Wednesday 20 September 2017

New light shone on Best's existence between brilliance and self-destruction

'Immortal' chronicles dark and complex world of United legend where awful lows overshadowed dizzying highs

Ian Herbert

Even in the very beginning, 50 years ago today, there were symptoms of the struggle that would go unappreciated in the years of sunshine and champagne that lay ahead for George Best.

He had been called up to the Manchester United first team for the home match with West Bromwich Albion though Matt Busby – that "master handler of men" as Best would later call him – listed him as "reserve," to preserve him from stage fright, when he scrawled out the team-sheet in ballpoint.

It was the distraught Best's desperate introspection – a part of him, always – which persuaded the then 17-year-old that this selection, in the days before substitutes were used, must be some kind of punishment.

That he had trained so poorly, played so poorly, said or done something so amiss that he was denied a Central League game to run errands for the first team.

He made his debut, of course – and so invincibly that Busby later wondered aloud whether what he had observed had been a dream. But the angst would be the consistent, forgotten subtext to what has always been characterised as an uncomplicated, if extreme, morality tale about the boy in whose fame, wealth and fortune lay the seeds of his pitiful decline.

The new biography of Best, 'Immortal', by Duncan Hamilton – a marriage of prose and detail so fine and fastidious that it takes the breath away at times – certainly doesn't grant Best any sentimentality, even though it is the first to be written with the cooperation of his family.

"Like the sun, everything revolved around him," Hamilton writes – chronicling insults to those opponents he danced around ("you're too old!") and the sheer vanity of the man thrust into fame when it was a very good time to be young.

For so storied a life, there has been a surprising abundance of undiscovered evidence with which to test the long-established narrative.

Best was so unshackled and liberated for the 90 minutes of a football match that he tried to score Hollywood goals in televised games, just to get on the 'Match of the Day' credits, and displayed not one iota of anxiety once he knew his big moment had come on September 14, 1963.

The spaces in between games were the problem. They took him to some very dark places when he had not matched his own extreme expectations.

Take the night history has defined as one of Best's finest – United's 1968 European Cup final triumph over Benfica at Wembley.

To an ordered mind, victory that night would have been a possession to cherish for a lifetime. But Best was inconsolable; unable to forgive himself for providing only a contribution, rather than domination.

He stole away from the celebrations early and took a taxi to the Chelsea flat of Jackie Glass – his first serious girlfriend, whose testimony is another invaluable part of the book. "He seemed drained of emotion," she says.

After that Wembley peak, United's star waned and Best was being asked to come to terms with a declining side, slipping into a barren age rather than the golden one he had envisaged.

By the time he made his legendary flit to Marbella in 1972, abandoning United and the dream home Che Sera Sera that became a prison, he had reached the pit of despair and alcohol was the established antidote.

Even amid the mayhem, there was also always a deep loneliness and introspection in him, says his great friend Mike Summerbee – touching one of this book's recurring themes.

Busby, that visionary, sought help for Best, telling him he should "go and see somebody" rather than intimidate him with the word "psychiatry".

Best complied, but, perhaps resentful of the individual with dark-framed glasses who was peering at him, refused to accept he needed clinical help – "he looked at me in a funny way and then jotted something down ... "

Perhaps further psychiatric help would have curtailed the drinking before it turned to full alcoholic dependency. And perhaps it would not.

It's history, now. But the definitive work on Best raises again that most beguiling question of what his contribution to football's story might have been in a world which was only equipped to guide him.

(© Independent News Service)

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