spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on why we should exorcise the grisly ghost of football legend George Best.
Among the has-beens and wannabes in the new series of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! one contestant stands alone in the new category of celebrity-by-association. Alex Best is now ‘famous’ as the estranged spouse of a 56-year-old drunk who himself has done nothing worthy of note for three decades.
Her appearance is another nail in the coffin of the legend of Georgie Best. Get me out of here.
When told of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, John Lennon famously responded that ‘Elvis died when he went in the Army’. That departure, almost 20 years before, had marked the end of Elvis’s reign as the swivel-hipped king of rock’n’roll. By the same token, George ‘Georgie’ Best died 30 years ago, when he walked out of Old Trafford in January 1974 and brought to a premature end his reign as the swivel-ankled star of British football.
In the run-up to Manchester United’s FA Cup tie away to Northampton Town, we were treated to countless replays of the six goals he scored there in 1970. The footage is a reminder of the excitement Best once brought to boys such as me. Now we are bored to death by endless stories of his drinking, domestic disputes, pub brawls, affairs, arrests, and operations, the latest of which occurred on Thursday when Best was stopped in his car in southwest London and subsequently charged with drink-driving.
The clownish caricature that is ‘Bestie’ today risks tainting the memory. Best was the reason why, in the Sixties, every seven-year-old boy in my Surrey school became a United fan; the most talented footballer I have ever seen, with an almost freakish ability to dribble, shoot, tackle and do the impossible with a ball. All subsequent attempts to find ‘the new George Best’ proved predictably futile.
Afterwards came The Fall, and we United supporters were left facing 26 years of ridicule before Eric Cantona came to save us. But until the day I left home, a signed George Best 1968 European Cup winners’ pennant still hung in my bedroom.
Wish I had it now, it might help to pay for my season-ticket renewal. Even then, of course, Best was also famous for his off-the-field performances. To listen to outraged talk about the behaviour of young footballers today, you might think that players never went off the rails in the past. It was particularly bizarre to hear Best and Rodney Marsh, his old partner in crime, tut-tutting about today’s boozy footballers. But back in their day, some of the biggest stars, such as Best, Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves, were also among the biggest drinkers. The equivalent today would be if such squeaky-clean players as Beckham, Owen and Henry were out on the lash after every match – and still winning European Cup and World Cup medals. When Best’s football life ended, we were left with his boozing, womanising ghost.
Today, it might seem as if he has been a celebrity ever since. Yet there was a time in the Eighties and early Nineties when he was an almostignored drunk, crawling from the gutter to a jail cell. His 1990 ‘comeback’ appearance on the BBC’s Wogan talk show was a masterclass in making a drunken exhibition of oneself (‘So what do you do with your time these days?’ ‘Screw.’ ‘Ladies and gentlemen, George Best.’), after which many thought we had seen the last of him. However, in the past few years Best has returned to haunt the headlines. It is not because he has become more interesting or articulate, as anybody watching his appearances on Sky Sports can testify.
First and foremost, football has come back into fashion in a big way, especially among a generation of thirtysomething men who find that they need no longer be embarrassed to call themselves fans. As the new wave of football nostalgia took off, BBC Two’s broadcast of a ‘Best Night’ to mark George’s 50th birthday signalled his promotion to the retro chic premiership.
At the same time, celebrity culture seems to have taken over the world, making much of the media even more obsessed with the personal affairs of the famous (and the barely recognisable). The more ‘colourful’ recent episodes from Best’s private life could hardly have been better scripted. Celebrity addicts and self-styled victims are particularly in vogue. At the time of his liver transplant, Best protested: ‘As for calling this self-inflicted, I didn’t decide one day to drink myself to death. It is a result of alcoholism.’
Enough. It is time we said RIP to Georgie Best, the brightest star of British football who died at a tragically early age 30 years ago, and in my mind will always be 22, taking the ball around the Benfica goalkeeper at Wembley to win the European Cup. As for George ‘Bestie’ Best, let us leave him in peace to breach the peace and do whatever else he fancies, without paying it any attention.
United fans of my generation will always be glad that we saw Best play live. The late Sir Matt Busby, his manager and mentor, was often told that he must rue the day he set eyes on Best. His reply said it all: ‘What nonsense. Every manager goes through life looking for one great player, praying he’ll find one, just one. I found two – Big Duncan (Edwards, killed in the Munich air crash) and George. I suppose in their own ways they both died, didn’t they?’
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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