.

Decades later, the highlights reel still has the capacity to thrill.

There were clips in All By Himself where the sensation was akin to returning to a classic song that never loses its appeal, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.

So here was George announcing himself on the European stage — the birth of ‘El Beatle’ — with a brace in Lisbon’s Stadium of Light, in 1966, the first a header, the second a scintillating run and finish. He sliced like a knife through the shell-shocked Benfica defence.

Kenneth Wolstenholme, as ever, found the right phrase: “What a player this boy is! He’s got another! What a player!”

And, of course, it was Benfica who were again on the receiving end on the greatest night of all, when Best’s inimitable extra-time goal set Manchester United on their way to that famous European Cup triumph at Wembley in 1968.

According to the documentary, friends say Best was “on a downer” in the shower after the game, already tormented by the idea that it wouldn’t, and couldn’t, get any better than this.

He would still produce sublime moments on football pitches for a number of years to come, but, in this definitive life of two halves, a new addiction was fast-becoming his master.

George Best was exceptional as a footballer, but there was nothing exceptional about his alcoholism, except that, because of his fame, his ‘decline and fall’ was played out in public. But not all of it.

Some of the most painful testimony in All By Myself is offered by the partners and friends who knew and loved him best and who, behind closed doors, also suffered the consequences of his repeated failures to put the genie back in the bottle.

Even when he knew that his alcoholism could kill him, Best seemed incapable of bridging the critical gap — if he even grasped the distinction — between simply not drinking and real, fulfilling sobriety.

In that respect, perhaps the saddest and most telling quote of all comes from his agent, Phil Hughes, who recalled how he once asked George why, after three years off the booze, he’d begun drinking again.

“And he said, ‘You know what? There’s not one day in the last three years that I hadn’t thought about drinking’.”

In an interview he gave two months before he died, in 2005, George was asked how he hoped to be remembered.

“They’ll forget all the rubbish when I’m gone and they’ll remember the football,” was his defiant response. “It’s as simple as that.”

Hugh McIlvanney reckons that was never anything other than a forlorn hope.

“None of us is entitled to ask for that,” he said.

“To think people can look upon it as a career perfectly executed is madness.

“You’ve just got to hope that the glorious stuff in George’s career far outweighs and outshines the rubbish. To me, it does.”


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