Few men in games ever express the temper and rhythm of their times to the point of becoming the embodiment of a social climate. It is not only a matter of authentic genius; there is also the pure accident, a collision between a man and his age, and today only three men would seem to qualify as more than statuary passed in our race to crush boredom: El Cordobés, the bold vagabond from Andalusia who spoke in the bullring for an unshackled Spain; Muhammad Ali, whose courage spoke for sanity; and finally George Best, who is.
Just who George Best is accounts for volumes of opinion and thesis, agreeing only that he is the most gifted soccer player in Great Britain, that he has tippled his way through half of England's import of Russian vodka, that he has a Faroukian collection of girls, that he is—God willing—an outside wager to reach the age of 30. He is one of the few figures, perhaps the last, of mythological dimension in the history of English soccer. A man of only 25 whose appeal is so vast, so hypnotic he is daily matter for talk from Parliament to Soho, a source of vicarious pleasure and pique for millions. "Why, why do we make so much fuss over him?" muses an English critic, fearful that George Best dwarfs the game itself and dims its sanctity.
"George Best is an endless job," says his agent Ken Stanley. "We've a full-time staff of six people working continually on Georgie." The work includes handling roughly 2,000 letters a week from every part of the world and the control of maybe one of the largest fan worships ever founded. "A lot of people don't like the fan club," says Stanley, "but it makes sense. If George gave everyone what they want, his mailing costs would run to ¬£10,000. The club helps cut the costs. And we have never asked anyone to join, people begged us to form it—15,000 of them." By the time he is 30, says Stanley, George Best will be worth a fortune, so extraordinary is the power of his name, attached to everything from eggs to men's shorts.
Going by train to Manchester, the besooted, deadly austere city north of London where Best reigns like a prodigal prince, one tries to put him in some perspective from the convenient valley of ignorance. Less dramatic than Ali, closer to El Cordobés, Best seems at first to be simply another totem in the current cult of image that can hardly bear much more traffic—another of those who are sold like the latest aberration in fashion, surface rebels who are trendily precocious and craftily practical, all of those free-form souls who have now become as prosaic as the crew cuts who adorned the Eisenhower era, the backlash of which may have visited upon us this even more boring species.
March 27, 1972
But George Best is a soccer player. Sung about in music halls, fought over in pubs, the game has always been the primary release for the working class. The cloth-cap tides eventually swept it to the top of English sport and forged themselves, for one brief moment each week, into a new community. "All brothers together," wrote J. B. Priestley, "for...not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses...but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbors, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together...swopping judgments like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life...."
For decades soccer clubs harvested the fanaticism and religiosity of the men from the mills and factories, and fed on the abundant talent that came from them. Niggardly to their players, rigid in their demand for absolute servitude, the clubs thrived and stood contemptuous and aghast at periodic suggestions that they adopt a more liberal spirit. "I used to look at those crowds," recalls Jimmy Logie, a star in the 1950s, "and think I was the only star who earned less than the people watching me."
Peonage ended early in the '60s, but it was not until Best came from Ireland, out of a council house in Belfast, that a new era became personalized.
To calibrate the rise of George Best, his impact on a generation, go back to what was commonly known in 1965 as Swinging London. Harold Wilson was talking about a classless New Britain. The Kings Road in Chelsea, with its lovely girls from every corner of the earth, its mélange of Cockney burglars and escapist aristocrats, its air heavy with the scent of a New Day, was the first center of what would later be called social revolution. Even the old gray Tatler sensed the surrounding decomposition, and its owners reorganized in an attempt at a journal that might appeal to England's "new aristocracy." But the grubby absolute of soccer remained as so much else was slipping past, though nobody on the Kings Road—the sybaritic, the searchers for any old high—talked of a game so rooted in another time.
Then came George Best. For the first time, in a nation just as team conscious as America, a single presence seemed to dominate the stage; from the appearance of the players to the style of the game itself, things would never be the same again. Even though now he seems one of many, it is sheer nonsense to group Best with his imitators. He was an original, he was to soccer what the Beatles were to music out of Liverpool, what Carnaby Street was to fashion. He not only brought a new genius to the game, he transformed it into entertainment, a word some officials still cannot abide.
But George Best did not create himself, did not sit down one day at Old Trafford and say, "I think I will be different." It was the mood of the people that made him, and he moved upon it like a bottle on the sea, sometimes smoothly, often turbulently. Expressing that mood more and more with each new day of his young life, he became, and is, the epitome of the hero, meaning that he is what we are not, that he is unlike anything or anyone who trudges through our environment. It is a time of romantic longing, and few have satisfied it more than George Best. He is now the ultimate hero of the working class, which gorges itself on pieces of him every Saturday afternoon, and a flesh and blood fantasy to English soccer's growing new audience, the young and the beautiful and the hip who cannot distinguish between reality and role, to whom everything is a scene out of a movie ("like a scene out of Casablanca, damn it...you know, with a fan on the ceiling in this Moroccan bar").
Not even in the tweedy isolation of Blossoms Lane up in Manchester, where Best owns a house and often broods these days, can he shut out the hysteria, evade the reach of those who want to be near him. "It was once quiet in Blossoms Lane," says a woman on a nearby farm. "Now the place has become a Sunday drive-out, a main stop for tour coaches, and cars are passing up and down all hours with people just gaping out and teen-agers stomping all over my lovely garden hoping for a glimpse of him." One of the men who worked on the house says, "It was a public monument before the roof went up. On Sundays you could not park for the sightseers and girls who came out to watch the work. Why, when we advertised for general laborers the replies were five times the normal. Forty instead of the expected eight! Best was always Georgie to the workmen. I can see him now, sitting on a wall during tea breaks having a cup from a laborer's brew can."
Quiet and running colors, the late October day up on Blossoms Lane seemed far removed from the shadow of the Irish war, but there it was, like shrapnel in your cornflakes. Police rimmed the Best house, not because another girl had recently thumbed her way to his house to present her dreamings at his front door but because his life had been threatened a week before, and now a woman had reported that two men had rung her bell, asking for Best's address. One of them, she said, had a gun.
As he opened the door, having peeked through the window and waved to the police, the lunacy of Ulster was etched deeply on the face of George Best, and rightly so: when it comes to Ulster, birth and blood are not gainsaid by altering one's geography. "The Protestants are getting more Protestant," says Best, "and the Catholics more Catholic. Even the wildest rumors are believed over there. They're saying I gave Ian Paisley ¬£3,000 to help finance one of his churches. Imagine anything more ridiculous. But that's the kind of thing that can get you shot. It's so horrible, and there seems no way out." He guides his visitors through the great windowed house, which cost him ¬£40,000 and is replete with the gadgetry and comfort and—to some—the ostentation of sudden success: a mammoth color television and stereo that disappears by remote control, a large wine rack, a sunken tub that looks like an empty lake, a game room from which he once threw a pool cue through the window in a moment of lonely rage.
Now, walking from window to window, he pauses to comment, "If a sniper wanted to do a job on you he couldn't pick a better place." He adds that it was not really injury, as had been claimed, that prevented him from playing for Ireland. He says he has been told that if he goes there he will never make it back to England. He appears agitated; the deep-set blue eyes with the half-inch lashes that are forever being mentioned on women's pages are empty, the face, with its pall of a beard, grows darker in the dying light. It is not existence on the precipice of danger that bothers him so much but danger's intrusiveness, its coming at a time when he was performing as no other British player before him, all with a zest and joy that critics once contended had been doused by his fame.
"You know," he says, "I still find a special thrill in playing with goalposts with nets. When we are training at Old Trafford and there are no nets I feel like going in a huff and refusing to practice. I still get a special charge when the ball makes that whirring noise as it hits the nets." The phone has beeped constantly. Most of the time he has left it to his answering service, but he can scarcely bear to do this, for the phone offers escape from his isolation, though it means, more often than not, idle and constipated exchange with a girl friend; he is not glib, on the phone or off it. Then it is his mother who calls, and his response to her is cool and tinged slightly with bravado, as if he hopes his manner will allay her fears, quiet her roiled emotions, the anxieties about him that have impaired her health since the day he left home for Manchester when he was 15. He puts down the phone, sighs and shakes his head.
"My sister," he says. "She got shot in the leg coming out of a dance. Not badly, but bad enough. And she got shot because she is my sister."
Night falls, and Best directs the conversation toward less sinister matters: a note from Harold Wilson commending him on a spectacular goal, a letter from a close girl friend who pleads with him to turn and chase whatever it is that he is running from—and would he refrain from kicking down her door at all hours of the morning because the next time he does, her neighbor says she will have her police dog attach one of his lovely legs. "I used to joke that my ambition was to be a millionaire," he says, veering from his personal straits to his fiscal condition. "Now it's not so much a joke. I'll be disappointed if I'm not near it by the time I'm 30. Then I'm going to breeze. I've had Manchester. It's like Peyton Place. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing. I don't know if I could ever live anywhere in this country after I've finished. I thought Switzerland was great, but when I went there I found it was too perfect, too beautiful, just too much."
Though a common condition in youth, the restiveness, the urge to be somewhere other than where one is, seems almost chronic in Best. His sudden flights are seldom signaled. He will be in his villa in Majorca, and he will fly back to London to get a haircut. He will be up in Manchester, and will suddenly make a three-hour drive to London for dinner. His father recalls answering a knock late one night at the house in Belfast. "There he was, Georgie," he says, "standing on the doorstep wearing one of those Honolulu shirts and old suede shoes, no shave, and he's askin' for two quid for the taxi. Then he runs upstairs, picks up the twin girls and his little brother out of bed and brings them down and plays with them for a couple of hours. The next mornin', dawn hardly up, he catches the plane back to Manchester."
Best walks his guests to the door, and he appears reluctant to say goodby. "To tell you the truth, I'd like to go into town and have a drink with you, but the police won't let me out of the place. I'm glad I've had someone to talk to. I think I'll get a bird over here. You know, some bloke in London would rip me for saying that. Like they always do, he'd write I was not serious about my work. Well, I know I would be a far better player if I became obsessed with the game as some fellows are. It just so happens that the way I'm made—and, let's face it, the way I look has a lot to do with it—takes me into many other things in life. I get on very well with birds, and I'm not one to fight against that. I like to enjoy myself, to get pleasure out of the money I'm making."
He smiles and then says, "If I had been born ugly you'd never have heard of Pelé. As it is, it just wouldn't be possible, you see, for me to live like a monk to suit the demands of the game. I'd go mad. I know I burn the candle at both ends and drink too much, but I love the game and work hard at it. I don't kid myself that I give it absolutely everything I could. When you ask me if I consider myself the best player in the world the answer is no. But I'm sure I could be. When I'm right at my sharpest I feel I can do anything with the ball whatever the opposition. All I'm saying is that I could never narrow my life down to the point where the only thing that mattered was the game. No one knows how it feels to be me. I...."
His voice trails off, and then one of the police hollers out of the dark, "You're a fine target, standin' there in the light, Georgie. You'll catch a cold, too."
How strange it all still must seem to Best, that house, the police out in front of it, a life so frightfully remote from his gray smoke of an existence in Belfast: the front doors of the houses painted the same; scrawny privet hedges; ragged kids in the streets in the winter light, trying to dribble with balls made of binding rags; the streams of men, their breath on the air, hands deep in their pockets, returning from the shipyard where his father worked. "Every night after lessons we played football until bedtime, using the streetlamps as floodlights. Who cared how little money we all had? I never wanted pocket money. Only the game counted. We lived for Saturday afternoons when we would bundle our boots into schoolbags and dash off for the local bus to the pitch."
He was 15—"just a speck of a body"—when Bob Bishop first saw him. Bishop was the Irish scout for Manchester United, and he wired back to United, "I think I have found a genius." The scout went to the Best house and found the genius out front in the dark dancing with a tennis ball; he invited him to spend two weeks in Manchester. "When he arrived," says Mrs. Mary Fullaway, who was his landlady for years and would become another mother to him, "all I remember is this little head looking out of the car window, and I recall saying to myself, 'Well, he'll never make a footballer!'" The next night Best fled back to Belfast. "I felt I didn't belong," he says. "I was very home sick. When I got home my father was furious. He felt that I had thrown away a chance of a lifetime. I'm sure he felt like whacking me. Yet my mother understood. She put her arm around me and said, 'Never mind, son.' "
Best returned to United, which found him odd jobs, and when he was 17 the club signed him. Four months later he was in his first match; it was to be one of the most memorable debuts in British soccer. He brought the dribble back into the game, a lost art that had faded with Stanley Matthews and Len Shackleton and become obsolete with the genesis of the versatile player of the mid-'60s. "The memory that Best left in my mind after that game," recalls one critic, "was of frailty animated into intensely personal enterprise." Quickly, Best became firmly entrenched among the elite of the game, his innovation and instinct exploding into the sort of virtuosity that defied the pedestrian language of soccer. "I've never liked tactics," says Best. "Tactics bore me." The fans steadily came to agree with him, and few will ever forget the pass he once made for a United goal; like a street urchin, with mud crusting his wet black mane, Best made the pass with a stockinged foot while holding his boot high in the air.
That sort of acrobatic plainly excites Best. He sometimes imagines himself in a Cup Final at Wembley before the Queen with millions watching on television. He imagines Manchester leading by two goals with 20 minutes left; the team is invincible, so he says, "It is time to show off." First a long kick from the goalkeeper balloons down the field, and he traps it against the turf with his backside. "Can you hear the roar!" he says. "The cheek of it! A player so in control he can bring a ball under his spell by sitting on it. But I haven't finished." The crowd bays crazily. "They want more," he says. "I sweep past the left flank of the defense bouncing the ball on my thighs and never letting it touch the ground. Listen to that crowd," he suggests. "Then the final stroke. A center across the face of the opposition goal. Forget about the laws of balance, I fly into a headstand and volley the ball into the foot of the net with my feet. God, can you hear them!" Impossible? "No, I've done all these things in practice, and I've kept the ball off the ground in a lengthy dribble against West Ham."
Any talk of individualism, or of Best, personal or otherwise, usually invites comment on Sir Stanley Matthews, who was knighted for what he did on a soccer field. Matthews was a dour figure who typified the working class of the '30s, a part of England that could not have related to the glamour of any era and never thought of clawing its way out of anonymity, a silent horde that lived daily with dole and debt. By his every feature, Matthews was one of them. He had high cheekbones, pale lips, an unemotional face that seemed never to have known youth; if you were going to paint the face of Stanley Matthews it would be the classic worker's face. He never smoked, never drank, and two sentences back to back were a speech for him. Thrift directed his personal life and hard work wrought a career of tempered steel. Until 1965, when he finally retired at the age of 50, Stanley Matthews was an inexorable force of drama and dignity across the terraces of British stadiums.
"In a sense," remembers one fan, "Matthews' clinging to his playing days was very like the manner in which he played individual matches. When he moved with the ball, shuffling, leaning, edging ever closer to the defender, he was always the man teetering on the very brink of disaster, and we waited breathlessly to see whether this time he would fall or whether yet again he would come swaying back at the last possible moment to run on clear and free. We'll never know how he would have fared today against these faster, lighter, more tenacious defenders. Some think he would not have done well. Maybe, but if I were going to pick an all-time international team, I'd have Matthews, at 35, on my right wing and George Best [actually also a winger] at inside right, and invite the opposition to find the ball."
No quality of perception is required to say that Best and Matthews would be an attack for the ages, even though the only thing they would have in common would be their immense prestige and spare bodies. Unlike Matthews', Best's face implies that he would crumple in the presence of a hard day's work. It is a face, one thinks, that would bring a snicker from a workingman; surely he could not impute to it the stuff of heroism. But in England today as elsewhere, the worker, like those who play on Kings Road, wants his share. The prolix cliché now used to define his times is, after all, "the revolution of rising expectations," and more than ever he resents the grinding monotony of so much of his work, the obscurity of it all, the cloddish debasement of his being. He is as restless, as disconnected as any kid with a knapsack and a thumb on his way to London. Whatever it is out there they are expecting, he wants some of it, too, and through George Best he has a piece of today.
For all of his elastic appeal, the pop idolatry that seems to distract from his fathomless talent, it is only the Best on the pitch that is genuinely stirring. Out there, searching for space in which to start his long, truly beautiful dribbles, he offers the constant promise of the incredible. "If I had the whole of Britain to choose from," says Sir Alf Ramsey, manager of the English soccer team, "instead of just England, the only non-English player I would pick for my team would be George Best." Sir Matt Busby, a director of United, says that he would not put a price on him, but "in straight cash we'd need a million for him." Busby believes the knife-edged drama of Best taking a ball so close to an opponent to beat him defies imitation. "He is possibly the greatest player on the ball I have ever seen," says Busby. Danny Blanchflower, once one of the stars in Britain, says, "Matthews was, let's face it, a supreme dribbler who would tax even the most ruthless, sophisticated defenses of today. But he was primarily a provider. Tom Finney was perhaps a better all-rounder than Matthews. But George Best gets my vote. He's a master of control and manipulation, a superb combination of creator and finisher, and he can play anywhere along the line. But more than the others he seems to have a wider, more appreciative eye for any situation. He seldom passes to a colleague in a poor position. He is prepared to carry the responsibility himself. Best, it seems to me, makes a greater appeal to the senses.
"His movements are quicker, lighter, more balletic. He offers the greater surprise to the mind and the eye. Though you could do nothing about it, you usually knew how Matthews would beat you. In those terms, he was more predictable to the audience. Best, I feel, has the more refined, unexpected range. And with it all there is his utter disregard of physical danger. Just think of his ability to beat all of the giants in the game while in the air. He has timing and balance in his feet and ice in his veins. But I doubt if he will ever play as long as Matthews. George is one of the most closely marked players I have ever seen. Hatchet men track his every stride, and he takes terrible punishment."
Evidence of the violence dealt to Best is visible after every match. His shoulders are black and blue and his heel tendons and fragile ankles show the impact of persistent boots. A scar runs across the ridge of his right brow, there is another on his left knee. The right knee has hardly any cartilage. The pain absorbed, the pressure of being hounded and his own quick temper keep Best in constant trouble with officials; the fact that he plays for United does not promote coolness, either. The club, one of the most magnetic in Europe, is no stranger to bad conduct, and its fans are famous for their misbehavior. They are not enamored of London teams, and one of their songs goes, "Oh, we kicked him where he lives and we kicked him in the head. Bleedin' old Cockney...he's dead." Such a team and fans are dry tinder to Best's inflammatory petulance, and the results seem forever splashed blackly across the tops of English papers.
"He's a temperamental player," says Referee Eric Jennings, who was caught by some mud Best threw. "No one else can take the ball off him. If things go wrong, he gets upset. I think it's his nationality."
"I don't ask for special consideration for George," says Busby, "but in some respects he deserves it. I am convinced that some opponents have gone out to hurt him. He takes some knocks long after the ball is gone. No one in the game takes as much stick as George and probably no one ever has."
Of more concern to Busby, his current manager Frank O'Farrell and the press—the latter sympathetic most of the time—is the personal comportment of Best. His lapses range from numerous nightclub incidents and romantic entanglements to motoring infractions and serious breaches of training. Always there is a girl who eventually sells her story of George to one of the papers, which usually titillates the masses with headlines like ONE DANCE AND GEORGE RUINS MY ROMANCE, GEORGE BEST THE LOVER...BY THE GIRL HE PLANNED TO WED. One of his more publicized entanglements was with a Danish girl named Eva Haraldsted: he invited her to spend a week in England, and she stayed on to sue him for breach of promise. "I finally settled it with her," says George. "I gave her some money, and she used it to get a nose job."
Eva says, "George was gentle, he was kind, he made me feel that he was the only man who mattered. When George wanted something, money was no object. Why, when my clean clothes ran out—remember I had brought only enough over for a week—he gave me a blank check to go and buy some more. One of our first differences was when he picked up some spareribs with his fingers to chew them, and I said: 'George, that's not very nice.' I wished I had kept my mouth shut. He hated me to defy or contradict him, especially when other people were present. On the way back in the dining car, after a game, one of his friends offered me a cigarette. George said, 'She doesn't smoke.' I didn't, but I took the cigarette just to let George know I had a mind of my own. He didn't speak to me the rest of the journey.
"He had a fear of breaking a leg, and he told me the trainers of the other teams always shouted, 'Go for his legs!' He also had a thing about his image as a nice guy, and he would not leave a card game if he was winning. He liked to stay until he had lost. The George Best I knew was simply sensitive and kind. But his pet hate remained. He couldn't stand for me to argue with him in public. Once when I did, he told the papers the following day that we were through. I asked him why and he said, 'Because I feel I can't remain faithful to you.' "
Another girl suggests that going out with Best "is a bit like being on a jet plane, piloted by a blindfolded Jekyll and Hyde." She says that a girl with Best is in a situation in which she has little or no control, and that above all she must have a complete disregard for human logic. "I was watching a movie with him once, and suddenly my name was flashed on the screen. There was an urgent message for me at the manager's office. I made a mad dash up the aisle, thinking of every serious thing I could imagine. The manager calmly handed me the envelope. I opened it nervously, and what do you think it says? 'I Love You, G.' " A more concise assessment of Best comes from still another girl. "Sometimes he's an Irish navvy, sometimes he's Cary Grant, but mostly he's himself, quiet, withdrawn, rarely speaking. We used to have some beautiful silences together."
The pursuit of girls, often as carefully studied as the invasion of Normandy, seems to have finally treed Best himself; that is, if girls are what motivates his truancy from training. His first brush with United came a little more than a year ago. He missed a team train back to Manchester and went off to London instead. There, with half of Fleet Street banging on his door, he was found with an actress. Busby suspended him for a fortnight.
The episode was not generally laughed off as a typical Best escapade. The press and the public, to say nothing of his team and his friends, were by this time distinctly concerned about George. "I was so bloody mixed up," he tried to explain, "that I just wanted to get away for a few days. I just wanted some peace and quiet. In the end I panicked. I didn't know what the hell to do. I only wanted some breathing space. I'm so nervy now I even look over my shoulder to see if anyone is following me or watching me. I would be lying if I said I didn't like all the fuss when I first started. I did. But suddenly it's all gone sour. Every move I make is magnified. Even my house gets it. They come and look at it and say it looks like a public lavatory. That's unkind."
A subsequent and similar flouting of training appears to have brought the full wrath of United down upon him, even that of the players who revere him. Best had not been playing to form, and United seemed sadly mediocre. "He'd been part of the decline," said one player, "and he should have been training all week to help us put it right." But Best had disappeared again. At first it was thought that, fearing for the safety of his family, he had returned to Belfast, but when Frank O'Farrell went there to see if he could help, he learned George had not been home in months. O'Farrell returned to Manchester in a graveyard mood. A week later Best proved to have taken off for London again; the script varied principally in that the girl this time was not an actress but the current Miss Great Britain.
When O'Farrell finally had a private talk with Best he emerged saying, "I think he is a lonely boy, a very lonely boy." But then he dropped his ax. He fined Best two weeks' pay, ordered him to train with the regular team in the morning and with juniors every afternoon for a week and told him he must forfeit his day off for five weeks. He then cut at the root of Best's life, demanding that he move out of his house and back into digs with Mrs. Fullaway. All single players are required to live in boardinghouses, but Best had been an exception.
A headline in one of the next day's papers read, BEST MUST LEAVE HOME. Another said, THE BEST SENTENCE. Beneath it was an article by Mrs. Fullaway entitled I've Kept the Room Ready...For My Little Boy Lodger. "Don't feel sorry for the wee boy," says Pat Crerand, George's closest friend on United. "What he needs is a good kick in the arse. If Georgie keeps going on he will not last much longer than another two or three years. He has not got the same respect for football that he once had." Says another, "George needs help. He's got to find out who his friends are. People are getting famous just by being seen with him. There are too many people saying, 'Come on, George, have one more for the road.' " Dave Sadler, who once lived with Best in digs, says, "Sure, I lived with him, but I don't know him. I've not scratched the surface of him." The beauty queen Best had been seeing during his absence from United could only say, "How can he court me now?"
The question is surely of small concern these days to Best, who has become, to the stranger studying him, a curious, incomprehensible little man, instead of the cardboard figure revealing only a mania for girls and nocturnal wanderlust. Now there are glimpses of a hidden self, a self whipped by the compulsions of his youth and times, a Black Irish insistence on self-destruction. To the student of Best, they indicate much more than a caricature—and a future that could find him done in by his image. The race with his facade has left him lonely and confused, a small animal caught in a headlight. "My life controls me," he complains. "But I want to be in control of my life." Maybe that is what he was saying the day a girl he had been seeing stopped by to pick him up. He was gone, leaving only a note on his door. It read: "Nobody knows my name."