The first time I met Manchester United legend George Best was in London's Cavendish hotel in 1984, but I'd been dreaming about meeting him for years...
All I ever wanted out of life was to meet George Best. My mind was made up on 29th May 1968. This was the night Manchester United trounced Benfica 4-1 to win the European Cup for the first time. This was the first televised match I’d ever seen, one that turned around three minutes into extra time when Best seized on Alex Stepney’s long punt upfield, ghosted past his marker with a trademark dip of the shoulder, dribbled around the Portuguese goalkeeper and casually rolled the ball into the net. It was love at first sight. Through my childhood and teenage years I would accumulate other heroes and heroines. Bogart, Bardot, Bolan, Bowie, Buzzcocks…my favourites always began with B.
Best, though, was always the one.
By the time of the ’68 European Cup Final I’d already chosen my team. On a family visit to Glasgow, my dad had taken me to see Clyde play East Stirling. Clyde won 3-1 that day and, despite the protestations of my father (“Jon, you’ll live to regret this rash decision”) The Bully Wee became my team. To both support Clyde FC and worship at the altar of Best required only a small leap of the imagination. Clyde was, after all, only a football team. Best wasn’t just a footballer. He was the living embodiment of cool. On the field and off, he was style personified. I didn’t need any other pop heroes. With his sharp mod suits, long-back-and-sides and luxurious swagger, George Best was more of a pop star to me than Bolan, Bowie and all the rest. From a strictly heterosexual point of view, Best was more of a sex symbol to me than Bardot ever could be.
I could fantasise about taking my pleasure with Bardot in her mid-50s pomp. But I could dream far more vividly about possessing just a fraction of Best’s ineffable appeal to the opposite sex. As for sporting heroes. Growing up in the 70s, we were spoiled for choice. Ali, Nastase, James Hunt, Evel Knievel, Rodney Marsh, Stanley Bowles – great characters, one and all, with enough charisma to light up a room. Only Best possessed a charisma incandescent enough to light up my entire world. He had everything, including the most apt surname there ever was. Or at least he had everything a thirteen-year-old boy could imagine having in his wildest fantasies: genius at his feet; global fame; considerable wealth; fast sports cars; even faster women, some of them actual Miss Worlds…What I didn’t know then is that the man with everything has everything to throw away.
Other kids wanted to be him. Any number of school lunchtime goal-hangers would tap one in between the folded jumpers and recreate Best’s trademark celebration of right arm aloft, smile a mile wide. These playground tributes to the great man always seemed plainly ridiculous to me, even sacrilegious.
I chanced my luck and put in a call to Best’s agent who also happened to be the barman in his local
I never wanted to be him. I just wanted to meet him.
My first meeting with George Best took place in May 1984. Working as a contributor for the anti-pop fanzine/magazine Jamming! I chanced my luck and put in a call to Best’s agent who also happened to be the barman in his local. “You want an interview with Bestie? He’s sitting right here, I’ll ask him…He says he’ll do it for £200.”
A week later, we met in the lounge of London’s Cavendish Hotel. As I arrive, Best is finishing up a meeting with six Japanese businessmen. “I don’t know what the f*ck that was all about,” he says as they depart. “I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.” He’d dressed in a smart black suit, looking slim and healthy. As I hand over a brown envelope packed with tenners, he asks, “Is that alright? Are you sure you can afford it? Only I don’t want to leave you short.” For a moment I suspect he’s ribbing me. Then I note the genuine concern in his eyes.
I’ve been working as a journalist for a couple of years by this stage and chewed the fat with a good number of famous names. What strikes me immediately about Best is that he’s most unspoiled star I’ve met. There’s an innocence to him, a deep shyness, an unmistakable vulnerability. He’s instantly likeable.
We adjourn to the bar, George gets the drinks in and, for the next hour, I ask my all-time hero the questions and he provides the answers.
JW: As a kid, did you always know that you would become a world-class footballer?
GB: I dreamed of being a top player but, deep down, I never had that much faith in myself. Even when I first came to Manchester United in ’61, I thought that this was as far as I was likely to go. I really believed I’d get a trial at Old Trafford and be sent straight back home. Even getting that far would have been an incredible achievement. I wasn’t equipped for what was about to happen – playing for the best team in the world and winning loads of trophies. Sometimes I wonder if it all happened too quickly for me.
JW: As legend has it, United scout Bob Bishop alerted Matt Busby to your existence with a telegram that read, “I think I’ve found you a genius.” Did you know about that at the time?
GB: I think I might have heard about it later when I started in the first team. I never thought of myself as a genius. I just loved the game. I was a very shy kid but, when I stepped onto that pitch, I was the most confident kid in the world. I couldn’t have been in a better place. I signed professional after Manchester United won the FA Cup in ’63. We won the league in ’65 and ’67. Then came the European Cup in ’68. We did all that playing the most beautiful football you can imagine. We were a magnificent machine with brilliant individual parts. I was just one of those parts. The greatest part, some would say. I wouldn’t disagree with that.
First and foremost I regarded myself as an entertainer. The pitch to me was like a stage.
JW: When you went on the pitch, how conscious were you of the crowd?
GB: Totally, in the sense that I wanted to keep them entertained. First and foremost I regarded myself as an entertainer. The pitch to me was like a stage. That’s why I used to especially love evening games, because it was just like being under the footlights. I was aware that I could do things differently so I purposely played up to that. I’d nutmeg a defender, then go back and nutmeg him again. I knew the crowd loved all that. I knew I could do things that would keep them on the edge of their seats.
JW: You saw yourself as an artist?
GB: Totally, yeah. As soon as I made it into Manchester United’s first team, I looked at football as theatre or art. I wasn’t the first to think like that. Before me, there were players like Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews. They had tremendous class and charisma that separated them from the journeymen players. Less well known was Len Shackleton who played for Newcastle and Sunderland. They called him The Clown Prince of Football. Halfway through a match he’d sit on the ball and comb his hair. He was a naturally brilliant player and also a top entertainer. From looking at players like him I saw you could be both. He had the edge because he brought something unique to the game. You can talk about brilliance in any field (theatre, music, film) and take two people with similar abilities but one would have that extra cheek or nerve, and that sets him apart from the norm. I suppose I was that way. I used to dream about taking the ball round the keeper, stopping it on the line and then getting on my hands and knees and heading it into the net. When I scored that goal against Benfica in the European Cup Final I nearly did it. I left the keeper for dead and thought about it for a split-second, but then I chickened out. If I’d have gone ahead, Matt Busby would have had a bl**dy cardiac arrest.
JW: How much did you feel a part of the cultural revolution of the 60s?
GB: Well, I was a part of that whole thing. The Portuguese nicknamed me El Beatle after Manchester United beat Benfica in ’66 and it stuck. I suppose I was guilty of playing up to it at times. I had the long hair and the good looks. I was never short of offers from the women. I became a bit like a pop star. I’d get invited onto Top Of The Pops and stuff like that. I’d appear as much in the pop magazines as the football publications. Melody Maker would invite me to review the week’s singles. I hung out with guys like Ray Davies from The Kinks. It was all good fun. And remember, I was up in the north where the musical revolution had kicked off. There was The Beatles, The Hollies, and I was a part of that unbelievable uplift that was happening. It was an extraordinary time to be young. Having that pop star profile opened a lot of doors for me. I was one of the first footballers to become a kind of brand. I was doing adverts for sausages, after-shave, you name it. My agent once said that he could put my name on stair lifts and sell them to people living in bungalows.
People started seeing me as a playboy who played football rather than a footballer who liked to let his hair down.
JW: Looking back, do you feel that your so-called playboy lifestyle interfered with your performance on the field?
GB: Not in the slightest. I didn’t see myself as a playboy. To me there’s nothing wrong with having a drink or going out with women. But it wasn’t considered acceptable for footballers to enjoy themselves in that way. So I started to get a lot of stick. Reporters started following me around, looking for a juicy story. And, more often than not, they got one. It got to the point when more was being written and said about my lifestyle than my goals. People started seeing me as a playboy who played football rather than a footballer who liked to let his hair down. But people forget that I was still producing the goods on the field.
JW: It’s often said that your career began to go into decline after the ’68 European Cup Final…
GB: To win that cup was an incredible achievement. Everyone expected us to keep on winning at that level. The pressure was immense. Maybe I needed to change but I didn’t want to. As the 60s went on, everything became so f*cking serious. The fun was going out of everything but I was determined to carry on having fun. I knew my limits, that was the thing. Like I never touched drugs. One time I spent my birthday in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. All these hippies were sat around smoking the wacky baccy, talking bullsh*t. I thought they looked ridiculous. I knew I didn’t want to be like them. I was still having fun in my own way. When people talk about decline after the European Cup win, they’re really talking about the decline of Manchester United. We had an ageing team. United could have afforded to buy top-class replacements, but they didn’t. I was still on top of my game but I was surrounded by players who were either past it or were simply not fit to play at that level.
By 1973 United were the worst team in the division. By 1974, after 470 appearances, I left them for good. I couldn’t stand losing every week, that’s why I f*cked off. Also I couldn’t stand Tommy Doc, the worst manager I ever played under and that includes my spells at Cork Celtic and Brisbane Lions. A few months after I left, United were relegated. A lot of people believe that I contributed to their decline and that saddens me. I wish they could have gone on winning things after I left. I had b***er all to do with their relegation but I still get blamed for it. I was never under any illusions because I know for a fact that I was the single most important factor in their triumphs. The tragedy is that Manchester United should have been the Liverpool of the 70s and 80s. They should have been winning the league year after year. It’s a f*cking disgrace.
The tragedy is that United should have been the Liverpool of the 70s and 80s. They should have been winning the league year after year. It’s a f*cking disgrace.
JW: Would you say that living life so much in the public eye took its toll at some point?
GB: Definitely. Like any kid, I loved seeing my name in the papers at first, particularly when they wrote nice things. But that started to change towards the end of the 60s. Suddenly the papers were only interested in digging for dirt on me. They started pestering my friends and family to find some new scandal. They would dig and dig until they found something. If they couldn’t find anything they’d print lies. I’d have to have been Superman to do all the stuff I was reported doing. There were times when I was said to be in six places at once with six different women. Life became a bit…
GB: Yeah, that’s the word. I started to find it difficult to watch myself playing on TV because I couldn’t identify with that person. My life…it was as like it was all happening to someone else.
JW: Do you feel that your life would have been different had Matt Busby been more of a disciplinarian?
GB: Well, Matt was no soft touch. If I stepped too far out of line he’d have a go at me. But he always did it behind closed doors so no-one got to hear about it. He fined me and dropped me on quite a few occasions. I was on the end of a good few b********gs from him. The worst was when he told me to stop chasing the skirt and settle down with a nice girl. So I got engaged to this woman I’d only known for a fortnight. When Matt heard about it, he went up the wall. He said, “What did you want to go and do something stupid like that for?” And I said, “Hang about, I was only following your advice.” I don’t think Matt ever worked out what to make of me.
JW: In 1976, you moved to The USA to play for Los Angeles Aztecs. Were you attempting to run away from your problems?
GB: It didn’t feel like it at the time. Looking back, there’s a lot of truth in that. I was still capable of competing at the highest level in England. I could have signed for any club in the country but I messed up every opportunity because of my debauched behaviour. I was drinking heavily, doing a lot of womanizing, getting into fights, smashing cars up. I had to go somewhere to get away from all that. All I was really doing was transferring my problems from one country to another instead of staying here and working my problems out.
Eventually the alcohol caught up with me again. The nightmare had moved across the Atlantic but it was still my nightmare.
JW: You seemed happy in America for a while.
GB: Only for a while. The thing was that America offered me the kind of anonymity I could never have in England. Over there I could go out and have a good time with people who didn’t know my name. It was a release, being able to live like that again. Those first couple of years in LA were terrific fun. I could smell freedom again. I even had my own bar there, Bestie’s Beach Club. Eventually the alcohol caught up with me again. The nightmare had moved across the Atlantic but it was still my nightmare.
JW: Any truth in the story that Billy Bingham attempted to lure you out of retirement to play in the 1982 World Cup?
GB: That’s true, yeah. It’s said that he changed his mind because I was totally unfit. For the record, that’s utter bullsh*t. I was actually very fit at the time. I was playing weekly for an American team and also playing other sports for up to three hours a day. The problem was my American team were sh*t. Bingham came to watch me in a tour game at Hibs and we got hammered. So I never got the call-up. I was gutted about that. At 36 I could have still made a contribution, even if he’d only brought me on for the last fifteen minutes of a match.
JW: How would you describe your drinking habits at present?
GB: I like a drink, that’s no big secret. People always say that I shouldn’t be burning the candle at both ends. Maybe they haven’t got a big enough candle. I refuse to take it too seriously. I’ve been in hospital three times for alcoholism treatment but I try to make light of it. Besides, it’s not as if I drink every single day. But, if I go on a bender, it can last for a week. Sometimes the only way I can stop drinking is to fall asleep. My problem is that I’ve got a low boredom threshold. If I’m not kept busy, then I tend to end up down the pub. Then, of course, I get recognized and the free drinks are lined up on the bar. People ask me if I’ve thought about going to Alcoholics Anonymous. What are the chances of me remaining anonymous?
Everything I do is ad-libbed. That’s where the buzz is for me. I just like those spontaneous moments. It’s the same playing football. I always liked the spur-of-the-moment decisions
JW: What’s the one thing about you that’s never changed?
GB: I’ve always been honest and I’ve always been instinctive. I’ve always been honest to other people but there have been times when I’ve lied to myself. Honesty has often got me into trouble but it’s the only way I know. I’m also instinctive in everything I do. I’m the same on a TV chat show as I was on the pitch. Nothing is rehearsed. Everything I do is ad-libbed. That’s where the buzz is for me. I just like those spontaneous moments. It’s the same playing football. I always liked the spur-of-the-moment decisions. Football was always very simple for me. I never thought about my next move. I just did it. I’ve always relied on instinct in that way.
JW: Would the same rule apply in the bedroom?
GB: Especially in the bedroom. You don’t want to be thinking too much about sex while you’re doing it, do you? I should know. I’ve had a lot of practice.
JW: What’s the most difficult thing about being George Best?
GB: What happens is you get caught up in the myth. The private George Best is always going to be different from the public version. To some extent, there’s always been a need to put on an act for people, if only to protect myself. I hate not being myself, but often it was essential to get by. I learned very quickly that you sometimes have to be a good actor in public. Nobody was ever interested in the private George Best, the one who liked a good book and enjoyed a good film. Nobody is interested in reading about the fact that I like to do The Times crossword. Scandal is a lot more interesting to most people.
JW: Have there been times when you’ve gone the extra mile to live up to your hell-raiser image?
GB: Oh yeah. Many times. Apart from anything else, I’m a competitive person. I was competitive on the pitch. I’m just as competitive when I’m out drinking. I don’t like the idea of people drinking more than me. So I’m usually the last man standing. I can see how I’ve been caught up in that at times. I go to the pub for a quick drink. Before I know it, I’ve got an audience and they want to see me drinking. It’s not easy for me to walk away from. Once I start, it’s hard to stop and go home. I start thinking, “If they want me to be outrageous, they’ll get it.” Once I’ve decided that, I can go right overboard.
JW: Do you see yourself as a rebel?
GB: In a way. The people I’ve always admired have always been on the outside. People look at me and they can see that I’ve always done things my own way. Not because I’m pig-headed or anything. I always had an adventurous spirit, I suppose. I have a lot of respect for people like Terence Stamp and James Dean. They marched to their own beat. Stamp was an especially brilliant actor and could have been a huge Hollywood star. But he went completely his own way. It meant he wasn’t such a big star. But he had an interesting career. Whether it’s Jagger, McCartney or Boy George, you can drag them through the dirt if you like, but you have to respect them for trying something different and, at the same time, being true to their heart. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do, be true to my heart.
After walking out on United, I could have taken the easy route and settled down. But I’ve always been something of a gypsy.
JW: Has it brought happiness?
GB: Not really. Not what you’d call lasting happiness. I suppose I’ve never made things easy for myself. After walking out on United, I could have taken the easy route and settled down. But I’ve always been something of a gypsy.
JW: Would you describe yourself as self-destructive?
GB: There has to be an element of that in there somewhere. I’ve certainly been depressed, even suicidal. There have been times when I’ve felt so low that, if you’d handed me a bottle of sleeping tablets, I’d have swallowed them straight down.
JW: What stopped you from killing yourself?
GB: I’m only half joking when I say this…it was the thought of missing out on a f*cking great p*ss-up the following night. Also I wouldn’t have wanted to give certain people the satisfaction of seeing me give up like that. There are people who have predicted that I’ll end up topping myself. I won’t give them the satisfaction of being proved right.
JW: What was your lowest point?
GB: Phew. There’s so many. One that sticks in the mind is when I was in LA in 1981. I’d been on a bender for a few days. I was sitting on the beach. I’d run out of cash but I wanted to carry on boozing. This woman, a complete stranger, got up to go to the toilet and left her purse. I stuck my hand in the purse, grabbed some dollars and went straight to the bar. I’ve always regretted that. It’s a memory that sort of haunts me. I never want to sink that low again.
To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if the next twenty years were as dramatic as the last twenty. I might have done through some tough times but it was always worth it because the good times always outweighed the bad
JW: In footballing terms, what are your personal highlights?
GB: There’s so many of them. My goal in the European Cup Final, for sure. The six goals I scored against Northampton in 1970. United’s 5-1 win against Benfica in Lisbon in ’66, when I scored after a run from the halfway line. Kicking the ball out of Gordon Banks’ hands in 1971. There was that goal I scored against Sheffield United in ’71 when I beat half their team and slammed the ball in from the edge of their box.
There was one Saturday when we played Ipswich in the league and I scored direct from a corner. Bobby Robson was interviewed and said it was a complete fluke. He reckoned I couldn’t do it again if I tried a thousand times. Anyway, we met them in the FA Cup the following week . When we won our first corner, I gave Bobby a wave as if to say, “Watch out for this one.” I swung it in and it went smack against the post. In a way it was more magical that it didn’t go in. I quite liked the fact that it was almost perfect.
They’re not all old memories either. One goal that will never be forgotten is the one I scored for San Jose Earthquakes against Fort Lauderdale Strikers. I set off. I beat one player, then another. By the end I had beaten six or seven of them in the space of ten yards. I didn’t know how I did it and still don’t.”
JW: Can you see yourself mellowing in the years to come?
GB: It’s not likely, is it? I’m not sure I’d like to mellow. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if the next twenty years were as dramatic as the last twenty. I might have done through some tough times but it was always worth it because the good times always outweighed the bad. I still find the drama in life now, as much as ever really. If anything I’ve got a clearer head now. In the past I’d be so full of booze that I was completely out of control. There were times when I turned into a monster without realizing it. I know I pushed myself to the limit but, when I look back on it now, it’s as though the bad times never happened. I always wanted the extremities. I always knew that it was a balancing act. The good times couldn’t happen without the bad. And I know I won’t be remembered for the bad times, all the scandalous episodes. I’ll be remembered for the football. In thirty years time, people aren’t going to be sitting around talking about how p**sed up I got one night. There’s too many good times to remember. I sometimes look back and it amazes me. The biggest surprise is that I survived it all. These days I have more respect for myself. I’ve not mellowed but maybe I’m a bit more realistic nowadays. It always used to worry me that I wouldn’t be first at everything. Now I feel that there’s nothing wrong with finishing second so long as I enjoy it and I’m honest with myself.
JW: And what does the future hold?
GB: F*ck knows. I’m not thinking of tomorrow, only today. I’ve got a lot more living to do, that much I know. If I can stay out of trouble, that would be a bonus. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
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