Tuesday, October 23, 2012

George Best: El Beatle on Drinking, Shagging, Gambling, and the Perils of Living One Day At A Time


Tina Turner echoes around the Glasgow Pavilion, past the grey-haired men in trench coats the snuggling couples, the ex-boxers and the men with dates tattooed on their hands. The sound bounces off the empty seats, spins around the gods, then booms back down to the stage.
Two middle-aged men appear in matching shell suits; black with a red flash. They sit on tall stools under the spotlights, looking like a Batchelors’ reunion. #
The grey-haired one seems slightly nervous and wears his top zipped to the Adam’s apple. 
The dark one with the grey beard wears white trainers which have never seen dirt. To his left there is an ice bucket containing  an uncorked bottle of Champagne. He is happy. He is onstage, doing what he does, telling tales about himself. He is being George Best, footballing legend. Simply the Best, better than all the rest. Later, he will be asked if there is real champagne in the bottle. “I promise you it’s real,” he will say.
This is a show called A Sporting Night To Remember, a Scottish version of the chat and comedy tour George Best takes round England with his football friend Rodney Marsh, another football maverick. For this one, Marsh has been replaced by ex-Ranger ‘Slim’ Jim Baxter, who is said to be planning a tour of his own with ex-Celtic winger Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone. It is a nostalgic evening in which the most frequent complaint from the stage and the stalls is the absence of characters in today’s football. “How do you compare the football when you played with today?” Baxter is asked. “No comparison,” he replies. “Ask the punters.”
The pictures of Best tell their own story. The first clip is the one Terry Wogan used to introduce the player in his now infamous television interview. The game is a big moment in the Best legend, an FA Cup tie between Manchester United and Northampton from 1970. Best returned to the team after a long suspension and scored six goals. He was beardless then, and wore number 11 as he danced through a muddy penalty box leaving the defence stranded in slow motion. “Imagine,” the commentator mused, “what he might have done had he been match fit.”
“But,” said Terry Wogan, “at 26, tragically early, he finished with top class football. So what happened to the man Pele himself called the greatest footballer?” 
So what happened? George Best is sitting on stage and a comedian is pumping him for some scandal. “What happened on the Wogan show?” he is asking, and everyone is laughing, because in Best’s career, Wogan is the public fall from grace, bigger than suspensions, divorces, bankruptcy, jail (and he has done all of those). It is Best’s Chappaquiddick, the night when the high times demanded payback.
What happened on Wogan was that Best turned up to plug something – it could have been his video Genius, or perhaps his autobiography, The Good, The Bad, and The Bubbly – and the unfortunate host crushed the legend in a tortuous nine minutes. The centrepiece of the drama, before Omar Sharif was wheeled on to mop up, was a non-interview in which Wogan did a lot of nervous smiling and Best echoed his questions back at him. “What is important in life?” Wogan asked, timidly.
“Friends,” said Best.
“Football?”
“Football. Yeah. Still. Yeah.”
“The ladies?”
“The ladies are still important, yeah.”
Wogan smirked. Maybe he saw his career flashing before his eyes. All those nights at Eurovision rattled in the back of his head. From the audience came a few stifled laughs like the murmur of a distant underground train. The mood was half embarrassed sympathy, half devilment. The audience smelled blood, though they weren’t sure whose.
Vultures hovered over Best’s head. Wogan saw two doors marked “Exit”, but chose the wrong one.
“What about the booze?” he fumbled. “Is that important to you?”
“The booze is still important. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”
The train drew closer. Towards the end of those nine minutes – an eternity in the life of Terry Wogan – the conversation turned back to women. There is an anecdote about Best and his success at bedding Miss Worlds, and it may have been this that the host was trying to prompt.
George mumbled. “I like screwing, all right.”
“So what do you do with your time these days?”
“Screw.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, George Best.”
So what happened that night? George Best is talking about Wogan. Everybody saw it. It was one of those television moments. Best is laughing now. “A couple of lovely things happened. Omar Sharif and I got engaged. And I did get a lovely phone call from a couple of nice friends of ours, Oliver Reed and Alex Higgins. And they both said ‘Bestie, you fuckin’ looked alright to us, pal.”

Friends, football, ladies and booze. Put those together and you have the basis of the George Best story. The trouble is that the man sitting quietly in his dressing room waiting to go onstage is a smarter prospect entirely than the flip character of legend. The champagne is uncorked, but he does not drink. He talks quietly and carefully. The life of this George Best is beautifully simple. The word that peppers his sentences is “lovely”.
Friends: “Everything got out of hand until about seven years ago. And I decided to change it. I got hold of a terrific lawyer, who was recommended to me, and this man, who has become a real close friend, sorted it out for me, he cleaned it up. I paid off all my debts, particularly to the Inland Revenue, and he now looks after me, and if anybody gives me a hard time he turns around and does what he thinks is necessary.”
The other vital element in the Best revival was his girlfriend, Mary Shatila, who runs his diary. “I worked it out with Mary that in the last two years I’ve made something  like 1000 appearances. And two I haven’t turned up for. One other one, I turned up where I’d had too much to drink – obviously you take a chance with that. So, I figure, the amount I do, it’s like football, if you play a hundred games and you’re still ahead, you’re all right.”
Best’s long-standing relationship has surprised many, not least those who took a vicarious pleasure in his playboy lifestyle. “We all make mistakes when we’re kids,” he says. “I don’t make too many anymore. And the ones that I do make, I rectify very quickly.”
A few years ago, he was quoted as saying he was incapable of fidelity. “That was years ago. When we’re kids, ships in the night and all that rubbish, but I’ve found a lady I’m happy with so it doesn’t even cross my mind. I still have the opportunities, but I wouldn’t let her down. For eight years now I’ve been very happy.”
He is, however, level-headed about these things. Yes, it gives him a sense of balance knowing someone is on his side, but who knows? “Things can change. She can meet somebody else, I can meet somebody, but at least we’re mature enough to know that. We don’t drive ourselves nuts wondering if it will happen or not.”
Football? People are always asking George Best about football. He hosts football shows on Radio 5 and LBC, and his view is that the coaching of children in the British game is a disgrace, and that the overall standard is far below what it was when he played. He tells people what they want to hear – that there are no characters in the game anymore, by which he means players who entertained, broke the rules.
“I quit because the game was changing and it wasn’t fun anymore. They were talking about systems and fitness and stamina. They stopped talking about flair and charisma. And I was just a little bit disillusioned with it so I disappeared. I opened a club in Manchester for a while and then I went off to America.”
The stories about Best’s excesses are legion, and he plays up to them in his act. The Wogan humiliation has added a bitter twist to his public image, making his less sober outbursts more newsworthy than they ought to be. He has spent much of the last week retracting a remark he made about the quality of the current Manchester United team. “I did a dinner a couple of weeks ago and some guy asked me a silly question about Man United and how I felt about them. It was like asking me if I thought Muhammad Ali was a great fighter. It’s a stupid question, isn’t it? So I said flippantly that I thought they were crap, trying to be funny. And the press printed ‘Best Says United Are Crap’.”
An apology to Bobby Charlton is less successful. “They asked me what I thought about Bobby Charlton and I said he was a miserable bastard. The thing is, Bobby and I are quite good pals. We didn’t mix socially, but when we finished training Bobby went home to his wife and kids and the rest of us went out gambling, shagging and drinking. So all this crap that you read is a load of rubbish. But he still is a miserable bastard, yes.”
Offstage, Best is less excitable, though still resentful of press distortions. He intends to sue over a recent report about the cancellation of a This Is Your Life programme in which he was to be the star.
“They (the newspaper) said they cancelled it because I was unreliable or they weren’t sure I would turn up, which is totally untrue and false. They cancelled it because they couldn’t get certain people that were supposed to be there. When I think that I haven’t played for over 20 years in this country, that national newspapers would still want to print rubbish like that… It freaks me out when you think what’s going on in the world.”
And yet, his attitude to the press is complicated. Since he no longer plays, it is such stories, true or not, which fan the flames of the legend. Where the real Best can be found in this is anyone’s guess. He suggests this has been the case throughout his career.
“You see; all the stories, I let them  get on with it, because it helps me. I work around them. In all honesty, you can’t do what I did on a pitch and be out till 3, 4, or 5 on the morning. I never ever went out after a Tuesday.” He chuckles. “I did all my wining and dining on a Saturday night after the game. Sunday, Monday, maybe Tuesday, but after that, that was it. I was like a monk. You can’t do it as an athlete and be the best.” When he talks to young kids about football, he warns them that it is a very short life, that if they are lucky it will last until they are 35, and that’s when the real pressure will start.
“All of a sudden, you’re finished, and what do you do after that? You have to find something to give you the buzz that football gave you. And most of them find it very difficult, so they turn to whatever – whether it’s gambling or drugs or drink. And I almost fell into that. Well, I did for a long time. But I’m lucky, I found something that gives me a buzz. I love television work, I love radio, I love the theatres because it gives you a buzz when you do a good show. I love travelling. I love the good life. I’m still getting paid 20 years after I finished playing. I see friends of mine, people I played with, who are out cleaning windows or sweeping the roads. It’s terrible to see them. I consider myself very lucky that I’ve got through all that and survived.”
Which leads neatly to the booze. Best has tried many methods to give it up, but has now decided that the simplest thing to do is to have a drink when he wants one.
“If people buy me drinks I don’t drink them. If I feel like a drink, I do, if I don’t, I don’t. Look at my schedule – if I was as bad as people say I am, I couldn’t do it.
“Everyone who’s been through the problems knows that the rule in the AA is one day at a time – and even before I heard of the AA or had an alcohol problem I always lived my life that way. But at the moment, things are just unbelievable. I’m just trying to tidy up a few loose ends to make sure that if I disappear in a couple of weeks from now I know my son’s taken care of, I know my girlfriend’s taken care of, and my friends and family.” He adds that he is not planning to disappear.
“Oh no. I’ll be around for a long time. They told me I wouldn’t make 30, and it’s coming up to 50. I don’t want to go anywhere, I’m enjoying it too much.”
In A Sporting Night To Remember, says George Best, “they are all true stories, maybe spiced up a little bit.” Which means he will tell the audience that he reason he left Britain for North America in the 1970s was because he saw an advert which read “Drink Canada Dry” and he thought it would be a good idea to start at the top and work his way down. He will tell the Miss Worlds story (he only bedded three: it should have been seven, but he didn’t turn up for four). And he will say that he thinks Paul Gascoigne is a good player, buy may never be a great one. “You know that number 10 on his back? It’s not his position, it’s his IQ.”
The answers are routines in which Best plays up to his image, though there does not seem to be a script for questions about his son Calum, who lives in the US with his ex-wife. “Does Calum have your talent?” the host Peter Brackley asks. 
“Well, he likes shagging, I know that!”
“He’s only seven!” Brackley suggests.
“Did we do Tommy Docherty?” Best snaps, changing the subject. In fact, Calum is 12, but Best deflects further questioning, preferring to expound black thoughts about what he is going to do to his former agent, Bill McMurdo.
Mostly, though, Best has no need to step over the questions. He has heard most of them before, and many of them are cues to embark on a seasoned anecdote. “It’s like Sinatra,” he says. “People want to hear the old stories.”
He ends with his answer to a question no one has asked, about whether he has regrets. It is a story about the night he went to the casino in Birmingham with his then-girlfriend, Mary Stavin (one of the Miss Worlds) and won £25,000. Returning to the hotel at 4am, he is greeted by an Irish porter who professes delight at finally meeting his hero, and subsequently arrives in his hotel room with a bottle of champagne and three glasses. Best badly wants rid of the porter, and slips him some money to leave. “He’s backing out the door, and he’s had another look at Mary in the see-through negligee, and the 25 grand, and the bottle of Dom Perignon, and he says: ‘Mr Best, can I ask you something that’s been bothering me for 20 years.’
“I said, ‘What’s that, Paddy?’
“He said, ‘Where the fuck did it all go wrong?’”
And here, in the less mythic present, George Best takes another swig of champagne, and the men in the trenchcoats and the couples and the boys with the dates stamped on their knuckles file into an orderly queue for autographs. Best signs them patiently, and poses for photographs with strangers at £5 a throw. The man with the Polaroid camera runs out of film. 
[First published in 1993]