My Brother, George Best And Me

Julian Coleman
July 23, 2017

When my brother persuaded our dad to take  him to see George Best and Manchester United for the first time, I was  three years old. As I pottered about on that September day in 1969, I  was unaware that Paul had managed, at the age of 12, to break through  into another world altogether: one where colours were more vivid and the  romance of life was transformed into something extraordinary and  heroic.

Within a few years I would be begging to accompany him on Saturdays  when, bound for Manchester, he would leave our small Yorkshire town of  Knaresborough behind. But that autumn I was oblivious to the  significance of a trip that would be written into the sacred text of my  childhood.

Many football seasons have passed since then. As I grew up, I  attended hundreds of Manchester United games with Paul. The experience  of travelling across the country to follow the team became a cornerstone  of our relationship. The history of a famous football club – the  vicissitudes of its unfolding, passionate story – became interwoven with  our own fraternal biography. Affection for Manchester United, which  began through Paul’s fascination with George Best, turned out to be one  of the crucial ways our love for each other found expression.

Paul and I are both middle-aged now, and memories of those times  carry a sepia tint. But this spring, unexpectedly, the colours became  vibrant and contemporary again and forgotten sensations were re-lived.

In March I went to see Daniel Gordon’s moving documentary: “George  Best: All by Myself”. Through interviews with lovers, friends and  teammates, the film chronicles Best’s remarkable rise and his subsequent  squalid decline, as alcoholism took hold and, eventually, killed him.

To watch the film I went to the Curzon Bloomsbury, in north London.  It was the middle of the afternoon and the cinema was almost empty. As I  sat in the dark, the footage on the screen called out to my younger  self. Coming home on Saturday evenings in the early seventies, Paul had  told me about the balletic dribbles on muddy winter fields and fizzing  shots ripping through bright spring sunshine. In the papers of the time,  I devotedly read about the pretty girlfriends in mini-skirts who now,  decades later, talked warmly and sadly about the man they knew. I knew  those images of Best and friends toasting each other with champagne,  late at night in Manchester’s bars.

Immense pleasure mingled with sweet regret as my thoughts returned to  Knaresborough and home where, as a child, I joyfully embraced my  brother’s obsession. Thanks to Paul’s trip to the football that  September day, our lives were shaped by this slight, handsome, troubled  Irishman, whose red shirt we saw dance its way across the green grass of  the football pitches of England.

What follows is a love-story with three participants, though one  never knew what he meant to the other two. It comes in three parts,  corresponding to the number of times Paul came into direct contact with  George Best. On the third occasion I was there too.

6 September 1969.

Leeds United 2 Manchester United 2 (Best 2)

Att: 44,271

My father had never been interested in football. But then Paul  watched the European Cup final of 1968 on television. George Best, at  the age of 21, ran the Portuguese champions, Benfica, ragged at Wembley,  scoring the crucial goal that won the game. By then, this shy Northern  Irishman was already a countercultural hero, the “fifth Beatle”.  Extremely handsome, lithe and effortlessly subversive on the pitch, Best  undid the most aggressive opponents with his endlessly witty feet. He  satirised defences, expressing in the language of football the  irreverent, self-confident spirit of the late sixties.

Dad, though a sociologist, had noted little of this, concentrating on  his field of Soviet Studies. But Paul had been paying close attention.  Leeds was only 20 miles or so from the North Yorkshire market town of  Knaresborough where we lived. So Dad agreed to make the short journey to  Leeds United’s Elland Road stadium, on the occasion of Best’s visit.

He scored twice. The second, to put Manchester United 2-1 up, was one  of the finest of his career – a ferocious snapshot with no backlift  from 25 yards. Throughout the sunlit afternoon he dominated, teasing  opponents and prompting teammates. He was more pleasing to the eye and  more gifted than anyone else on the pitch, but the charm of his play was  so beguiling that no one seemed to resent him for it. Not even the  Leeds fans. In the Guardian, presciently noting the United team’s  over-reliance on their talisman, Paul Wilcox wrote: “If Manchester  United did not have George Best, they would not have much.”

Driving back home, Dad took the usual route from Leeds to  Knaresborough, along the Harrogate Road. As the family Volkswagen  emerged cautiously from a set of traffic lights near Horsforth, a  low-slung yellow Lotus Esprit overtook at reckless speed, swerving back  to the correct side of the road in the nick of time, before accelerating  into the distance.

“Who’s that idiot?” said my father. Paul knew that Best drove a Lotus  at that time. But it was only later, watching the 9 ‘0’ Clock news,  that he understood that the ‘idiot’ was indeed his hero. A reporter  related to the nation that, following Best’s starring role against  Leeds, he had flown directly to Belfast to introduce his 19 year-old  Danish fiance, Eva Haraldsted, to his parents. Best had taken the  acclaim of the United fans, showered, changed, spoken to journalists,  found Eva and *still* managed to overtake my Dad on the way to  Leeds/Bradford airport.

This graced impossibly stylish existence communicated its charisma  instantly to Paul’s 12 year-old imagination. That Saturday, the gates of  Knaresborough were flung wide open. Beyond them, my brother encountered  someone who had a special relationship with the wider world; a close  confidence with its secret meanings, pleasures and possibilities.

“Who’s that idiot?” – would enter family legend, facetiously  suggested as a possible title for the never-to-be-written autobiography  of my prudent, gentle father.

18 September 1971

Manchester United 4 West Ham 2 (Best 3)

Att: 53,339

By the autumn of 1971, my brother’s relationship with Best was  becoming a sentimental education of sorts, as Paul found himself  invested in a narrative that began to take a darker turn. The carefree  brilliance of Best’s performance at Leeds had given way to a more  fitful, uneasy mood in the player and at the club. Manchester United –  champions of Europe only three years previously – were in steep decline  and now unsustainably dependent on their shining star. Best, in his  twenties, began to drink heavily. He was missing training and incurring  fines and suspensions. His sexual exploits were driving newspapers sales  and were a boon to scandal-seeking tabloids like The Sun, which Rupert  Murdoch had bought in 1969.

At the beginning of the year, as his celebrity and notoriety  spiralled out of control, Best led the national news for days when he  abandoned the team before a match away to Chelsea. Skipping the game, he  holed up in the Islington flat of the actress Sinead Cusack.  Journalists and scores of rubberneckers camped outside for two days,  while the country tutted over the famous footballer who symbolised the  waywardness of the “permissive society”.

Viewed from our house in Knaresborough, Best was a tragic, maligned  figure, subjected to unreasonable demands by those in authority. On the  hoof, Paul was obliged to develop a romantic defence of our flawed hero.  How futile to try and make a genius play by the rules! And why not try  instead to build a better team around him? Now six years old, I was a  sympathetic presence at the dinner table, as discussions about Best’s  behaviour took place. But I was unable to offer my brother any  meaningful assistance. Deep in his heart, Paul had pledged unconditional  allegiance to Best. I had pledged the same to my older brother. But the  storm-clouds were gathering.

Occasions like the autumn home game against West Ham gave Paul sweet  vindication. By this time, he had found a group of butchers who  travelled from Knaresborough to most of United’s home games. They were  happy to take him along. The pre-match routine was to set off early,  arriving in Manchester by late morning for a session in the pub. Paul  was dropped off outside the ground, where the first preparations for the  day’s drama would be taking place.

Football grounds on match day mornings are intoxicating places. The  silence has an uncanny quality, already overtaken in the imagination by  the noise and passion to come. My brother would generally hang around  the forecourt of Old Trafford, near the players’ entrance. As midday  approached on the day of the West Ham game, he spotted Best arriving in a  blue e-type Jaguar, with a Beatles Sergeant Pepper album visible on the  back seat.

Before each home game, the Manchester United players assembled at the  ground to go to the Midland Hotel together for lunch. On this  particular Saturday, Best had an errand to carry out first. Dressed in a  black velvet jacket and tie, he headed for a door into the stadium,  close to the souvenir shop. Passing through the usual corridor of  admirers, he suddenly looked at Paul and said: “Have you got the time?  My watch has stopped.”

Somehow coping with this outlandish turn of events, Paul looked at  his own watch and replied: “It’s ten to twelve George.” As this story  has been regularly re-told down the years, I have marvelled at the  audacity of that use of “George”; at the sheer chutzpah of assuming  first-name terms with the object of so much adoration and wonderment.

United were on song that day and Paul watched Best score a hat-trick.  The third goal followed a weaving, feinting run past four opponents,  including the England captain, Bobby Moore, before an unstoppable  right-foot shot into the net. It was the most glorious day of an Indian  summer that was followed by a bitter, harsh winter.

By Christmas, the Manchester United team was beginning to unravel and  so was Best’s life. An IRA death threat in October deeply unsettled him  (Best’s family was Protestant). On the way to a match in Newcastle, he  was accompanied on the team coach by two Special Branch minders, one of  whom, according to local legend, was picked up in Knaresborough. Fearing  a sniper, Best would later say he never stopped moving on the St  James’s Park pitch.

As the heavy drinking continued, he was dropped from the team to play  Wolves on 8 January, after missing training for a week. Much of that  time had been spent in London with the reigning Miss Great Britain,  Carolyn Moore.

Having moved out of ‘digs’, where he was looked after by a  club-approved landlady, to live on his own, Best was ordered by the club  to move back, in an effort to curb his lifestyle. In one of his  autobiographies, Best described his deepening disillusionment: “From  1970 onwards, instead of revolving around me, the team depended on me  and I couldn’t handle the pressure….I started going missing because I  didn’t want to train. I was going out and getting drunk two or three  nights in a row. I’d lost all my enthusiasm for football.”

When the season ended, Best was due to play for Northern Ireland in  the traditional Home Internationals tournament. He went to the beaches  of Marbella instead. From there, at the age of 27, he said he intended  to quit football. Five days before Christmas in 1972, following an  abortive comeback, he wrote a letter to Manchester United announcing his  definitive retirement.

The final paragraph read: “I would like to wish the club the best of  luck for the remainder of the season and for the future, because even  though I personally have tarnished the club’ name in recent times, to me  and thousands of others Manchester United still means something  special.”

It was a little over three years since he had overtaken my Dad in the yellow Lotus.

Just prior to this calamity, I had made my own first visits to Old  Trafford. In September I had seen seeing Best’s Jaguar screech away in a  dust-cloud of gravel, after a 1-0 defeat at home to Coventry. Following  his hero’s final departure, my brother stayed loyal to Best’s memory,  as we both spent Saturdays at the ground he illuminated. As Paul joined  the sixth form at school, he bought his own black velvet jacket and grew  his hair in the style of Best circa ‘71. He and his circle of friends  began to make the pubs of Knaresborough their own, and Paul became known  simply as ‘George’.

Best, regretting his premature departure from the game, attempted a  series of comebacks at different, lesser clubs. We willed him on,  jointly cherishing my brother’s recollections and mulling over their  significance. I was a grateful altar boy in Paul’s church, which had its  own dogmas, liturgy and lessons. It was a high church, which valued  extravagant display, individual genius and a cavalier disregard for  pragmatic calculation. Its readings emphasised the vulnerability of  greatness and offered a tragic vision of life, in which the perfection  of a moment could never last. The most one could hope for was to  brilliantly poke fate in the eye, at least for a day. This became our  theological take on Manchester United. Without Best the team was  relegated to the Second Division, failing to compete with the new  collective ethos dominating early-seventies football through Liverpool  and Leeds United.

The cavalier aesthetic carried through to how we viewed our own  lives. In 1975 my brother reluctantly left Knaresborough to go to  Lancaster University to study History. Not yet ready to leave his  friends and the social life they had built up, he was unhappy at  Lancaster and came home again before the end of his first year.  Inevitably given the circumstances, academic coursework had been  neglected. But before Paul left he wanted to show his tutors exactly  what he was capable of. The last piece of work he submitted was a  scintillating essay which was awarded a First. It was my brother’s  George Best moment.

22 August, 1999

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2

Att: 38,147

The Phene Arms in Chelsea has gone the way of countless other pubs in  recent years, introducing bare floorboards, focusing on food and  dropping the heraldic dimension to its name. But in 1999, the Phene was  one of the few traditional drinking establishments left in the area. A  small, quiet corner pub, it became George Best’s local after he moved  into the area with his second wife, Alex Best.

The years which followed Best’s departure from Manchester had  included a spell in America, where he married the model Angie MacDonald,  who gave birth to his son, Calum. That was a high. There were also the  lows of a three-month prison sentence in 1984 for drunk driving and  assaulting a police officer, and a vulgar, pissed appearance on Wogan in  1990, which saddened all who watched it. While Best had become a  confirmed alcoholic, my brother, like my Dad, had become a lecturer. I,  somewhat by accident, had become a journalist. It was my editor at the  time who told me that George Best could sometimes be seen in the Phene  Arms.

One Sunday when my brother was down for the weekend, we decided to  pay a visit. United were playing at Arsenal that day and we didn’t have  tickets, so the plan was to have a look at the pub and then find  somewhere to watch the game on on TV. We arrived in the early afternoon.  The Phene was relatively quiet, a world away from the crowds milling  about the nearby Kings Road. There was no sign of Best.

At around three o clock, a young blonde woman walked into the bar. It  was Alex. A few seconds later Best shuffled in. He was wearing a  shellsuit and looked a little weary. As discreetly as we could manage,  Paul and I watched him sit down with a trusted group of regulars, none  of whom seemed to be football fans. The impression was that these were  people with whom it was possible to dull the memory of what had been.

There was only one television, fixed to the wall high up in a corner  of the room. As the Arsenal and Manchester United teams emerged from the  tunnel for the match, no one in the pub seemed remotely interested.  Paul and I pulled two chairs from a table and moved them to an empty  patch of floor, so we could get a decent view of the television. I think  we were almost happy to focus on the game. There was something  inappropriate about forcing ourselves into Best’s sad, unsatisfactory  afterlife.

Ten minutes or so into the match, he grabbed a chair and came to sit  alongside us. Three people in the Phene Arms were now watching the  Manchester United match. Me, my brother and George Best. Paul, suddenly  rigid, fell completely silent for a while. Best began to make  observations about the game. As the then United winger, Ryan Giggs,  received the ball, he predicted that he wouldn’t beat his man (he  didn’t). When one of the United players was fouled he appealed  unsuccessfully for a penalty. I said I thought a penalty award would  have been harsh. “You’ve got to ask, haven’t you?” Best replied.

It was thirty years since Paul had driven with Dad to see Best play  at Elland Road. The 53 year-old man now sitting next to us had shaped  our imaginations and changed our lives. His inimitable rise had gifted  us a sense of the glittering possibilities of a free, creative life. His  fall had taught us the dangers of living that way. At the very height  of his fame, he had asked my brother for the time. He was the handsome  “idiot” who had overtaken my father in a yellow sports car in the dying  days of the 1960s.

Wordlessly, an understanding passed between Paul and I that none of  this could be said. In a way, Best knew it all already. Having worked  out that we were United fans, he knew that he was the reason we were in  the Phene Arms that afternoon. I like to think that it was a supremely  graceful act on his part to come over to watch the match with us. There  was no need to go over the old ground. We all remembered how things had  been.

Midway through the second half, Best wandered back to his group of  friends. After watching United win 2-1, Paul and I decided to go to  another pub to talk through what had happened. Six years later Best  died, after complications related to a liver transplant in 2002.


All by
Julian Coleman