Six years after my first meeting with the Manchester United legend, the George Best I encountered in the Phene Arms in 1990 was an entirely different character. Maudlin, bitter, and talking of the boozy brawls that had become commonplace...
Six months after my first interview interview, Best was arrested for drink driving and assaulting a police officer. He was sentenced to three months imprisonment and spent the Xmas of 1984 behind bars. In 1985 he declared himself bankrupt, inspiring his most famous quote of all: “I spent a fortune on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
Six years would then elapse before I had the opportunity to meet George Best for a second time. I’m a contributor to Blitz Magazine and have been commissioned to conduct an interview with Best to mark the publication of his latest autobiography, The Good The Bad And The Bubbly (arresting opening line, “I punched Michael Caine to the floor in Tramp one night”). His life has yet to turn into the squalid red-top soap opera of serial domestic abuse and near-fatal liver collapses it would become. But his grotesque appearance on Wogan’s chat show was only a matter of weeks away. That wretched spectacle (“Terry, I like screwing”) would officially signal the start of a long, slow, grimly inevitable descent towards his end. After Wogan it became increasingly difficult to love George Best unconditionally, harder and harder to keep the pity and the revulsion at bay as tales of his violence towards women began stacking up, as he threatened to turn into a bloated caricature.
For our second interview, we meet mid-afternoon in Chelsea’s Phene Arms, a pub that has become more like Best’s first home than his second. He’s already half-pickled, greeting me with glazed eyes and a slurred, “hello.” He’s looking much older than his 44 years, a lot more fragile than last time. That famous face is bruised, scraped and scratched. Unlike six years ago, there’s a darkness about him, as though his personal demons have already closed in, dismally shadowing his every move. He’s touchingly polite, but no longer looks so innocent. In fact, all the innocence seems to have been knocked out of him. In its place there’s a steely defensiveness and a pronounced weariness. It’s as though being George Best has become an exhausting challenge.
As we adjourn to a quiet corner, Best is keen to describe the various fights he has recently been involved in. During the two hours we spend together, he returns to the subject of violence with morbid regularity. Ask him about a certain goal or a certain match and he’ll somehow find a way to tell me about the last bloke he gave a kicking to. He mutters dark threats regarding a business associate who he claims has cheated his father out of thousands of pounds (“That lying b*stard is going to suffer, don’t you worry about that.”) In the second hour of the interview, the same stories keep going round and round. (“These three guys walk into the pub and they’re looking for trouble…”) Again and again.
“Oi! Best! You c*nt! Who the f*ck d’you think you are? I’ll tell you what you are. You’re a useless f*cking c*nt and you always were.”
I’m watching a hero fall to pieces before me. It’s close to heartbreaking.
During our time together, he is involved in at least five verbal altercations with the pub’s customers. One of these involves an old drunk smelling distinctly of stale p*ss. He wanders up to our table, looks Best square in the eye, and growls, “Oi! Best! You c*nt! Who the f*ck d’you think you are? I’ll tell you what you are. You’re a useless f*cking c*nt and you always were.” Best doesn’t flinch. He waits for the man to depart, then carries on the conversation as if nothing unusual has occurred. Clearly, this sort of thing is now completely normal for him.
When I head to the bar to order another bottle of champagne for Best, my tape-machine records the following exchange.
Bloke In England replica shirt: “Remember me?”
Bloke: You told me to f*ck off last Wednesday. I was sitting over there.
Best: And I’m telling you to f*ck off again.
Bloke: I’ll be seeing you around.
Best: Not if I see you first. Now f*ck off.
Bloke: Go f*ck yourself. And watch your back.
At one stage, a bruiser in denim approaches our table and introduces himself as, “Nick, a member of the SAS.” He’s heard that Best has become a target for football hooligans. “You shouldn’t have to put up with that,” he tells Best. “Here’s my number. If you need any help, give us a call. I know people with guns, people who know how to sort things out.” After he leaves, Best discards the phone number and says, “He meant well, but I don’t need any help from anyone. I can fight my own battles.”
The first time we met, Best solemnly declared that the good times always outweighed the bad. The second time we meet it is painfully evident that the balance is now an extremely delicate one.
JW: As a young kid, did you always feel different, marked out for something special in life.
GB: I never tried to be different. I just was. I suppose I always did things to the extremes. Other boys would play football and love it. But I was the one who took a football to bed and slept next to it. Some would say I was born great. I prefer to think that I was born lucky. As soon as I learned to kick a football, I could do things with a ball that no other kid would even dream about. I didn’t even need to practice. It all came to me naturally. For me, playing football was the easiest thing in the world. It was like breathing.
Growing up in Belfast probably wasn’t that different from anywhere else at the time. Wherever you went in the town, there were kids playing football. In fields, on the streets, down back alleys…These days I go back to Belfast five times a year. I drive past the places where I grew up in and there’s no kids playing football. For me, it was constant. I’d play football every spare minute of the day. My mum’s biggest challenge was getting me to stop kicking a ball around and come in for my tea.
All the great players like Pele and Maradona had that same experience. We might have had f*ck all but football was everything to us. We were driven, completely obsessed. That’s how it has to be.
I’d play until it was too dark to see the ball. If I didn’t have a football I’d learn some tricks with a tennis ball. If I couldn’t find a tennis ball I’d use a tin can or I’d roll up a pair of socks. All the great players like Pele and Maradona had that same experience. We might have had f*ck all but football was everything to us. We were driven, completely obsessed. That’s how it has to be.
I was always being told I was too small, a skinny little runt. But nothing was going to stop me. I knew I had a special talent and I knew it would take me somewhere. My dad would always say that there was a job waiting for me at the local printers but I knew that would never be needed. I was never going to be the average Joe. I always had a sense of destiny.
See, I had that determination. Without that, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. All great athletes are great fighters. They fight because they have to. The more disadvantages you have, the harder you need to fight. Maradona’s a good example. This little fat kid growing up in poverty. Imagine how hard he fought to be one of the greatest players the world has ever seen.
JW: You’re a fighter yourself?
GB: I have no choice. I walk around the streets of London and, wherever I go, someone wants to pick a fight with me. I’m talking about kids, eighteen-year-olds. There’s always some ar**hole who wants to be the boss. They want to be Jack The Lads, tell their mates they gave a punch to George Best. I don’t mind because I can take care of myself, even at my age. I don’t lose many fights either. This is my local. I come here for a drink, a bit of peace and quiet. I’ll happily sit here for hours doing the crossword, minding my own business. Every day someone has a go at me.
I had a couple of guys come in the other day and they want to fight me for whatever reason. I said, “You want to fight me? Let’s arm wrestle instead.” They laughed and said, “You’re an old codger, you’ve got no chance.” I said I’d put money on it. And I beat them both hand’s down. They walked away, came back ten minutes later and they want a proper fight. One of them left without any teeth. The other had to be carried out.
I might get the sh*t kicked out of me but, at the same time, I’ll never back down to anyone. I used to back down but not any more. If anyone gives me trouble I will beat the f*cking sh*t out of them.
JW: Don’t you ever walk away from these situations?
GB: I should walk away but I don’t. Because I can’t stand the idea that someone thinks they’re better than me. Not being able to walk away from aggravation, that’s my biggest problem. If anyone wants to give me hassle I’ll stand up and give as good I get, then some more. I might get the sh*t kicked out of me but, at the same time, I’ll never back down to anyone. I used to back down but not any more. If anyone gives me trouble I will beat the f*cking sh*t out of them.
Just last week, these three guys followed me out of the pub and started in on me up the road. They were kicking lumps out of me. I sent two to hospital and they’ll remain there for a long, long time. The other one wouldn’t go down. But neither would I. In those situations I go nuts. They get to see the Belfast kiss. It’s not a pretty sight. I’m Irish. I like fighting. If they want to f*ck me, I’ll f*ck them. The other night fifteen of them came in here looking for trouble. England fans. They started smashing milk bottles and pint glasses over my head. They narrowly missed my eyes. Why should I put up with people smashing bottles over my head? Or trying to stick broken bottles in my eyes? Look at my face, Jon. Closer. I’ve got 268 stitches in there.
JW: Why do you think they want to fight with you?
GB: I ask myself that a lot. You look at other sportsmen, even the so-called bad boys…Alex Higgins is a good friend of mine. He’s a complete nutter but nobody wants to fight him. Bryan Robson and Stan Bowles come into this pub to join me for a drink and nobody even recognizes them. Paul Gascoigne could walk in here now and nobody would bat an eyelid. I can’t walk down the street because everybody recognizes me. There’s two sides to that. If we walk out of here now and it’s p*ssing down with rain, I’ll be the first to get a taxi and the driver probably won’t take a fare off me. But it works the other way too. It’s odds on that I’ll find someone who wants to fight me before I get to the end of the road.
I don’t mind dealing with people who are polite to me. In almost every situation I’m happy to stop, have a chat, sign an autograph, whatever. But there’s a limit. A couple of months ago I was visiting the zoo with my son on my shoulders. All afternoon I signed autographs for people. Finally my little boy said, “Dad, why are you doing all that? This is meant to be our time together.” He’s right, of course. Then some woman walks up and very rudely says, “Give me your autograph.” I tell her I’ve been doing it all day and I just want some peace. So she starts screaming, “You f*cking Irish pig.” This is in front of my boy. But it’s not as bad as some thug who wants to kick my f*cking head in.
JW: Surely it’s enough to make you want to leave the country?
GB: Yeah, I could go off somewhere and live on my own. Go to some island where no one knows me. But that means they would have won. I’m not going to let them win. I refuse to run and hide. I love life too much to allow those b*stards to get to me. They might get a few decent punches in but they’ll never get to the part of me that matters. That’s my self-respect. I’ve never lost that. No b*stard can take that off me. People call me self-destructive but I’m a survivor. I’m here and I ain’t going anywhere.
My friends say to me, “Don’t take the bait. Don’t fight with these b*stards. I don’t see I’ve got any choice. I call my dad every day and he says, “Why are you always getting into trouble?” I don’t go looking for it. It finds me. They start with me and I’ll finish it every time.
One time I bedded seven different women in 24 hours in Manchester. I’ve always enjoyed the company of women
JW: It sounds like being George Best is a large burden to carry.
GB: That’s a good way of putting it, actually. It’s a f*cking huge burden.
JW: Paddy Crerand once said that you wouldn’t have had all the trouble in your life had you not been born a good-looking Irishman.
GB: Yeah, he could be right. My biggest burden is my face. If I could change one thing about myself, it would be my face. Because it means I’m always recognized. Most people are fine when they see me. Others look at my face and they only want to cause trouble.
There was a positive side to that in that I could always get women. No problem with that. One time I bedded seven different women in 24 hours in Manchester. I’ve always enjoyed the company of women. I could never be faithful though, not to any of them. It works both ways. The women I’ve been involved with have always screwed me both ways. They always end up selling their stories. I don’t need the money so I don’t do kiss and tells. I could crucify them if I wanted to but I don’t like hurting people. Unless they give me no choice.
JW: What are the chances of you settling down permanently with a woman?
GB: I’ve been with Mary (Shatila) for a while now, and that’s going OK. We have our differences though. Just the other night we had one f*ck of a fight. She called the bloody police. They understood what was going on, that it was just a domestic thing. They said, “Alright George, on your way, try to behave yourself.” I was p*ssing myself laughing because I knew there was nothing they could do. I told Mary there’s no point in calling the cops. They can’t arrest me for a domestic. The coppers haven’t always been so nice to me. When they arrested me in ’84, they made sure they rubbed my nose in it. They humiliated me. I’ll never forget that. I won’t forgive either.
As he put the champagne on the table Miss World came into the room in a lovely see-thru baby-doll nightdress and the little Irish guy, his eyes were now on stalks
JW: One of the best-known stories about you is the hotel room, the Miss World, the £15,000 on the bed and the room-service guy. Did it really happen?
GB: Oh yeah. It definitely happened. The Miss World was Mary Stavin, a very beautiful girl. We were on holiday in Vegas and I’d had a good night on the tables, which explains the fifteen grand on the bed. Come to think of it, it might have been as much as thirty grand. Anyway, we got back to the hotel. As I went past the desk clerk I ordered a magnum of champagne from the night porter. “Jesus, it’s yourself” the night porter said to me. He was a little Paddy, see. “I’ll be right up with your champagne.” We took the elevator and Mary went for a shower to get ready for bed. I took out all the cash and spread it all over the bed. A few minutes later the little Irish guy taps on the door and I let him in. His eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw all that money. As he put the champagne on the table Miss World came into the room in a lovely see-thru baby-doll nightdress and the little Irish guy, his eyes were now on stalks. I poured him out a glass of champagne as well as one for Mary Stavin and me. We toasted each other and when he had finished his glass I put two hundred dollars on his tray and he said goodnight and thanks. As he was about to leave the room, he looked back at Miss World in her negligee and then at all the money on the bed, and then back at me and shook his head slowly from side to side. Before he slipped out the door, he put down his empty glass and he gave me one more sort of pitying look and that’s when he said. “Where did it all go wrong Georgie, where did it all go wrong?”
That’s exactly how it happened. I swear to God. There were a lot of nights like that with women and champagne. E-type Jags…it was life in the fast line. Maybe it’s not quite so fast now. But, compared to most people, I’m still living fast. It’s not like I’m living in the bus lane.
JW: When did it first occur to you that you would never be able to live a normal life?
GB: I suppose it properly dawned on me fifteen years ago when I was playing in America. I was less well-known out there but there was always some idiot who’d recognize me and want to give me some hassle. I realized that even in the USA there was no escape. I was trapped, basically.
JW: What’s the greatest compliment you’ve ever been paid?
GB: A couple of years ago I went to a sports dinner in New York. Pele stood up and said, “Tonight in this room is the greatest player I’ve ever seen. George Best, please stand up.” I’d settle for that because it comes from a great player. I was a different player to Pele but I learned from him. I’d see him do something special on the field and think, “I’ll do better than that."
JW: Do you feel that any current footballer is comparable to yourself?
GB: I love characters in sport, whether it’s football, boxing, tennis…in football, we’ve lacked any great characters in the past ten years. Gascoigne is the best we’ve got but he’s too easily exploited. He’ll do anything the press ask of him. If they asked him to wear a dress he’d do it. He needs to realize there’s a difference between being a fool and being a character. If he doesn’t find that fine line, it could be the undoing of him.
If United came off the park having won 5-0 I’d feel no satisfaction unless I’d have done something that would have the crowd talking for the next week
JW: Danny Blanchflower once said that the game is ultimately not about winning – it’s about doing things in style and with a flourish. Presumably, you’d agree with that?
GB: Totally. If Manchester United came off the park having won 5-0 I’d feel no satisfaction unless I’d have done something that would have the crowd talking for the next week. Even if I had done something amazing on the field, it was never amazing enough. I would always be dwelling on the fact that I should have done something even more amazing. If I scored two great goals, the fact I didn’t get a hat-trick would nag away at me. I believe that’s the way that great athletes should think. They’re always striving for more glory.
Before a game I never thought about winning. The buzz for me was thinking how I could get 50,000 people up on their feet, chanting my name. So I’d do things to make them react to me. The best feeling in the world was knowing that I had the crowd in my pocket. See, that would spur me on to do even more outrageous things. I never stopped to think, “Better now try that. If it doesn’t come off, I’ll get a bollocking from the manager.” F*ck the manager. I’m playing for the crowd.” When you get that buzz off 50,000 people you want it to last forever. Once you get it, there’s no replacing it.
JW: Have you ever been able to replace it, even fleetingly?
GB: I haven’t come close, Jon. That’s the sadness of my life, if you like, but that’s how it is. My biggest problem is finding something to replace that buzz. I’ve tried gambling, women and boozing. All to excess. Anything to give me back that sense of excitement. They’re nothing more than diversions. I get a buzz out of all three but the excitement quickly wears off. Funnily enough, the closest I’ve got is my television work. Sitting there, waiting for the red light to come on, getting ready to speak my mind, I thought I’d found something there. Then I realized what it was all about. Those f*ckers won’t stand for the truth. They just want people like Jimmy Hill, fence-sitters. I tell them what I think and what I believe. But, if you’re honest on television, you won’t get any work.
Stan Bowles is one of the greatest players this country has produced, a genius, and he can’t get a job in the game. Last time I met him he was selling t-shirts down Brentford Market. It’s a f*cking disgrace
I won’t stand for people telling me what to so. But you get some TV executive saying, “If it’s a boring game, try to make it exciting.” Now that’s stupid. If you’re watching a sh*t match, it’s an insult to the viewers if you try and fool them into thinking they’re watching a classic. They’re paying money to watch this crap. If it’s rubbish, I’ll tell them so. Which means I don’t get employed. So there’s not much a buzz in that either. I suppose the biggest buzz in my life is getting into fights.
JW: You spend a lot of time coaching abroad now. Do you not get any offers from British clubs?
GB: Not a sniff. It’s not just me. Stan Bowles is one of the greatest players this country has produced, a genius, and he can’t get a job in the game. Last time I met him he was selling t-shirts down Brentford Market. It’s a f*cking disgrace. I do all my coaching in the Middle East, Hong Kong, Russia. Nobody is interested over here.
JW: What was the last offer you had from an English club?
GB: Five years ago, Ron Atkinson contacted me and asked me to come back to Manchester United. Not to coach. To play. As sweeper. I thought about it seriously for about two minutes. I kept remembering how disappointed I was when I left in ’74. I realized I couldn’t do it. I’d have been coming back into first-class football at the age of 39. There was no way I could win. What they’ve seen of me and what they would have expected of me, I just can’t play at that level any more. I can still do a little bit. The skills are there. But the pace has gone. If I’d have gone back to United I’d have been cheating myself and the supporters. I was the best, the best of all time. No doubt about that. If I’d have returned, I wouldn’t be the best any longer. I’d have gotten away with it. But I wouldn’t be able to play to my standards, which are sky high.
I came back before, in ’76, playing for Fulham with Rodney Marsh and Bobby Moore. Everyone still talks about the game against Hereford when we won 4-1 and I tackled Rodney on the pitch. Even at that time, I still had all the skill. But I was already slowing down. The crowds were still turning up to see me. We’d get 25,000 at Fulham. I was having a ball. But you can’t keep coming back, thinking it’s going to be the same.
JW: What lessons do you teach the kids you coach abroad?
GB: Exactly what Matt Busby used to say to me. The first thing I tell them is to have fun, to enjoy the game. I’m not there to teach them complicated systems they’ve never heard of. I tell them to go off and express themselves.
The English game is run by idiots. That’s why Cloughie never got the England job. Like me, he always told the truth. Those b*stards are scared of the truth. They run a mile from it.
JW: How do you think you’d fare if you were playing today?
GB: I wouldn’t last five minutes. It’s too bloody serious. They wouldn’t stand for my antics. When I played for United, it was like showbusiness. The likes of Albert Finney and Lulu would come and see me play, then we’d go out drinking afterwards. I was in the same world as they were. It was like being in an episode of Dallas. Football was so entertaining in those days and that’s why the showbiz entertainers were drawn to it. Now they’re not interested because the entertainment has gone out of the game. Half the problem is that the English game is run by idiots. That’s why Cloughie never got the England job. Like me, he always told the truth. Those b*stards are scared of the truth. They run a mile from it.
JW: What’s your biggest regret?
GB: I left the game far too early. I should have had a few more years at United. I hadn’t even reached my peak. But I had to leave. I couldn’t play for Tommy Docherty. I won’t stand for people telling me how to play. I definitely won’t take it from someone like Docherty who didn’t possess an ounce of my talent. To this day he swears blind that he dropped me from the team because I turned up to the ground with a model on my arm. It’s bullsh*t. It never happened.
I do regret it but, on the other hand, maybe I got out at the right time. I could see the game changing. The game I loved was going extremely wrong.
JW: How do you feel when you read some numbskull like Ian St. John saying you don’t deserve a testimonial match because you haven’t contributed enough to the game?
GB: I couldn’t give a fiddler’s f*ck what jokers like that have to say. What’s his point? That I didn’t play enough games? I played more than 600 times for Manchester United. I scored more than 200 goals for them. I was their leading scorer for six years. I was European Player Of The Year. I’m proud of all those things. No-one can tell me I didn’t contribute. I don’t understand why people like that have a go at me. Keegan’s another one. He once said that I had contributed to the decline in the game’s popularity. That’s bullsh*t. My name would put an extra ten or fifteen thousand on the gate. Keegan’s not my favourite person. I once said that he wasn’t fit to lace my boots. Someone else added that he wasn’t fit to lace my drinks. Keegan’s not in my class. All he had was a fancy perm and a fancy pair of boots.
JW: Where do you stand with alcohol these days?
GB: I’m sitting here with you know and I’m enjoying this champagne. I’ll be having another bottle any minute now, in fact. So, yeah, I still like a drink but I feel I’m on top of it now. When I fancy a drink I’ll have a drink. But I can go for months and months without touching a drop. When I’m off the booze I train like a demon. Not for the sake of keeping fit. I train like a lunatic so I’m in the proper shape to deal with any confrontation that comes my way. If I’m in good shape nobody can hurt me.
You see a lot of famous people surrounding themselves with bodyguards. That’s what gets them killed. Look at John Lennon. During the years I was playing a lot of my close friends were shot by f*cking nutters. One time my sister was shot in Belfast. But no-one is going to shoot me dead. Never. Because I’m always on the look out for it. I don’t fear that. I have no fears whatsoever. I’m from Belfast. We don’t know the meaning of fear over there.
JW: Can you honestly say that the good still outweighs the bad in your life?
GB: It still does. That’s not going to change. I love my life. I’m still having a great time, better than 99% of the people on the planet. The only regret is that I have to spend so much time and energy protecting myself. I can’t see that changing. My life’s one long fight. I wish it wasn’t. I can’t tell you how much I wish it different.
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