Gone are the bloated and waxy features of the career inebriate; gone the grey beard, the lank and lifeless mullet, the shell suit, gone, all gone. Indeed, as George Best steps out of his dark-windowed Range Rover he looks lean, tanned and casual in black jeans and a black T-shirt. Sunglasses hang from his neck. At 55, the sculpture of his cheekbones, dimples and sulky lips is dramatic once more.
It’s lunchtime on a flat and sunless day in Belfast. Alex Best – blonde, lithe, 29 years old – is by her husband’s side and, as the couple enter the hotel where we’re meeting and walk through its Victorian-Gothic hallway, they acknowledge with nods and shy grins the guests who stare at them. George Best coughs raspily to clear his throat and, with a tight Ulster accent, orders a pot of tea. Alex says she’ll leave us to it and heads off to read a newspaper.
On closer inspection, I see a vestige of George Best’s former fashion sense – a gold bracelet – and I note the mysterious absence of laces in his lace-up shoes. I also see that his skin is not so much sun-tanned as sallow; that below those distinctively long and dark eyelashes the whites of his eyes are yellow; and that, presumably because chronic liver damage stops you absorbing protein, he is not so much trim as thin.
Whenever John Diamond was asked how he was feeling – and people always did ask – he would smile and answer, ‘I’ve got cancer.’ It seems a similarly daft question to ask Best, but I find myself asking it anyway. ‘I’m feeling good, thanks. Yeah. Really good. I’m starting to…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence. ‘The longest problem has been with jaundice. It’s been showing in my eyes a bit. Well, a lot. But the last couple of weeks it has started to clear up. You can try and help it along, but it decides when it goes.’
We are sitting by a window overlooking Belfast Loch. A ferry is sailing past on its way out to the Irish Sea. In 1961, when he was an ‘unbelievably skinny’ 15-year-old, George Best boarded a similar one. Matt Busby had invited him to join Manchester United as an apprentice after one of the club’s scouts had telegrammed from Northern Ireland: ‘I think I’ve found you a genius.’ Wee Georgie from the Cregagh Estate, as he was known, felt so homesick he returned to Belfast two days later.
A fortnight passed before he summoned the courage to go back to Old Trafford. There he remained for the next 11 years, scoring 137 goals, mesmerising the crowds with his repertoire of skills, becoming a pin-up, a superstar, a legend before abruptly, it seemed, announcing his retirement, two days before his 26th birthday. His team-mates weren’t that surprised. For some time, Best’s playboy life had been getting in the way of his football – he had been missing training sessions and even matches. The transition from heavy drinker to alcoholic followed swiftly. He came back from retirement every so often to play for any club, however lowly, that would pay him – Dunstable Town, Stockport and, for a year, the Los Angeles Aztecs. He gambled heavily, dated actresses, pop-singers and two Miss Worlds. In 1978 he married Angie Macdonald Janes, who was Cher’s personal fitness trainer, had a son, Calum, went bankrupt and, in 1984, after driving drunk and assaulting a police officer, spent two months of a three-month sentence in Pentonville Prison and Ford Open Prison (where the warders asked for his autograph). Angie grew tired of George’s drinking and philandering – in one furious row she stabbed him in a buttock with a carving knife – and, after eight years of marriage, the couple divorced. In 1990 Best appeared on Wogan as a giggly, boastful and, above all, pitiful drunk. In 1995 he married Alex, a public-school- educated air stewardess for Virgin Atlantic. The reception was held at a pub near Heathrow Airport, and one guest recalled that Alex’s parents ‘stood in the corner, looking shell-shocked’. In March last year George Best made the headlines again when he was rushed to the Cromwell Hospital, west London. He had barely eaten for ten days, drinking wine with brandy chasers for breakfast instead. He remained in hospital for six weeks and was told that his liver was so severely damaged one more drink could kill him. Four months later, after a row with Alex, he went on a binge and, according to news reports which he has since denied, was found at 7am lying on a bench in Battersea Park clutching a champagne bottle. In February this year he was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia and admitted to Belfast City Hospital, where he was constantly disturbed by autograph hunters. When he got out he went on another binge, this one lasting for three days. He then took the drastic measure of having Antabuse pellets – which will make him violently sick if he touches alcohol — implanted in his stomach. So far they seem to have worked. The tea arrives, and Best pours it with a steady hand. ‘I found it hard not drinking at first,’ he says with a nervy smile, wide enough to show the boyish gap between his front teeth. ‘But the longer it goes the easier it gets.’ He gives a short, soft, sad chuckle, a tic of his. ‘This is probably the first time I haven’t felt like a drink, whereas before, when I’ve been getting better or recovering, I’ve always thought that at the end of it I would have a drink. I once went a whole year without booze and then, with the logic only an alcoholic could understand, I went out to celebrate with a bender. Even in AA meetings I would be looking at my watch wondering when they would end so I could get out and get the drinks in.’
He and Alex are here because, in October, the couple rented out their Chelsea flat and moved to a four-bedroom house on a hill overlooking the beach at Portavogie, near Belfast. Dickie Best, George’s 82-year-old father, still lives in Belfast – he was an iron-turner in the Harland & Wolff shipyard – indeed, he still lives in the same house, on the same Protestant estate where he has always lived. ‘Dad’s got himself a bird now,’ Best says. ‘His “lady friend” he calls her. He goes dancing once a week.’ Two of Best’s sisters live on the estate, too (he has two more sisters, and a younger brother who is in the Army). ‘My sisters have been, suuportive. They have never preached to me, even though one of them is very religious.’ Does he think, in retrospect, that perhaps they ought to have preached a little? ‘It wouldn’t have made any difference.’
When Best became ill last year strangers began offering him advice – and they haven’t stopped since. ‘It drives me nuts, to be honest. Most of them haven’t been through what I’ve been through, so how can they know how to help me?’ The soft chuckle again. ‘I’ve been told to try deep-sea diving, jumping off bridges, and eating a melon in the morning to stop the craving.’
Best believed he was almost indestructible. Given that he once went without food for 30 days, surviving on drink alone, and that, with the grandiosity of the true alcoholic, he will boast that he has outdrunk every hard drinker he has ever met, this seems an understandable delusion. But in 1998, he tells me, planned to commit suicide by taking a bottle of Nurofen tablets but didn’t go through with it because be couldn’t bear the thought of Alex finding him dead. ‘Yeah, when I’m on my own I do get depressed,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t last long, though, and things always look better in the morning. But when I was in hospital last year I did feel suicidal.’ If someone had offered him a cyanide pill, would he have taken it? ‘Yeah. The pain was dreadful, as though a knife was being twisted in my stomach. When Alex took me to hospital I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t move. I was coughing up blood. And when I came out, for a long time I couldn’t do things like get out of the bath. When you’ve been fit for most of your life, that’s hard to deal with.’
Ann Best, George’s mother, drank herself to death in 1978. She had worked in a cigarette factory all her life and died at 54, almost the same age George is now, having turned to drink only ten years earlier. She is still a sensitive subject for her son. Although she could become vicious when drunk, she was, for the most part, a shy and private woman who felt threatened by her son’s fame and later notoriety. ‘She couldn’t handle it. Found it very difficult when strangers came up to her. My dad could fob them off – he found it easy to adjust. But my mum found it impossible. At first her death affected me terribly because I thought it was my fault. It’s a terrible thing, guilt.’ Why didn’t the shock of his mother’s death put him off alcohol? ‘Even then I didn’t know I had a problem as well.’ George Best’s fame meant he couldn’t see as much of his parents as he wanted to – whenever he came home to Belfast he would be mobbed. His sister Carol once said, ‘We always loved it when George came home but found it a relief when he went away again.’ Best shakes his head at the memory. ‘I tried to get them to move to England, but they didn’t want to leave home. My visits became a nightmare. We were just a normal, quiet family, and whenever I arrived that would be disrupted – people would be banging on the door, there would be cameras flashing, reporters shouting questions.’ In the 1960s George Best was often called the Fifth Beatle. He wore stripy flares and velvet Nehru jackets. He was pictured at parties surrounded by mini-skirted models, filling pyramids of champagne glasses from foaming bottles. He opened his own fashion boutiques and nightclubs, drove an E-Type Jaguar, was screamed at by teenage girls at airports, and employed three full-time secretaries just to answer his fan mail, as well as a hairdresser to blow-dry his hair. His dark hooded eyes, grooved chin and mischievous grin became framed by long sideburns and a mane of luxuriant black hair. On the field, he cultivated a distinctive look – socks rolled down, shirt untucked, face unshaven – at a time when footballers were still soberly turned out, on and off the pitch.
Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of manchester united, says of George Best that he was ‘unquestionably the greatest’. So do Pele and Maradona. And when you watch footage of George Best in his glory days – the two goals he scored in the first 12 minutes when Manchester United beat Benfica 5-1 away in 1966; the crucial second goal he scored in extra time when the team again beat Benfica two years later, this time 4-1 in the European Cup Final at Wembley; the six goals he scored in one match, against Northampton in 1970 – you can see why. His elasticity was freakish, his balance and control of the ball almost supernatural. One commentator compared him to a dark ghost because of the way he could start a shimmying run from the halfway line and glide past half a dozen men before gracefully sliding the ball into the net. The Manchester United midfielder Pat Crerand remarked that one of Best’s markers, Ken Shellito, had been turned inside out so often he was suffering from ‘twisted blood’.
Was Best’s skill down to hard work or does he think he was born with a gift? ‘I can’t analyse it. It was just natural, not something I ever had to work at. When I coach kids and they ask me how I did it, I can’t tell them. I cheat a little and say it is just hard work, but I know it’s not. Maybe I was blessed.’ He’s talking about genius, isn’t he? He takes a sip of tea before he answers flatly: ‘Yeah.’ On one level this is a remarkable boast, but from Best it sounds banal. George Best is an intelligent man. He has an IQ of 158 and was the only child in his class to pass his eleven-plus. But this ‘yeah’ is clearly, understandably, a tired answer to a question he has been asked far too many times. He has, after all, been told he is a genius so often that it seems unremarkable to him. Other players of his generation, such as Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, had great skill but you would hesitate before using the word ‘genius’ to describe them. The fact that Best combined his genius with glamour, as a well as a raft of all too human flaws, perhaps explains why he was deemed a superstar, and why his fame, unlike that of many of his sporting contemporaries, has lasted.
The years of being analysed by other people, as well as his own occasional attempts at self-examination, have left George Best with a singular lack of curiosity about himself. People who have known Best a long time often comment upon his detachment. He will become lost in his own thoughts; seem remote and self-contained, as though on autopilot. ‘Whatever I do,’ he has said. ‘I can always find a way to be there but not there.’ He doesn’t really want to know why he has been so self-destructive, he just accepts that he has been. Even so, he will trot out theories for you about how he was a lonely and introverted child who always played truant from school, and about how he always ran away from his problems, he will tell you, never confronted them. His nervousness about speaking in public was such that he would sometimes avoid having to make an after-dinner speech by climbing out of a lavatory window and running away. He even missed his own birthday party once, and his own wedding (Alex forgave him, and the couple were married a few weeks later). Shyness may be one explanation for his drinking. He also cites escapism, guilt and boredom. The boredom theory is the most convincing. Though he felt inspired on the pitch, he found football too easy and the routine of football life – the training, the team politics, the travelling – boring. Life after playing for Manchester United seemed like a dreary anticlimax to him. It must have been hard for him to adjust to normal life after the vertiginous heights he has scaled. ‘Well, that is why so many footballers struggle when they retire,’ Best says, taking a sip of tea. ‘Because they can’t replace it. You feel empty. I’ve never replaced it.’ Was it the applause he missed, the approval of the crowd? ‘Success I crave. Funnily enough, I teach my son the opposite. I tell him there is nothing wrong in coming second. But I don’t actually believe it.’
Best also became tired of seducing women, probably because he found that became too easy as well – in one night alone, he once told a tabloid reporter, he slept with seven. Does he think his promiscuity was a way of filling the vacuum left by football? ‘No, nothing ever comes close to scoring goals.’ Did sex become meaningless for him? ‘No, I was a normal healthy male and I enjoyed it as much as the next man. Well, I say the next man but nowadays you don’t know, do you?’ He grins. ‘It was still a challenge because woman didn’t always throw themselves at me. It could be the opposite of that – because of who you were, even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t.’ Did he keep count? ‘Nah. There was no way you could keep count. Well, I certainly didn’t, anyway.’
He never became bored with drinking, but did he really enjoy it? Did he like himself more as a drunk? ‘I can’t analyse it in those terms. It’s like, why can my dad go out with his pals for a drink and have two drinks and stop? Whereas someone like me has to stay out with his pals till three in the morning?’ Best’s wife says he did most of his drinking on his own. Was it that he feared facing reality again when the night ended? ‘No. I don’t know. There are no easy answers. I’ve tried everything – private sessions, meetings, pills. I’ve gone through it all. Alcoholics Anonymous might have worked for me if I had been anonymous, but I wasn’t. People kept asking for my autograph.’ Even a charitable assessment of George Best’s character would have to allow that he has been immature, self-centred, vain, bloody-minded and possibly cynical in the way that he has made a lot of money out of talking about his illness – ‘I use the press as much as it uses me,’ he says. But if he has behaved like a spoilt child at times, it is only because people have always spoilt him. And low self-esteem may be as much a part of his alcoholism as the lying, the stealing cash from handbags and the blackouts, but he never seems to have felt self-pity.
Meeting him is disconcerting because he is like a ghost from a different era. He is the man on the faded posters, in the history books, on the black-and-white television screens. It seems like a corruption of folk memory that he is still with us. I tell him that I remember singing songs about him on the bus on the way to primary school: ‘Georgie Best, superstar…’ He finishes it: ‘Walks like a woman and he wears a bra.’ He laughs and then starts coughing. ‘Hopefully those are two things I’ve never done.’ But he did once advertise a bra, didn’t he? ‘Yes.’ Grin. ‘Playtex. I’ve done everything. Aftershave, chewing gum, Spanish oranges, milk, Sausages…’
Why does he think his fame hasn’t faded? ‘Apart from the sporting side of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been’ Pause. ‘Nasty to anyone, or hurt anyone, except myself. I’ve never beaten anyone up or molested somebody. I just got drunk!’ It’s not quite true. In a fit of jealousy he once dangled a girlfriend from a third-storey window, and he was once found guilty of hitting a woman in a nightclub (she was drunk and abusive and ended up with a hairline fracture of the nose). His wife Alex has also said that while he is loveable most of the time, he can have a Jekyll and Hyde personality when drunk, becoming vindictive and even violent. Isn’t this the case? ‘Well, drink does change your character. Aggressive people become subdued and subdued people become aggressive. But I only ever got aggressive with people who were aggressive with me.’
There is a story that George Best tells when he is giving an after- dinner speech. One night, while out with his girlfriend Mary Stavin, who was Miss World 1977, he won £15,000 in a casino. Later, in his room, with his girlfriend down to her underwear and the notes spread on the bed like a counterpane, he rang room service and ordered a bottle of champagne. When the waiter arrived he looked at the money and the semi-naked Miss World sprawled on the bed, shook his head and said: ‘Where did it all go wrong, George?’ At the time the waiter was making a good joke. But later… Where did it all go wrong, George? ‘Well, people still think I’m struggling, apart from the illness. People think I’m begging and going out and doing things for money, well, I don’t have to. I don’t have to work again for the rest of my life if I don’t want to. I do it because I don’t want to get bored.’
The Antabuse pellets only last for three months at a time and this is the fourth time George Best has tried them since 1981. Though he doesn’t drink at the moment, he says he cannot imagine going the rest of his life without another drink. ‘I’ve started sketching again,’ he says, changing the subject. ‘Alex and I are talking about moving to the sun somewhere. It would be nice to sit and paint. I could knock ’em out. I could sell them for 100 quid a go because they would have my signature on them.’ I point out that he could probably charge more, given that his first pair of football boots are now thought to be worth at least £50,000. He smiles. ‘The boots and the medals and so on are for Alex and Calum. Eventually. That will be their legacy. But they are not going anywhere yet. They are stuck in a bank. I often thought about selling them but I know what people would say.’
Alex rejoins us. They are planning to have children, she says. ‘For the moment though we have an 18-month-old red setter as a child substitute.’ George touches her hand. ‘We’d love to have children,’ he says. ‘But that’ll be, well, we’ve decided that that is for when I get fit again.’ With this he stands up to leave, and a hotel guest, who has clearly been waiting for his moment, approaches and asks for an autograph.