George Best (22 May 1946 – 25 November 2005) was a Northern Irish professional footballer who played as a winger, spending most of his club career at Manchester United.
Soccer legend George Best drank himself to death to escape his superstar status and even his
closest friends were powerless to help him, a new book reveals.
In his biography George Best: A Memoir, veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson shares his thoughts on the troubled footballer’s struggle with alcoholism and subsequent death.
The pair struck up an enduring friendship that lasted more than 40 years, and Parkinson, 83, reckons Best was thrust into the limelight too young.
He reveals they often shared a drink when he hit the bottle after the death of his father in the late 1970s, but unlike his pal he managed to stop.
Best was destined for sporting greatness from a young age, running rings around his friends with a ball at his feet under the lamplight of the Cregagh estate in East Belfast.
By the age of 19 he was Georgie Best Superstar, the gifted player who helped rebuild Manchester United after the Munich air disaster and led them to a European Cup victory in 1968.
But Parkinson, who interviewed him several more times, says it was a case of too much too soon that saw his pal turn his back on football at the age of 27 and dead at 59.
He writes: “I first met him when he was 17 and sucking a sweet. It was 1963 in Manchester and the city tingled with expectation that this footballer with the physique of a toothpick might be something special…
“In the next 40 years or more, to the time he died, we were friends. I interviewed him more than a dozen times, wrote a book about him, watched his glorious triumphs, visited him in prison.
“He sometimes stayed at our house seeking refuge from the pursuing media. He always arrived with a football for the kids and played with them on the lawn.
“I interviewed him on his 50th birthday and, looking back, he tried to answer the question posed in the most famous George Best anecdote of them all, ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ He said, ‘All of a sudden, as a teenager from Belfast, I had to employ three full-time secretaries to answer 10,000 letters a week. I didn’t know how to cope…’
“The ultimate irony of George Best’s career was that although his gifts and looks made him the perfect product for his time, and he was exploited as such, no one thought how to protect him.”
Parkinson paints a picture of a gifted, intelligent and shy man haunted by melancholy – a far cry from the devil-may-care drunken womaniser often portrayed in the media.
He writes: “He went to bed with a thousand beautiful girls and ended up so lonely he tried to kill himself.
“He was hailed as the first pop superstar of football and became a terminal drunk.
“Whatever we make of his life, it wasn’t predictable, and while defending him was sometimes difficult, loving him never was.”
The author and broadcaster, who was in Dublin yesterday signing copies of the biography, gives us glimpses of the real George Best in a series of anecdotes.
A typical night out for Best – who once went on a 22-day bender without food – was followed by a familiar routine the next morning to try and piece together the previous hours.
Parkinson writes: “First check the wallpaper. If you recognise it you’re at home, if not you’re playing away and the question is where? Next, check the other side of the bed… Next stage of routine. Get rid. If ever he was in trouble I would offer him a bed at my house.”
In a 1973 interview, Best criticised the British media for putting stars on a pedestal only to knock them down again.
He regularly featured on both the front and back pages of the tabloids – for his prowess both on and off the pitch as his sex symbol status took hold.
He said: “There were a hell of a lot of things all coming at once. It’s hard for a kid at 15 to leave home and come into the big world as a professional footballer.
“I tried to build a home for myself. I had a house built… it was like living in a zoo. A goldfish bowl. I had day-trippers… coachloads. I used to hide in my own house.”
He hit the bottle hard over the next decade going bankrupt and serving a three-month jail term for drink driving and assaulting a police officer.
In the 1990s he got sober for a time and remarried, and in his final interview with Parkinson in 2001 he told how he’d once contemplated suicide.
The broadcaster reflects: “Of all the interviews, this was the closest I ever got to George. Sadly, as we now know, George decided to turn the light off. Frankly, I think he had been in the dark for most of his life. I don’t believe any of us had the strength or influence to make George change.
“I don’t think any of us really knew what made George tick. I don’t think any of us got that close to him. George had spent his life evading being tackled, making impossible escapes.
“He was never going to be pinned down by anyone, defender or concerned friend alike. It was his ball, his life, and he was going to keep it to himself.”