George Best's illness wasn't so much a news story as an excuse to revisit some familiar haunts. Football needs to kick its obession with Best's drinking and womanising, says Dave Hill
Perhaps the People got the nearest to the truth. Lacking a bedside interview or a hack who could recall getting legless with good old Bestie, the boy who could always sink a few bottles more, they chatted up a fellow drinker at his local.
“George… can be happy and friendly,” the anonymous friend remarked, “but he can be quite nasty, particularly if he’s been on the brandies. He assaults people verbally and physically almost every day. He’ll take a swing at someone – anyone – a stranger in the pub, someone who didn’t laugh at a story, someone who laughed too much.”
Sometimes, the friend continued, George’s wife Alex would arrive to take him home. “Mostly he can’t stand, he is falling over everybody and dribbling. But she is so tender and kind. George will rant and rave and he’ll take a few swings at her too while shouting out that she’s a whore and a slag. The other punters in the pub just try to pretend nothing’s happening. It’s horrid and pathetic.”
Unnamed newspaper sources should always be treated with suspicion. Maybe the People’s “friend” is not a friend at all. Maybe they made him up. But the words quoted on the page certainly describe an alcoholic. Happy? Friendly? Sure, even when intoxicated drunks can be those things. Funny and charming too. But as with any sort of addict, other human beings usually come off second best. Ask Tony Adams: “I picked up a girl for the night and took her back to the Holiday Inn,” he recalls in Addicted. “She was just another fix to try and make me feel better… I just wanted to have her and for her to leave so that I could get back to my drinking.”
The strength of Adams’s book is that it lays bare both the monomania of alcoholism and how the culture of British professional football fosters dedicated boozing; the way it nurtures values like getting arseholed to the point where it is widely considered almost as important as getting goals. Oh yes: and everybody else can go to hell. Modernised it may be in all sorts of ways, but Big Football remains the last bastion of men who behave badly and don’t see why – let alone how – they ought to stop. Most press coverage of Best’s recent visit to the hospital revealed just how disabling this myopia remains.
For the most part, the tone was the familiar one of nostalgic mourning for an astounding talent long since gone to waste. “Bestie’s brilliance on the field of play was to be put under threat by his determination to play the field,” reminisced John Sadler in the Sun. “Until, eventually, he quit on us so far short of what ought to have been the fulfilment of his talent that we felt betrayed.”
Ross Benson in the Daily Mail had more intimate strings to his weeping violin: “One night on the tiles long ago when we were young and George was still fit and healthy, I pointed to the clock which was moving ominously towards 3am and said: ‘We’ve got to go. In 12 hours’ time I’ve got to watch a football match and you’ve got to play in it’.” Benson re-upholstered the familiar comfy sofa of Best mythology, recalling standing on a Stamford Bridge terrace nursing a hangover as Georgie scored two gorgeous goals despite spending the last part of the night in an actress’s flat.
Then there was Peter Batt in the Express, former sports writer of the year, former “running partner” of Best’s during his Manchester heyday and, as he starkly explained, a recovering alcoholic. He travelled 15 years back down Memory Lane to an anniversary of the Munich air crash which coincided with Best having a glass smashed in his face in a London bar. Batt recalled phoning the editor of the Daily Star and asking if he could write “the definitive ‘fallen angel’ tribute to Georgie”.
These pieces followed the standard line on Best’s fabulous rise and grim decline: How He Couldn’t Handle Having It All. The reasons for this slide from “El Beatle” to Old Soak were generally put down to the unique pressures on a unique athlete whose style of football stardom was, well, unique in its time. Sadler cited “the exploitation of the hangers-on”. Benson fingered Best’s personal weakness: “As a player he always somehow managed to evade the studs and elbows that rained in on him. As a man he could not escape the consequences of his own intemperance.” Batt, not surprisingly in view of his own troubles, stuck to begging Best never to touch a drop again.
But while pathos clearly permeates the George Best story, the element missing from these cautionary retrospectives was any understanding that Best was not only the realisation of football at its most fantastic but also the personification of some of its worst crap. True, there had never been one quite like him before. True, such celebrity must have been hard to cope with. But although Best was special, he was also typical, a typical young lad who was atypically well-equipped to be the lad of all lads.
He was the best footballer, anywhere. He was also the best looker in his neighbourhood, not exactly a hindrance to being the best bird-puller as well. By becoming the best boozer too, he mastered young masculinity’s holy trinity. No wonder he was unable to get things in perspective. No wonder his legend continues to beguile.
Brain Reade in the Mirror clearly remains seduced. Recalling a meeting with the great man at which – for mysterious reasons – he invited Best to road test the alcopop Hooch, Reade haemorrhaged adulation: “Here was the greatest footballer and one of the most prolific womanisers these islands has (sic) ever produced, reliving the goals, the birds and the benders…” Reade’s piece more than any other demonstrates a chronic inability to separate fantasy from reality: appropriately, in a newspaper edited by a twerp like Piers Morgan.
Yet Reade’s gushing is also instructive. For if we – we chaps, that is – are honest with ourselves, we know Reade is not alone in his guileless reverence. The reason Best goes on enjoying such forgiveness, such indulgence, such slavish adoration, is that he really did – and to some extent still does – exemplify the kind of man most of us have at some time yearned to be. “He made football sexy,” Reade enthused. “He was the sexiest man of his time.”
And seen through media-coloured glasses, Best can still appear sublime. Football magic, girls galore, good times on the town: in Best we see the illusion of a wondrous kind of freedom, a young man’s high life led with such apparent ease that the normal rules simply did not apply.
The truth, of course, is not quite so attractive. Best himself has long made light of his problems in public, insisting he is still happy to be part of soccer showbiz, delighted to be living a supposed Peter Pan existence at 55. I doubt he’ll kick his habit unless he finally gets to grips with such ruinous self-delusion. But at least it’s not a solitary addiction: the coverage of Best’s latest drinking troubles soberingly proves that lots of us are still pretty drunk on George.
From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month