Offside, 1 December
On the fans who refused to stay schtum for Best.
Football spectators throughout Britain observed a minute’s silence for George Best, who died last Friday. Floral shrines have appeared at the gates of Old Trafford and outside the Best family home in Belfast, and it is reported that up to half a million people will attend his funeral on Saturday.
It seems that this grief exhibitionism is compulsory. Take, for example, the minute’s silence that fans were asked to observe at football grounds throughout the country. The minute’s silence is now such a regular feature at football matches that Saturdays have become a kind of perpetual Remembrance Day for fallen footballers. The fact that some spectators chose to applaud rather than remain silent last Saturday has provoked a bizarre debate about the correct mourning etiquette.
But why should we be told how to honour the dead? Anyone who doesn’t stand up and shut up is regarded as a social leper. Leeds and Liverpool supporters in particular have been demonised for disrupting the minutes of silence on Saturday. Leeds United issued a statement apologising ‘to all who were offended’ and warning that ‘we have already been in touch with Millwall FC to see if there is anything they can do to identify those responsible’. If the emotionally incorrect culprits are caught I’d be interested to see if they are punished and on what grounds. Disrupting a minute’s silence is a fairly tasteless act but it isn’t against the law (not yet at any rate).
So, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I won’t be laying flowers at Old Trafford or signing a book of condolence. And I certainly won’t asking ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ as so many others have. Although George Best quit Manchester United when he was just 27, he was not a squandered talent like Gazza. He spent 10 years in the top flight, won two league titles, the European Cup and a European Player of the Year award. As Northern Ireland was no footballing superpower, there really was nothing else for him to achieve. Best himself turned the ubiquitous question ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ into a laddish and possibly apocryphal joke involving a hotel porter, a scantily clad Miss World, a bottle of champagne and wads of banknotes.
However, over time ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ has been spun into a parable about the perils of excess. ‘It is important we learn the lessons because when he was exposed to all the attention, George had no one to help him, no one to protect him and no one to fall back on if things went wrong’, said players union chief Gordon Taylor. Best’s consultant Roger Williams has used his patient’s death as an excuse to deliver a sermon about the dangers of booze. ‘I hope that George Best’s demise will lead to more attention being given to alcoholism’, wrote Professor Williams in the Observer. ‘He was a much-loved figure and I hope the country will respond to his death by looking at why people drink excessively’.
George Best was unquestionably the greatest footballer that Britain has ever produced. So yes, I can understand why middle-aged fans who saw Best play in the 1960s might feel moved at the passing of the Belfast Boy. I can also understand why superannuated hippies feel compelled to write mawkish ‘George Best changed my life’ tributes to the pop star footballer whose long hair and ‘birds and booze’ lifestyle seemed to embody the spirit of the sixties.
But the orgy of conspicuous grieving that we have witnessed in the past few days is something else altogether. Why is a nation in mourning for a long-retired player who last played top-flight football 30 years ago? How can people under 40 feel bereaved by the death of someone they never knew personally and never saw play, except in a few grainy TV clips? It’s not as if George Best’s death was a shock to anyone. As with the Queen Mother we seem to have been waiting for the inevitable to happen to Britain’s best-loved alcoholic for years, with the obituaries penned long in advance.
The answer lies in the role that mourning and football respectively play in contemporary Britain. In these atomised times it seems that grief and football both possess that rare capacity to unite the nation. Euro 96 and Di’s funeral in 1997 demonstrated that, even in a society that lacks a common cause, we can still sing from the same hymn sheet at funerals and football matches. Combine those two unifying factors and the result – footballing grief – is a recipe for one massive arm-linkingly popular communion.
George Best should be remembered as a wonderful footballer but he shouldn’t be revered or canonised or seen as a victim of our booze culture. Instead Britain should kick its unhealthy grief fixation and do something more fruitful instead – like producing a generation of two-footed, twinkle-toed footballers who can dance round defenders like Georgie Best.
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