Personal Encounters with George Best

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.

George Best. Picture courtesy Wikipedia

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.

picture courtesy Daily Mail

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.


If you liked this post you can read more about Manchester in the 1970’s in my book Floating in Space. Click the links at the top of the page to find out more or watch the video below.

The British Grand Prix

This is the premier weekend of British motorsport, yes, the British Grand Prix. Time once again for Hamilton and Rosberg to do battle, along with the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkanon and the Williams cars of Bottas and Massa, and all the lesser teams who gather at Silverstone to fight it out on the tarmac for the spoils of victory.

Years ago, when I was a schoolboy and followed Formula One with a religious fervour, the British Grand Prix alternated between Silverstone, the flat former airfield circuit in Northamptonshire and Brands Hatch, the picturesque track in Kent full of twists, turns and dips.

Today, it seems to me as though Silverstone is trying to turn itself into Brands Hatch because in the past decade they have added various twisty sections and an entire new pit and garage complex. Many other traditions have vanished too in F1 such as the annual post British Grand Prix cricket match; not possible today unfortunately as the latest drivers are prone to dash off home at the end of the race at the earliest possible opportunity. Even a DNF (did not finish) is not all bad if it fits in with an earlier flight.

Now that the F1 teams are flying off to ever more distant lands for their racing; places like Singapore, Soshi in Russia and Bahrain to name but three, it’s good to see the drivers return to a track where the greats of the past also raced. Fangio and Moss competed at Silverstone, as did Stewart and Clark, and Prost and Senna. What they think of the current Silverstone is anybody’s guess but perhaps I’m being mean, looking back when I should be looking forward. Silverstone today is the UK’s premier track and to a great extent, the UK is the centre of the Formula One world. Most of the current F1 teams are based within a stone’s throw of Silverstone and even Mercedes, the current number one team are based in the UK despite their German background. Within 80 minutes of Silverstone is an area nicknamed motorsports alley and the teams that are based here include Mercedes, McLaren, Lotus, Red Bull, Force India, Williams, and F1 minnows Manor Marussia. In many ways, the British Grand Prix is the home race, even for the Mercedes!

I’ve not visited Silverstone since 1992 when it was £60 just to walk in through the gates. What it costs nowadays to gain entrance I shudder to think. Even so, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg should hopefully deliver a performance that will make the entrance fee well worth paying.

My favourite Grand Prix was the 1987 event. I visited Silverstone that year to watch the qualifying and then returned home to watch the race on Sunday on television. Nigel Mansell won a terrific race after changing tyres and then chasing and finally overhauling team mate and race leader Nelson Piquet for a memorable victory.

Nigel Mansell German GP 1988 photo by author

Nigel Mansell German GP 1988 photo by author

Formula One team bosses are currently in something of a panic. Investors have poured millions of pounds into F1, not because they like the sport but because they find their investment can pay off big style in these days of multi million pound global TV and advertising deals. Reports of failing interest in the sport however has rung alarm bells and throughout the motorsporting media there have been calls to make F1 more interesting. Why are the cars not louder? Why are Mercedes winning all the time? Should we bring back refuelling? Is the high tech aspect ruining the driver input? There are even calls for Bernie Ecclestone, the aging F1 emperor to hand over to someone else. Only time will tell what will happen. It sometimes makes me smile when I compare Formula 1 to other sports like cricket. Can you if imagine if Ecclestone and his investors had a stake in cricket and the TV viewing figures were down? What would happen then? Increase the number of overs? Maybe have an extra ball in each over,  seven instead of six?  Change the wooden ball to a rubber one? Add an extra stump? Or even helmet cams on the batsman! Now there’s an idea!

Enjoy the British Grand Prix on Sunday and if you liked this blog, why not buy my book? Click the icon below!

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The French grand Prix

sennab copyeditThe European grand prix season is well underway and it would have been rather nice to have combined my visit to France with a trip to the French F1 event, of course that’s clearly impossible as despite being the most historic race of all -there is no French Grand Prix.

Why ever not you may ask? The answer is this : the formula one season is a tv event first and foremost. It is the tv companies of the world that pay money into Bernie  Ecclestone’s F1  franchise and a race in France doesn’t fit into his the global tv vision of F1.

What does fit in then?  The Abu Dhabi grand prix,  with its multi million dollar circuit that is used only a handful of times  per year? Where there is no local motor sporting infrastructure, no local race teams and no local race drivers, in fact no local interest at all! There is interest though in publicising this small Arab nation to the western world through the power of tv and the same holds for Bahrain, another new race in the F1 firmament where the primary focus is Bahrain, not F1. Similar events now crowd the F1 calendar, China, Korea, Russia,  and Singapore.  Speciality non events far from the hub of traditional formula one racing like Spa Francorchamps, Monza, Zandvort, Silverstone, and the Nurburgring.

Recently Bernie Ecclestone was asked about the return of the French race. No, he said we will be having a race in Azerbaijan next year!  What? Can this man be serious? Clearly he is.

Ecclestone, who is currently facing bribery charges in a Munich court can clearly see the cash register jingling on the F1 till.  Still, when you consider he has been accused of slipping someone a forty four million dollar bribe, well,  the potential profits in that deal must presumably be in excess of, well. forty four million dollars!

The time has come for formula one racing to hand the managerial reins over to someone who is more interested in the sport than the million dollar pay check. OK, the sport has to make money, who would argue with that?  After all, the costs of todays race machinery, cars, engines, race tracks, drivers and logistics, is fantastic and teams like Marussia are desperate for points in order to tap into the incoming TV revenue to stay afloat.

My advice as a long time race fan; ditch Bernie, ditch the exotic locations and go back to basics. recruit a CEO like Jackie Stewart, a highly respected F1 elder statesman who loves the sport and from that one standpoint will be on a level field with formula one fans the world over.