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)
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)
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
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.