“In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol – it was the worst 20 minutes of my life.”: The Rise And Fall Of George Best

George Best playing for Manchester United
George Best posing for a fashion photo shoot

Most people my age who grew up watching soccer had the greats of the 1990s and 2000s. Idols such as David Beckham, Diego Maradona, Dennis Bergkamp, Michael Laudrup, Peter Schmeichel, Lionel Messi, Peter Chech, Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Wayne Rooney, Ronaldinho, and many more. I could go on and on. Future generations will have Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Heung-Min Son, Virgil Van Dijk, Luka Modric, Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandowski, Branislav Ivanovic, Bukayo Saka, Neymar, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante, Kasper Schmeichel, Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Mesut Ozil, Gareth Bale, Edison Cavani, Raheem Sterling, Giorgio Chiellini, Robin van Persie, Kevin De Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus, again, I could go on and on. But I’ll stop there because I think I’ve made my point.

Baby Boomers such as my parents had a different breed of players to look up to. They played back when you didn’t get a yellow card for getting a little too rough or when off pitch antics didn’t get you suspended almost immediately. They grew up watching the likes of; Bobby Charlton, Pele, Bobby Moore, Gerd Muller, Michel Platini, Lev Yashin, Dennis Law, Peter Simpson, Elias Figueroa, Kevin Keegan, Franz Beckenbauer, and George Best. It is common for players from past decades greatness to spill into current and even future decades and many of the names I mentioned above will be talked about and live on forever. But George Best won’t be known for his ability to play the sport he will be known for the dismantling of his own life. And while he might want to be remembered for only the amazing things he did on the pitch; that’s unfortunately not how things played out. Because you can’t live the type of life he did and only be remembered for the good. 

George Best was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on May 22, 1946. He was the first child of Richard Best and Anne Withers. In 1957 the academically gifted Best passed the 11-plus (a standardized test given to some students in England and Northern Ireland during their last year of Elementary school) and attended Grosvenor High School. Although he was very smart and studies came easily to him the school specialized in rugby and he began playing. This caused his studies to start slipping and he subsequently became truant. He was sent to Lisnasharragh Secondary School and reunited with his friends from elementary school. This allowed him to make his primary focus football (soccer). He grew up supporting Glentoran and the Wolverhampton Wanderers. He played for Cregagh Boys Club. 

When George Best was fifteen years old, he was discovered in Belfast by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop, who sent a telegram to United manager Matt Busby. It read: “I think I’ve found you a genius.” His local club Glentoran had previously rejected him for being “too small and light”. He was a skinny little thing. Thin as a rail. Best was given a trial with Manchester United and signed up with their chief scout Joe Armstrong. While with the club, Best quickly became homesick and returned home after only two days. He eventually returned to Manchester and spent two years as an amateur, since English clubs were not allowed to take Northern Irish players on as apprentices at the time. He was given a position as an errand boy on the Manchester Ship Canal, allowing him to train with the club twice a week.

On September 14, 1963 at the age of seventeen, Best made his First Division debut against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. At the time this was the top division in the English Football League System. When the Premier League was formed in 1992 the First Division was relegated to a second-tier division. The name was scrapped altogether in 2004 and became the Football League Championship (now EFL Championship). Did you enjoy that little bit of information? Good. He was then dropped back into the reserves, before scoring his first goal for the team in his second appearance against Burnley on December 28th. Matt Buby then kept Best on the team, by the end of the 1963-1964 season, he had made twenty-six appearances, scoring six goals. A loss to West Ham United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, cost Best the chance to break a record; becoming the youngest player ever to play in a FA Cup Final. That same season, Best captained the Manchester United team that won the 1964 FA Youth Cup won under the management of Jimmy Murphy. It was the first cup win since the teams 1958 Munich air disaster (https://wordpress.com/view/darksideoflife.blog).  

Although opponents would often use rough play to try and falter his technical ability, Busby ensured that “fierce, sometimes brutal” training sessions left Best well used to coping with tough challenges. In his first full season as a starting team regular (1964-65 season), George Best helped Manchester United claim the league title. Best was catapulted to superstar status at the young age of nineteen when he scored two goals in a European Cup quarter-final match against Benfica at the Estadio da Luz on March 9, 1966. His stand-out performances allied with his dark “Beatles” mop-top hair, and the Portuguese media dubbed him “O Quinto Beatle” (“The Fifth Beatle”). On the team’s return to England, Best was photographed on the airport tarmac in his brand-new sombrero with the headline, “El Beatle”. His talent and showmanship quickly made him a fan and media favorite. He went from being headline news on the back pages to the front pages.

Best’s other nicknames included the “Belfast Boy”, and he was often referred to as Georgie, or Geordie in his native Belfast. During the 1965-66 season, Best was injured from March 26th onwards with a twisted knee following a bad tackle from a Preston North End player. However, United staff claimed it was light ligament damage so Best could continue to play for the remainder of the campaign. He found himself having little faith in the Man U medical staff and secretly saw Glentoran’s physiotherapist, who readjusted his ligaments in a painful procedure. During the 1966-67 season, Manchester United claimed the league title once again. George Best scored ten goals in forty-five games. He helped the Red Devils share the Charity Shield with a 3-3 draw with FA Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur in the first game to be broadcast in color on British television.

During the 1967-68 season George Best was presented with the FWA Footballer of the Year award, becoming the youngest ever recipient of the award. Manchester United beat Benfica in the European Cup Final at Wembley when Best scored a goal just three minutes into extra time. Followed by two more goals from Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton. This was not only the pinnacle of Best’s career, but arguably Manchester United’s greatest achievement, considering the Munich Air Disaster had wiped out most of the Busby Babes just ten years prior. In 1968 Best won the Ballon d’Or after receiving more votes than Bobby Charlton, Dragan Dzajic, and Franz Beckenbauer. By the age of twenty-two he had won three major honors in club football. The league title, European Cup, and European Play of the Year award. After this time the steady decline of his life began. 

During the 1967-68 season George Best was presented with the FWA Footballer of the Year award, becoming the youngest ever recipient of the award. Manchester United beat Benfica in the European Cup Final at Wembley when Best scored a goal just three minutes into extra time. Followed by two more goals from Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton. This was not only the pinnacle of Best’s career, but arguably Manchester United’s greatest achievement, considering the Munich Air Disaster had wiped out most of the Busby Babes just ten years prior. In 1968 Best won the Ballon d’Or after receiving more votes than Bobby Charlton, Dragan Dzajic, and Franz Beckenbauer. By the age of twenty-two he had won three major honors in club football. The league title, European Cup, and European Player of the Year award. After this time the steady decline of his life began. 

At the start of Best’s demise, the “holy trinity” of Best, Law, and Charlton was still as effective as ever during the 1968-69 campaign. Although, it soon became obvious that the club’s new additions were not up to par as United dropped to eleventh in the league before Busby announced his retirement. Despite their poor form the team managed to reach the European Cup semi-finals where they were knocked out by A.C Milan. United improved slightly under new manager Wilf McGuiness, but still only managed to finish in eighth place in the 1969-70 season. Best scored twenty-three goals, including a FA Cup record six goals. His six-goal performance earned him an invitation to 10 Downing Street (the official residence and executive office of the First Lord of Treasury) from UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who had regularly written letters to him. Busby returned as manager in December 1970. Best began to get in trouble with his discipline; he was fined by the Football Association for receiving three bookings for misconduct, and he was suspended by Manchester United for two weeks after missing his train to Stamford Bridge so he could spend the weekend with actress Sinead Cusack.

United had another new manager, Frank O’Farrell, for the 1971-72 season. The team once again finished in eighth place. Highlights that season for Best included hat-tricks against West Ham United and Southhampton, as well as a goal against Sheffield United that came after he beat four defenders with a lot of fancy footwork. On the flip side, he was sent off during a game against Chelsea, was the subject of death threats, and failed to turn up for training for a week in January, instead choosing to spend his time with Miss Great Britain 1971, Carolyn Moore. With twenty-seven goals in fifty-four appearances, Best finished as the club’s top-scorer for the sixth, and final, consecutive season. At the end of the season, George Best announced his retirement from football, but turned up for pre-season training, and continued to play. Ummm….okay? United’s decline continued in the 1972-73 season; since Best was part of the “old guard clique” that barely spoke to the newer, less talented players. Frustrated with the club’s poor performances and rough decline, Best went missing in December to party at the London nightclubs. He was subsequently suspended and transfer-listed at a value of £ 300,000.00 ($364,740.00). After O’Ferrell was replaced as manager by Tommy Docherty, Best announced his retirement a second time.

Despite his announcement, Best began training again on April 27th. Okay, Tom Brady, can’t you just stay retired? Best played his last competitive match for the club on January 1, 1974, against Queens Park Rangers. He failed to turn up for training three days later and was dropped by Docherty. After being dropped like a hot potato, (Yum, a hot baked potato. Sorry guys, I’m hungry) George Best was arrested and charged with stealing a fur coat, passport, and checkbook from Marjorie Wallace (an American actress, model, and beauty queen), but was later cleared of all charges. Man U went on to suffer relegation into the Second Division in 1973-74.

Best played during a time when shirt numbers were assigned to positions, and not the player. When he played right wing, as he did in the later stages of the 1966 and 1968 European Cups, he wore number seven (which was later famously worn by David Beckham). When he played left wing, he wore number eleven. On occasion, Best played inside right and wore the number eight. When playing inside left he wore number ten, which is now reserved for some of the league’s top strikers and is a shirt that has to be earned. He donned number eleven in 1974 before leaving the club for good. In total George Best made 470 appearances for Manchester United and scored 179 goals. Over the next decade, he went into an increasingly rapid personal decline, drifting between several clubs, including spells in South Africa, the Republic of Ireland, the United States, Scotland, and Australia. He would never find the level of greatness he once held while with Manchester United.

Playing only five competitive matches for Jewish Guild, in South Africa, Best endured a ton of criticism for missing several training sessions. During his short time there, he was the main draw; attracting thousands of fans to the matches. In 1975, Best played three matches for Stockport County in the Fourth Division. He had a quick pass-through Cork Celtic and made his League of Ireland debut against Drogheda United on December 28, 1975. He played three league games and despite attracting big crowds he failed to score or impress. Being on a rolling contract with Cork his failure to show up for a game saw him being dropped and subsequently leaving the club. He had a brief stint with Second Division club Fulham in 1976-1977, showing that, although he had lost some of his pace, he retained his skills. His time there is particularly remembered for a match against Hereford United on September 25, 1976 in which he jokingly tackled his own teammate, and old drinking buddy, Rodney Marsh. The two were drawn to the club by the presence of England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore, and were involved in exuberant goal celebrations. While in the United States Best played for the Los Angeles Aztecs, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and the San Jose Earthquakes. He also played for the Detroit Express while the club was on a European tour. Yeah, because people in Europe really want to spend money to watch some MLS trash.  

Best caused a commotion when he returned to the UK to play for the Scottish club Hibernian. The club was suffering and heading for relegation from the Premier Division before Best was signed on a “pay per play” basis. Best failed to save the club from relegation but managed to quadruple match attendances. After going on a massive drinking binge with the French rugby team (who were in Edinburgh to play Scotland) he was sacked by Hibernian. He would be brought back a week later. He returned to the US to play for the San Jose Earthquakes in what was officially described as a “loan”. During his third season in the States, he scored one goal in twelve appearances. His moves to Fort Lauderdale and San Jose were unhappy ones. His off-pitch demons once again began to take control of his life. After failing to agree to terms with Bolton Wanderers in 1982, George Best was invited as a guest player and played three matches for two Hong Kong First Division teams. The Sea Bee and Rangers. While with the Hong Kong Rangers he played alongside his former Northern Ireland teammate Derek Spence. Did you know that until 2019 I thought Hong Kong was the capital of China? Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh. I never claimed to be good at geography.

In late 1982, AFC Bournemouth manager Don Megson signed Best for the Third Division side. He remained there until the end of the 1982-1983 season. In August 1983, he played in a friendly for Newry Town against Shamrock Rovers. That same year George Best retired from football exactly twenty years after joining Manchester United at the age of thirty-seven. On August 8, 1988, a testimonial match was held for Best at Windsor Park. Among the spectators were Sir Matt Busby, Jimmy Murphy, and Bob Bishop. Those playing included Osvaldo Ardiles, John Neeskens, Pat Jennings, and Liam Brady. Best scored two goals. 

George Best was capped (a player’s appearance in a game at the international level) thirty-seven times for Northern Ireland, scoring nine goals. Of his nine international goals, four were scored against Cyprus and one each against Albania, England, Scotland, Switzerland, and Turkey. Best would tell people that he considered his international career as being “recreational football”. He is regarded as one of the greatest players never to have played at a World Cup. He was briefly considered by manager Billy Bingham for the 1982 World Cup, but at the age of thirty-five, with his football skills dulled by age and drink, he was not selected for the Northern Ireland squad. In 2005 Best stated: “I’ve always thought that at any given time both the Republic and Northern Ireland have had some great world-class players. I still hope that in my lifetime it happens.” Well……it doesn’t.

Best was a highly skilled winger, considered by many to be one of the greatest dribblers (maneuvering a ball by one player while moving in a given direction, avoiding defenders’ attempts to intercept the ball) in the history of football. He received praise for his playing style, which combined pace, skill, balance, feints (deceiving the opposition into believing he is going to pass, shoot, move in a certain direction, or receive the ball and instead doing something entirely different), two-footedness, goalscoring, and the ability to get past defenders. Although George Best was mostly revered for his dribbling skills, he also drew praise for his ability as a creator. During his early years at Old Trafford, Best was a shy teenager who passed his free time in poolhalls. It was until later that he became known for his long hair, good looks, and extravagant celebrity lifestyle. I personally don’t see it. I never thought he was an attractive guy. But hey to each their own I suppose. In 1973, he opened a nightclub called Slack Alice on Bootle Street in Manchester and owned restaurants in the city. Best and partner Mike Summerbee owned fashion boutiques around Manchester.

Best married Angela MacDonald-Janes on January 24, 1978, at Candlelight Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas after meeting in the United States while Best was playing for the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1976. In 1981 the couple’s only child, Calum Best was born. The pair separated in 1982 and divorced in 1986. Angela has announced publicly that the divorce was brought on by Best’s severe alcoholism. In 1995, Best married Alex Pursey in Kensington and Chelsea, London. They too would divorce in 2004. The couple had no children together. After their divorce, Pursey claimed that Best was violent towards her at times during their marriage and that he had punched her in the face on more than one occasion. Best was once arrested and charged with assault on a waitress, Stevie Sloniecka, in November 1972 after he fractured her nose in a Manchester nightclub. At the height of his career in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Best advertised Cookstown sausages on television. In 2007 a memorial plaque was placed outside the pork factory in County Tyrone town. In the early 1970s, he also advertised eggs, in both magazine and television ads. George Best was included in the FIFA video game series as an icon in the FIFA 19 Ultimate Team Legends. In 2007, GQ magazine named him as one of the fifty most stylish men of the past fifty years. Best had managed to earn himself a pretty good fortune but ended up losing almost all of it.

In 2012, Best was featured in the list of The New Elizabethans to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. George Best suffered from alcoholism for most of his adult life, leading to numerous controversies. In 1981, while playing in the United States, Best stole money from the handbag of a woman he didn’t know in order to fund a drinking binge. In 1984, Best was sentenced to three months in prison for drunk driving, assaulting a police officer, and failing to answer bail. In 1990, he appeared on the BBC’s primetime chat show Wogan in which he was heavily drunk and swore, at one point saying to the host, “Terry, I like screwing”. Well, thanks for that information. Best was diagnosed with severe liver damage in March 2000. His liver was functioning at only twenty percent. He was admitted to the hotel with a bad case of pneumonia in 2001. In August 2002, Best had a successful liver transplant at Cromwell Hospital in London. He hemorrhaged so badly during the operation that he almost died. In 2003, Best sparked controversy when he was seen openly drinking wine spritzers at a restaurant. I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re not supposed to do if you’ve had a liver transplant. But hey, I’m not a doctor. Best was convicted of another drunk-driving offense and banned from driving for twenty months on February 2, 2004.

Best continued to drink and was sometimes spotted at his local pub in Surbiton, London. On October 3, 2005, he was admitted to intensive care at Cromwell Hospital, suffering from a severe kidney infection brought on by side effects of immuno-suppressive drugs used to prevent his body from rejecting his transplanted liver. I’m sure his drinking had something to do with it as well. By October 27th, local newspapers and other media outlets were starting to announce the Best was close to death and had sent farewell messages to his loved ones. Rodney Marsh, Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law, and other fellow footballers visited Best in the hospital to say their goodbyes. On November 20th, the British tabloid News of the World published a picture of Best (at his request) showing him in his hospital bed with a severe case of jaundice, along with a warning about the dangers of alcohol. In the article, he told the world “Don’t die like me”. In the early morning hours of November 25, 2005, treatment was stopped. George Best passed away later that day at the age of 59. His cause of death was a result of a lung infection and multiple organ failure.

Tributes were paid to Best from around the world, including from arguably three of the greatest footballers of all time, Pele, Diego Maradona (who died on the same day fifteen years later) and Johan Cruyff. Fellow Manchester United legend Eric Cantona gave the eulogy at George Best’s funeral. “I would love him to save me a place in his team, George Best that is, not God.” A minute’s silence was held before all Premier League matches held over the weekend of his death. The first match held at Old Trafford after Best’s death was a League Cup tie against West Bromwich Albion, the club against which he made his debut for Manchester United in 1963. The match was preceded by tributes from former teammate Sir Bobby Charlton. Bet’s son Calum and former teammates, as well as surviving members from the West Brom team he played against during his debut, all joined the current United squad on the pitch for a minute’s silence, during which fans in every seat held up pictures of Best, which were handed out before the match. 

George Best’s body left his family home at Cregagh Road, East Belfast, shortly after ten in the morning on Saturday, December 3, 2005. More than 100,000 mourners lined the road to pay their respects as the corpse passed by. Former Ireland manager Billy Bingham, along with international teammates Derek Dougan, Peter McParland, Harry Gregg, Gerry Armstrong, and Denis Law was the first to carry the coffin to the base of the Stormont steps. His funeral service was held in the Grand Hall of Stormont. Three hundred invited guests turned into approximately 25,000 mourners inside the grounds of Stormont. Best’s brother Ian, agent Phil Huges, Dr. Akeel Alisa (the doctor who treated Best), and his brothers-in-law Norman McNarry and Alan McPherson, were also pallbearers. As the precession left Stormont, the Gilanhirk pipe band played. Best was laid to rest beside his mom Annie Mary Best in a private ceremony at the hilltop of Roselawn Cemetery, overlooking east Belfast.

In March 2006 airline Flybe named a Dash 8 (Q400) plane The George Best. In May 2006, Belfast City Airport was renamed George Best Belfast City Airport as a tribute to Best. In June 2006, Sarah Faberge, great-granddaughter of Russian Imperial Jeweler Peter Carl Faberge, was commissioned to create the George Best Egg. A limited edition of sixty-eight eggs was produced, with all profits from the sales of the eggs going to the George Best Foundation. The foundation promotes health through sports and supports people with alcohol and drug problems. The first egg produced is on display at the George Best Airport. On the first anniversary of his death, Ulster Bank issues one million commemorative £5 notes. They sold out in five days. In December 2006, the George Best Memorial Trust launched a fund-raising drive to raise £200,000 to pay for a life-size bronze sculpture of George Best. By 2008 the money had still not been raised until a local developer, Doug Elliott, announced on January 29th, that he would put up the rest of the money and manage the delivery of the project.

The last picture taken of George Best

Like the motto some people take to heart; George Best lived fast and died young. While he is remembered for his excellence in the sport of football, he is also remembered for his extravagant lifestyle. Full of women, drinking, and bad decisions. Alcohol would end up being his undoing and ultimately end his life. But I suppose we all have our vices. 

National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Hotline 1-800-662-HELP(4357)

Sources:

“George Best” – Wikipedia

“George Best: All By Himself” – ESPN 30 for 30

“Remember George Best” – Bleacher Report

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