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Immortal: The Approved Biography of George Best, by Duncan Hamilton, Century, RRP£20, 528 pages
After George Best began drinking at Manchester United in the late 1960s, the club’s manager, Matt Busby, used to call him into his office. “He talked quietly to me,” Best would recall. “He screamed at me. He suspended me. He fined me. He put an arm around me. He did everything humanly possible.” But Busby – who like many Britons of the time didn’t understand alcoholism – failed. Best, probably the most gifted British footballer ever, went from social drinker to alcoholic.
Today a club would arrange counselling, but Busby allowed Best to drift away. Perhaps, the manager said later, it was because his earlier United team had died in the Munich air crash of 1958. In Busby’s words: “I had lost the other lads. That maybe made me more lenient with those who came afterwards.”
One tantalising question hangs over Duncan Hamilton’s diligent, highly readable biography: could better handling have saved Best from alcoholism? Hamilton, twice winner of Britain’s William Hill award for sports book of the year, suggests an answer.
Best was born in 1946 into an apparently functional Presbyterian family in Belfast. His father was an iron-turner in the shipyards, his mother then still a teetotal housewife. The boy was shy, polite and intelligent (Hamilton says his IQ was nearly 150). Joining United aged 15, he boarded with a landlady called Mrs Fullaway. “He’s a grand lad,” she says in one of Best’s first newspaper profiles. “He doesn’t smoke or drink and eats everything up I serve him.” In the profile, Best says he has no time for women and doesn’t dance.
Yet his talent and beauty changed everything. More like the rising 1960s pop stars than the grey 1950s footballers, Best saw himself as an entertainer: “I’d let people down if I didn’t put on a show.” A narcissistic performer, he would lie awake before games visualising brilliant solo feats.
Soon Best was wearing his hair long and buying new outfits every day. Mrs Fullaway’s house drew flocks of women (Best said he once slept with seven within 24 hours) and reporters. At first he loved the attention but gradually it got out of control. “An amazing number of people”, said Best, “walk up to you while you’re trying to take a pee and want to shake hands with you.” He had become one of the first modern celebrities.
His career peaked in May 1968, the month of youth, when United beat Benfica to win the European Cup. Best scored but to his disgust didn’t give the brilliant solo display he had visualised. Afterwards, he said, “I went out and got drunk.”
Though only 22, he would never win another medal. He’d expected United to rule Europe for years but instead they declined around him. Meanwhile his once dreary home town was collapsing into sectarian conflict, and people wouldn’t leave him alone. Having begun drinking to mask his shyness, he ended up drinking to escape. His career faded with the 1960s.
He became Britain’s most public alcoholic, yet few could see what was happening to him. The mainstream British belief then was that drunkenness was funny. Even Best himself, in later after-dinner speeches, treated the whole thing as a joke: “In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol. It was the worst twenty minutes of my life.” You close the book feeling that a crazy adult life and lack of any guidance made him an alcoholic.
After leaving United in tears in 1974, he had cameo spells with various small clubs. Occasionally the old brilliance surfaced. In 1980, in an indoor game in San Jose, California, I saw him stamp on the ball to send it over his opponent’s head.
By then he had endured his mother’s death from alcoholism, for which he blamed himself. Later came bankruptcy, prison, divorces and a liver transplant. He died in 2005 and was given practically a state funeral in Belfast, which named its airport after him. Almost no other symbol unites Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics.
Immortal strips away the myth to show the human Best. Hamilton is a guarantee of quality but not in this case of brilliance. Approved and helped by Best’s sister Barbara, Hamilton catalogues the drinking, yet never quite gets inside the alcoholic’s head. It’s as Best suspected: nobody could understand what it was like to be him.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist