I can’t say I have ever been interested in football. As a matter of fact I’d go as far as saying I not only hate football but I can’t even stand the sound of a ball being kicked anywhere near me. Strange then, you must be thinking, for me to be writing a football post. Then again, I’m a Manchester lad, a town that boasts two Premier League football teams and a town that looks at George Best as both an adopted son and as one its icons.
Back in the late sixties and early seventies, George Best was Manchester’s very own celebrity sports superstar. In fact, George was a superstar before the word was even coined.
George came from Northern Ireland and arrived at old Trafford having been signed up by the club in 1961. He lasted only a matter of days before homesickness drove him back to Ireland. Later he came back for another try and this time he stayed. He made his debut for United’s first team in 1963 and scored his first goal for the team in only his second appearance.
Despite all I have said above about hating football I did visit Manchester United’s ground many times in the early seventies. My old friend Mark was a great United fan and we used to travel up to Old Trafford on the train and watch the game from the Stretford End. Later, Mark’s dad used to pick us up and drop me off at home. On the 24th October, 1973, Mark and I went to see Tony Dunne’s testimonial game and although Best wasn’t at his peak, he lit up the pitch with his talent.
He was dribbling the ball, flicking it back and forth and through peoples’ legs, changing direction and making the other players look like amateurs. At one point he seemed to run out of steam and become tired like an ordinary person and not the super fit athlete he should have been but his incredible ability and ball control was there for all to see.
On another occasion my friends and I travelled into Manchester by bus to hang about Best’s Boutique near to Deansgate. We never saw the man in person although what we would have done if we had, I don’t know. Ask for an autograph perhaps? I don’t know but at that time George Best had a kind of fame that was on a par with a film star, The newspapers even dubbed him the fifth Beatle in the sixties because of his Beatle like haircut and his undeniable charisma.
Amazingly, despite his celebrity status in the late sixties, he lived in digs in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton with his landlady Mary Fullaway; digs that had been arranged by his football club, Manchester United. Hardly the place for a footballer of Best’s status to rest his head, so in 1969 Best asked architect Frazer Crane to design him a new house. His only demands were apparently a sunken bath and a snooker room. Crane designed a modern building with a white-tiled exterior with full length floor to ceiling windows and electronically operated curtains.
There was an underground car park for Best’s Jaguar E Type and the house had all the latest gadgets such as under-floor heating and a TV that would retract into the chimney stack. The finished house was the ultimate bachelor pad for a man already famous for chasing the young ladies.
When I did a search on the Internet the house is described as being in Bramhall, that posh suburb and home to Manchester’s very rich before they started gravitating towards Hale. Actually, I remember the house as being in Cheadle Hulme, a very smart area of private houses just prior to Bramhall.
When Best moved into the house, my friends and I piled into someone’s battered old banger car and drove up to take a look. The newspapers had reported that the house looked rather like a public toilet which was a little unfair. It looked rather nice to me, very modern and worth every penny of the £35,000 it reportedly cost. The day my friends and I visited, there seemed to be crowds of people around, in fact, I even remember a coach parked up there. People had come from miles around to get a closer look at the number one footballer of the day and his new house. My friends and I chatted for a while, supped a couple of cans of coke and then went on our way.
Years later I was saddened to learn that Best would arrive home to find the same traffic jam on his doorstep and even had to ask people to move so he could gain access to the property. He might have been tired after a day’s training and perhaps fancied a quiet cuppa and some TV viewing, but the crowds gawping at him from outside made him want to turn the whole house around so he could escape the commotion outside his full length windows, a commotion that I was part of. The house should have represented a sort of freedom to the young footballer. Instead, it became a sort of prison and Best soon afterwards moved back to his Chorlton digs.
Years afterwards when I became a bus conductor and later a driver, the shift work seemed to spur my colleagues and me to seek out more and more social events. After an early shift we would spend afternoons at snooker and pool clubs and after a late shift we would go to late night bars and clubs that overlooked our bus uniforms. Sometimes we would take a nice shirt to put on in order to enter a smarter class of establishment. One night we went into a small place in Chorlton. I don’t remember the name but it was near to the old bus station. You had to climb up a set of stairs, knock on the door and a small hatch would open and a face would scrutinise you for a while. If you were known or looked not too thuggish, the door would open and the doorman would bid you to enter.
On this occasion my colleague, who was apparently a regular, vouched for me; we entered and went in search of the bar. The place as I remember was a series of small rooms. We ordered our drinks and went to take a look around, perhaps to see who was in; any friends or other bus colleagues. As we were about to enter one small room the landlady stopped us and said ‘George has had a bad day at training today so don’t go mythering him.’ I looked through the open door and there was George Best himself. He was sitting with a small group of friends or acquaintances and was chatting and drinking something that looked like lemonade but could easily have been a vodka.
That was my last personal encounter with George Best. Like many I watched his decline with increasing sadness. He was sacked by Manchester United and when Sir Matt Busby retired, a number of subsequent managers tried to wrestle Best back into the United fold but with only limited success. ‘Best misses Training’ seemed to be a regular headline in the Manchester Evening News and finally George played his last game for United. The incredible gaze of the media made life so very hard for George. I can’t think of any other footballer of the time whose life was under such an intense media spotlight. Once, when he had missed training, the press tracked him down to actress Sinead Cusack’s London flat and numerous bulletins were broadcast from outside the building. Best must have watched the TV news with horror.
Perhaps experiences like that drove him to drink. Perhaps he just liked the night life too much. Perhaps the descent into alcoholism was something George never even noticed, a gradual slide that saw heavy drinking become something else. There is a scene in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ that I’ve always found very telling. Chief Bromden, an apparently deaf and dumb native American Indian tells the story of his father’s drinking.
‘The last time I seen my father, he was blind and diseased from drinking. And every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he didn’t suck out of it, it sucked out of him until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn’t know him.’
George moved to the USA and played for a number of teams over there when ‘soccer’ as the Americans call it was gaining popularity. He battled with his problems for a long time after marrying his wife Angie and having a son but the booze would always be in the background. I watched a BBC documentary a while ago where Angie recounted a story about when she was taking her son to hospital in heavy rain. She drove past a man, drenched to the skin walking home drunk. She realised two things. One, the man was George, Two, she was finished with him.
George Best died of multiple organ failure after a kidney infection in 2005.