Thursday 18 January 2018

Paul Hayward: Legend's son has every right to reveal dark tales of George Best

Calum Best views a memorial of his father George after the death of the former Manchester United star in 2005
Calum Best views a memorial of his father George after the death of the former Manchester United star in 2005

Paul Hayward

George Best: rest in peace. But the famous rarely do, unless those closest to them suppress the truth to protect the legend, which Calum, son of the great George, has chosen not to.

In Calum Best's new autobiography there is enough parental negligence to bring social services by the busload to George's door.

The question, as ever when reassessing the famous dead, is whether a white picket fence should be erected around their stories; whether we want the flicker of our own memories to remain inviolable or can we handle the prising apart of light and dark.

Picture the 11-year-old Calum arriving in London from California to be with his dad and George disappearing with the hotel key, leaving the boy to sleep alone in a different room and await the return, the next day, of a discombobulated father.

"I would come into town for my trips to see him and everyone would be like, 'He's so excited to see you'," Calum said this week in an interview. "As soon as I'd get here, he'd go on a three-day brandy bender."

George Best was in the grip of a brutal alcohol addiction that also rendered him allergic to responsibility, even for his son, whose presence presumably just reminded him of his own failings and the chaos of his life.


In the same interview, Calum recalled, as a 14-year-old, trawling the local pubs in search of his father and returning to George's flat, only to be told, when the drunken dad returned: "You're not my son. You're not even meant to be. I hate you."

In the same diatribe, George accuses Calum of having an affair with Alex, his then partner, which ought to show us the degree of patriarchal inebriation. But objectivity is a hell of a lot easier for George Best's football devotees than it is for a son told that he had been a mistake and was "hated" now.

Did we need to know all this? Did Calum Best need to tell us, in a book that will revive the hoary charge of "cashing in" on trauma? You could just as easily turn that question round and ask: did the son have a duty to save it for his therapist, keep it out of the public domain and repress his own apparent need to puncture myths about his dad?

If there is some subconscious need for revenge - or simply to stop others pretending - then the rest of us are in no position to deny him that outlet.

We have been here already, though rather less painfully, with Matt Dickinson's reappraisal of Bobby Moore in 'The Man In Full', which revisited not only the England legend's brilliance as a player but his self-destructive drinking, the company he kept and the tendency for businesses he was involved with to catch fire.

Moore was taken away by cancer, at 51. As a footballer, he was buttered by the sunshine of the 1960s. The most iconic images of him cause the spirit to soar before it slides again with the thought of his premature death.

George Best's life was more lurid and operatic. While Moore's drinking was depicted as private and low-key, Best was the rock-star wizard building the champagne tower and bedding the girl. He veered on and off the rails. Yet the images of his individual genius are sharper than those of Moore.

They are pictures of magic, of audacity and ingenuity, and are therefore lodged in an even deeper imaginative part of our brains.

From the day of Best's retirement, this heritage fought a battle with the story of his inexorable decline to the point of multiple organ failure and death, at 59, 10 years ago this November. George's last words were reputed to be, "I will be remembered for my football", but he also appeared in the News of the World under the warning: "Don't Die Like Me".

There could be no sharper distinction between Best the renegade maestro footballer and Best the dipsomaniac with a death wish. Both stories are true, of course, and if we tell the first one we ought to at least be prepared to listen to the second. Not as an act of judgment or condemnation but to understand what the child went through when his father-god became incapable of thinking beyond the next drink.

Best's friends and family tended to describe his kindness and his helplessness in the face of addiction. Many will tell you that deep down he had no real wish to stop drinking. He accepted the path he was on. They spoke from a deep knowledge of him and cannot be blamed for choosing to avoid public discussions.

However, Calum Best starts from a different point: that of the abandoned son, the seldom-seen kid, and it seems wrong to deny him that right. George's sister Barbara and her husband, Norman, have accused the author of "denigrating" his memory and of "betrayal". There is unlikely to be a Belfast book signing.

Calum Best rode his father's name for a while through nightclubs and assignations and commercial opportunities, but you can tell it felt like a cover-up. Again and again in interviews (and the book) he venerates his father, but a second, more tortured voice must be heard.

"Nobody has a bad word to say about him. People are scared to because he's such a football icon," Calum said recently. "So, it's going to be me, you know? It's going to be me." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport