BestieThe game made him drink
biography Immortal: The Approved Biography of George Best Duncan Hamilton Century, £20, hbk, 528 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
To call George Best a footballing immortal is not a straightforward affirmation of the obvious. The raw stats are not on his side – they indicate mere greatness.
Best won two league titles and, most famously, the European Cup at Wembley in 1968, but then no further major trophies in his career. He never played at a World Cup or European Championship.
In his glory years at Manchester United he scored plenty of goals but far fewer than those to whom he is most often compared: Pelé, Diego Maradona or Johan Cruyff. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored nearly twice as many goals as Best already and both are still in their prime.
The essence of Best is not reducible to numbers, however. The mythology of the man is bound up in the method of remembering him.
The careers of today's stars are exhaustively preserved, every goal recorded from multiple angles, every movement tracked by sophisticated software. Best's legacy is much more ephemeral. His brilliance is preserved in fragments of footage and personal testimony.
As Duncan Hamilton points out in this accomplished new biography, there was "scarcely any televised football" when Best made his debut 50 years ago, so "word of mouth or newspaper accounts alone preserved goals".
Best's style of play – selfish, impudent, spontaneous – lent itself to the tall tale, the far-fetched anecdote. He did things nobody had done before in little explosions of outrageous skill. And just as Best's play was all about embellishment and improvisation, so the accounts of these very feats were exaggerated in the telling and retelling. Hamilton is surely right when he claims that "no footballer has imposed himself so completely on the romantic imagination".
As a biographer, Hamilton has had to hold his breath and reach back through the fog of booze and scandal to try to recuperate something of the excitement of watching Best at his exhilarating peak. He shows us the teenage Best, elfin and nervous, flicking a coin off the tip of his shoe into the breast pocket of his shirt. He details the elaborate fantasies that Best concocted for his future glory – hat-tricks to win the European Cup, scoring while doing a handstand in the FA Cup final.
It is this naive perfectionism, argues Hamilton, that was fundamental to Best's undoing. His failure to match his outsized expectations dulled every success, and when Manchester United began to slide towards mediocrity, his world fell apart.
"The misconception about George Best is that alcohol alone wrecked him and his career," Hamilton writes. "It ignores the reason why he drank. The football was to blame."
The temptation with Best is always to divide him in two, to seek to isolate the great player from the depressive alcoholic, the true talent from the attention-seeking celebrity. Hamilton's thesis is that the 1968 European Cup final was the beginning of the end for Best. The game came in the 10th anniversary year of the Munich air disaster and Best wanted to reward his manager, Matt Busby, by giving him the trophy he craved through the performance of his life. Best scored the crucial first goal in extra-time as United won 4-1.
For almost any other player it would have been a source of joy, but Best was desolate at having played poorly for much of the game. The occasion for something truly special had passed him by. His response? He got so drunk, Hamilton tells us, that "he could only recover fragments from the final".
This is packaged as an "approved" biography since Best's sister granted Hamilton access to family materials.
It is no apology for Best, however. Hamilton does not disguise his subject's ugly slide. He cuts through the bar-room bragging about shagging and boozing to show Best's true alcoholic misery. It is to Hamilton's great credit that this is a book of warmth, not sentimentality: he does not avert his gaze from the bloated, broken man Best became.
While he does register Best's violence against women as "repellent and inexcusable", Hamilton is too generous in blaming the booze, claiming Best was not himself in these moments. That fails to make the link to the casual misogyny in the way Best spoke about and treated women (or, rather, "birds") even before he started drinking heavily.
It is inevitable that this biography does not have the immediacy of Hamilton's portrait of Brian Clough in Provided You Don't Kiss Me: he spent two decades with Clough. Best was someone he observed from a distance. He has done mountains of research to get closer to his subject and the attention to detail is characteristic of his work.
Hamilton preserves the most affection for Best's adopted mother and father in Manchester. The landlady at his digs, Mrs Fullaway, seems to have had a better read on Best than anyone. And there is genuine pathos in Best's relationship with Busby. After Munich, Busby had mellowed, and indulged the player he felt had more talent than anyone since Duncan Edwards, who had died as a result of the crash at just 21.
As Best spirals, Busby's words are suffused with sadness. "Every manager goes through life looking for one great player, praying he'll find one. Just one," Busby is quoted as saying. "I was more lucky than most. I found two – Big Duncan and George. I suppose in their own ways, they both died, didn't they?"
As Hamilton points out, Best was only 28 at the time.