When we think about George Best, do we remember him for his football, or for his alcoholism? Many people have asked themselves this question both during his life and after his premature death. How will he be remembered?
George Best was born on 22 May, 1946 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father Dickie is a shipyard worker, his mother Annie a former hockey player. They are from a Presbyterian background and live in the residential district of Cregagh, south east Belfast, at number 16 Burren Way.
The Bests have six children, George is their first child. In every spare minute George plays football on the street and on the neighbouring sports field. At fifteen, he is discovered by Manchester United’s talent scout Bob Bishop.
At that time, the club were looking for new talent, because three years earlier, they had suffered a major blow. It happened on Thursday, 6 February, 1958 at Munich-Riem Airport. The team had played against Red Star Belgrade and were on their way back to Manchester.
Their plane, an Airspeed Ambassador, stopped at Munich to refuel. It was snowing and there were freezing temperatures. On the third attempt to take off, the plane came off the runway and exploded. Half the team died. Manager Matt Busby was seriously injured. His life hung in the balance. Nine team members survived. Matt Busby recovered and started building a new team.
And so, in 1961, talent scout Bob Bishop sends Matt Busby a telegram in which he says: “I think I’ve found you a genius“. Best comes to Manchester, but returns to Belfast after just one day. He doesn’t feel comfortable at the world-famous club and he’s homesick. Matt Busby writes to his father. His father writes back and Best returns to Manchester. Busby becomes a father figure to him.
George lives a small house on Aycliffe Avenue, Chorlton, South Manchester with Mrs Fullaway, a widow, and her son Steve, a Manchester United fan. She takes care of him as if he were her own son.
Soon his team mates start to notice his talents. “Sensational,” says Pat Crerand in the 2017 BBC documentary. He also remarks, what a nice and quiet lad Georg Best is. His first outing is on 14 September, 1963 in the game against West Bromwich Albion.
Manchester United’s main aim is to win the European Cup. In 1966 United plays Benfica in the quarter-final of the European Cup. It is 3 2 to United from the first leg. After Tony Dunne’s free kick, George Best scores the first goal with a header. Five minutes later, he dribbles past five Benfica players and scores for the second time. Manchester United win the game 5:1 but not the cup.
In the BBC documentary, goalkeeper Harry Gregg comments: “The night that George became a different person, was the night that George scored two goals against Benfica. On that night he became the legend that was George Best.”
George Best becomes the first football pop star with an extravagant lifestyle: parties, expensive cars, champagne, gambling, women. He owns two fashion boutiques, appears on tv shows and is called the ‘fifth `Beatle’.
Lisbon 1968, Best scores in the final of the European Championship against Benfica. United wins 4-1. Best is voted Footballer of the Year in Europe and England.
Ten years after the Munich Air Crash, Matt Busby has achieved his ambition. At 22, George Best has reached the peak of his career. But where to now? Unfortunately for George Best it downhill.
On the 26th of April 1969 Sir Matt Busby resigns as manager, but stays on as General Manager of the club. Several managers follow, but the good times are over for Manchester United.
Best’s alcohol escapades become more and more frequent. He turns up drunk for training or not at all. Everywhere he’s pursued by the press.
George commissions a dream house to be built on Blossoms Lane, in Bramhall south of Manchester. But the state-of-the-art bachelor pad only offers even more opportunities for parties, intimate rendezvous with attractive models and alcohol.
On one occasion, George goes missing for several days and is then found in London. Sir Matt stipulates that he must go back to live at Mrs. Fullaway’s house.
Due to his gambling addiction and unsuccessful business activities he starts to build up large debts.
In 1972 Best announces his resignation, but makes a comeback nine months later. He’s not successful. He is not fit enough and he doesn’t train enough not to mention the effects of alcohol.
After eleven years at Manchester United, he makes his final appearance on 1 January, 1974. He has scored 179 goals in 470 games but never has played in the World Cup or the European Cup
After that, George Best makes a series of appearances: for the Jewish Guild of Johannesburg, Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Cork Celtic and then Los Angeles Aztecks. At that time, Elton John was co-owner of the club.
There he becomes a cult star and is able to enjoy the California life style: soccer during the day, racquetball on the beach in the afternoon, pool and drinks with friends in the evening. In Hermosa Beach he meets model and former Playboy Bunny Angie MacDonald. In 1978 they get married in Las Vegas.
The stability does not last long. George opens a bar, Bestie’s Bar, and the alcohol problems return. Angie becomes pregnant, Calum is born in 1981.
Again he doesn’t show up for training. He is suspended, moves to Fort Lauderdale Strikers, plays for Fulham FC, Hibernian Edinburgh, then San Jose Earthquakes. There he undergoes alcohol therapy three times, but to no avail, and he finally returns to the UK.
Best plays 37 times for the Northern Ireland national team and scores nine goals. He declares he’s in favour a single north-south Irish national team. After appearing at AFC Bournemouth and Brisbane Lions in Australia, Best ends his career.
In 1984 he is found by a police officer to be drunk at the wheel of a car. After insulting another police officer, he goes to prison for two months.
In 1986 he gets divorced from Angie. In the late 80s he works for various newspapers and becomes a commentator for Sky Sports. He often talks openly about his alcohol problems. His escapades are reported almost every day in the British tabloid press.
In 1995 he marries the model Alex Pursey. In the BBC film, she tells how, free of alchool, he is the ideal husband but when under the influence, he becomes aggressive
In December 2001, he receives an Honorary Doctorate from Queens University Belfast. He undergoes a liver transplant in August 2002, but still he is unable to give up alcohol. In 2004, he loses his licence due to drink driving and his marriage to Alex ends in divorce.
In October 2005, he is admitted to Cromwell Hospital in London. The end comes on Friday the 25th of November 2005 at 1:00 p.m. His son Calum tells the press: “Not only have I lost my dad, we’ve all lost a wonderful man.”
100,000 people come to his funeral in his home city of Belfast. In 2007 the airport is renamed George Best Belfast City Airport. But the decision is controversial. In the referendum, 52% were in favour, 48% against.
So when we think of George Best, do we remember him for his football or for his alcoholism? Both, because they are the two sides of a tragic hero.
In his homeland, his name is still spoken with reverence by people in both communities there are George Best murals in many places. On YouTube, videos of his legendary dribbling skills have been viewed millions of times. The George Best Facebook page now has over 300,000 members, more than any other deceased football player.
In the end, what can you say about George Best? Genius on the pitch, most famous footballer of the beat generation, tragic hero. But for his fans, young and old, he remains the best football player of all time.