George Best

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

George Best Pencil Portrait
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Last update : 29/11/17

It was the finest moment in George Best’s brilliant career, scoring at Wembley in 1968 to help Manchester United become the first English club to win the European Cup. But Best’s elation turned to heartbreak when his coveted winners’ medal went missing.

He never saw it again but it then mysteriously resurfaced in 2010, five years after his death and was sold at auction to pay off more than £150,000 of his debts. At the time, Best’s second wife Alex was owed an estimated £50,000, while London’s private Cromwell Hospital, where he underwent a liver transplant in 2002 and died in 2005, was understood to be owed £100,000. Prior to the auction, the Best family had been told by accountants that the debts had to be discharged.

It was another sad coda to the life and premature death of one of the three greatest soccer players to ever grace the international game, and an individual who experienced his professional zenith at the appallingly tender age of twenty two.

In 2009 I watched a BBC4 drama _“Best – His mother’s son,”, which focused on the tragic descent of Anne Best into alcoholism. What made her decline more disconcerting was the fact that this working-class, warm, shy and softly spoken mother was teetotal until the age of forty four, yet ten years later was dead from heart related problems widely believed to have been triggered by her excessive drinking.

The drama focused on the relationship between George Best, who was himself to die an alcoholic in 2005, and his mother, between 1966 when the 19-year-old’s fame had already led to him being dubbed the “fifth Beatle,” and January 1974, when he turned his back on Manchester United and the highest levels of football at the age of 27.

Unsurprisingly, drink changed her personality for the worse. Sober, she was a very shy, softly spoken woman who brought her children up to have manners, respect and a good education. She was an intelligent woman yet the change in her was palpable as the drama vividly depicted. Anne Best commenced her decline just as her son’s meteoric rise commenced. She had three kids under the age of five whilst the press were camping on her doorstep and George was falling under the media spotlight. As Best stamped his credential on the European soccer fields throughout the 65/66 campaign, his family back in Belfast was living in a glass bowl of publicity that they’d never requested. Whilst in the eye of the hurricane, Best’s father could only stand and watch as his beloved wife slowly lost a grip on her personality.

At first George’s social drinking was just part and parcel of the orbit he inhabited and it had no detrimental effect on his standard of play. Sadly, it was only much later that people realised he had a drinking problem. He was young and people thought he was living an idyllic lifestyle. In a way, he was the first superstar footballer but without the guidance now availble to stars. Best and his mother, by the early 70’s, were negotiating treacherous and uncharted territory. Neither would re-emerge on terra firma.

Eventually, his drinking curtailed a glittering career and he went onto fight a very public battle against alcoholism, dying at ahe 59 from kidney infection, a side-effect of the immunosuppressive drugs he was required to take after a liver transplant.

Although I was never a Manchester United supporter, it goes without saying that I had the deepest respect for Best’s sublime skills on the soccer field. Not for once could he be overheard to say in interviews that as much as he loved playing at his spiritual home Old Trafford, his greatest thrill was observing the thunderous silence that would greet one of his carefully contrived goals on an away ground. Thousands of opposition supporters would pray for the mercurial Irish genius to have an “off day” but in reality, the only person that could contribute to a below par performance was George himself.

When considering the qualities of players like Best, who operated at the sharp end, you have to remember the Sixties was the time when forwards were not a protected species. In fact, it was open season for defenders, who were given carte blanche to kick opponents.

I personally hated what happened to the English game after 1966. The old First division was no place for players of a nervous disposition, and the fainthearted had nowhere to hide. At Highbury, Peter Storey awaited whilst at Chelsea, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris clattered all comers. In the north, Tommy Smith would send opposition strikers skyrocketing into the stands at Anfield and at Elland Road, if Norman Hunter didn’t maim you then there was a fair chance Billy Bremner would. If one’s fate was undecided, then an appearance in Jack Charlton’s black book was sufficient to seal your fate. Best had his card marked in his very first game. It was against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, and he was opposed by a feisty full-back called Graham Williams, who spent most of the first half trying to persuade George he was in the wrong job. Best in those days had the physique of a knitting needle but he took Williams on, even daring to nutmeg him, which was the equivalent of signing his own death warrant.

Recalling that auspicious debut in 1963, Best’s close friend Michael Parkinson went onto write about him:

“Ever after, when Williams met Best, he would ask him to stand still so he could study his face. ‘I want to know what you look like because all I’ve ever seen of you is your arse disappearing down the touchline,’ he said.”

Best survived, prospered and triumphed because he was supremely gifted to overcome any challenge, physical, mental or tactical. Like all great players, the foundation of his talent was his balance. His low-slung way of running allowed him to ride the roughest passage as if equipped with stabilisers.

His speed often took him away from trouble before it could hinder him, and his stamina ensured that he was still operating flat-out when the opposition became heavy-legged. Those qualities were God-given, but what he built on that foundation is an example today’s players might take to heart.

He made himself into a two-footed player, not in the sense he was marvellous with one and adequate with the other, but to the point where he had forgotten which was his natural foot. This gave him all the options when it came to beating an opponent, but particularly in the box, where Best was one of the most certain finishers I ever saw”.

Best’s alcoholism ultimately killed him but sadly he is not an isolated statistic. The current UK death toll from alcohol misuse is the equivalent of a passenger filled jumbo jet crashing every 17 days. Furthermore, 80% of alcohol-related deaths are from liver disease, which is the fifth most common cause of death in England and is set to overtake stroke and coronary heart disease as a killer within the next 10 years.

Meanwhile The British Liver Trust has launched a new report, which argues that people with alcohol problems must be offered effective support and treatment to meet their individual needs, an “individual person-centred journey” as the Government’s drug strategy would describe it. There has been much talk about recovery and abstinence-based approaches for those with alcohol dependence.

Significantly the report, and I am totally in accord with it, suggests that it is vital for people who misuse alcohol to avoid being treated by a one-size fits all abstinence approach. Therefore, to be as successful as possible, healthcare professionals must work with patients to understand their preferences in setting goals to reduce their alcohol harm. Problem drinkers are after all a mixed bag of people with a range of mild, moderate and severe alcohol dependence.\

Any advancement in the treatments available to alcoholics cannot come soon enough. I would like young people to look at the photograph of Best in his hospital bed in the above website link and to relate it to my portrait. The deterioration in him is shockingly graphic.

I can recognise that the condition is an illness, yet I cannot relate to it at all. In the very worst moments of my lif,e I have never come even close to seeking solace in the bottle? Why is that, and why should my abstinance unsettle so many people I have known? Perhaps for the masses, an early clue to their future direction lies in their formative years. My father never went drinking, and so the time honoured tradition of visiting one’s local for a “man to man” discussion with him never happened for me. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that traditional custom; problems only start when the ritual becomes unbreakable. I have seen circumstances compel individuals to arrive late at the bar only to immediately order sufficient rounds for themselves commensurate with a much longer stay. i have gone to the bar to order a round for someone only to observe them behind me ready to order again before closing time; to my mind, the drink is already taking a hold by that stage. Naturally I have been drunk, two times I can recall in my late teens although I was never sick. My abiding memory was the amount of money I had wasted, and earnings I had worked hard for as a student on saturdays. I lost interest very early on. I was a pleasant drunk, I found much to laugh about, and then I fell asleep yet I laugh a lot in a sober state as well. So I’ve never bothered with drink. I’ll have a glass of wine with a meal and a cocktail when abroad on holiday and then absolutely nothing for months on end. I have never been troubled in the slightest by people who drink more than me unless they become offensive, yet I suspect that they have never felt the same way about me. Funny old thing drink…\

I would never deign to question experts in this field of addiction but I do know many people who are conceivably in denial about their drinking, and they will invariably relate back to the commonly accepted danger signs outlined in the link above. To my mind, everything can be condensced into one single output. If you were compelled to consume nothing but non alcolholic beverages for six months would you even notice that fact? In the case of youthful binge drinkers in the pursuit of a “good time” I suggest they would find this an impossibility. The traditional image of the unshaven tramp like figure forlornly scavenging amongst dustbins for half empty meths bottles is a soothing thought for millions but ultimately a false comfort. Of course, we all have our addictions, some injurious to our health, others affecting relationships and our personal finances. How we control them is simply part of life’s rich pageantry.

Unfortunately, Best never secured the stability of family life early in his career as many of his contemporaries did. The stories of his womanising are well travelled and frankly rather tedious but I have reproduced one famous anecdote which he regaled on the “Parkinson Show” and presumably on other ocassions to any interested party within earshot.

“I was over in the states and I was in Vegas. I was dating Mary Stavin the 1977 Miss World at the time and she was gorgeous, I mean really gorgeous. I had been down on the gaming tables and it was one of those nights.”

“By the end of the evening I was up $15000 (it may have been $30,000) and Mary was getting a little tired. I decided to cash in my chips and go up to the room. I got a cab to our hotel with fifteen thousand/thirty thousand dollars in cash on me and as I went past the desk clerk I ordered a magnum of champagne from the night porter.”

“Jesus it’s yourself” the night porter said to me (He was a little Paddy) George explained.
“I’ll be right up Mr Best with your Champagne.”

George continued…

“We took the elevator and Mary went for a shower to get ready for bed. I took out all the cash and spread it all over the bed.”

“A few minutes later the little Irish guy taps on the door and I let him in. His eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw all that money on the bed. As he put the champagne on the table Miss World came into the room in a lovely see-thru baby doll nightdress and the little Irish guy’s eyes were now on stalks.”

“I poured him out a glass of champagne as well as one for Mary Stavin and me.”

“We toasted each other and when he had finished his glass I put two hundred dollars on his tray and he said goodnight and thanks.”

“As he was about to leave the room, he looked back at Miss World in her negligee and then at all the money on the bed, and then back at me and shook his head slowly from side to side. Before he slipped out the door, he put down his empty glass and he gave me one more sort of pitying look and said.”

“Where did it all go wrong Georgie, where did it all go wrong?”

It doesn’t seem so funny now does it? He went on record as saying that Miss Stavin was totally focussed on her modelling/acting career, an ambition that remained unfulfilled because frankly she couldn’t act, and without genuinely wishing to be unduly critical, was just one of many decorative items to pass through the James Bond mincing machine. Best knew she was using him, which he may have opined was fair enough in view of his past actions with women. Ultimately though, how did his adventures with women in any way prepare him for the rites of passage into marriage and that one defining all encompassing relationship with a woman? By his own admission, he was never faithful to anyone but more importantly whilst I, and millions of others, are in no position to sit in judgement of him, he seemingly never even ‘aspired’ in his mind to such a state of monogamy. Mistrustful of women’s motives and their interest in him, he seemed unable to discern between the superficiality of “the hunt” and those qualities required in an ideal soul mate. Of course, he was also losing a considerable number of days in his life through alcoholic blackouts.

Fledgling relationships are invariably associated with intensity and a considerable consumption of time and multiplied many times over, it is difficult to second guess anything else the man might have been doing with his time. One suspects very little. He didn’t prepare himself for a life in business when his career was over, nor did he consider relevant qualifications he might require to move into a major managerial/coaching role once his playing days were over.

Recommended viewing

Benfica v Manchester United – 1966 European Cup quarter final

Michael Parkinson introduced a telerecording of this tie to commemorate Best’s fiftieth birthday in 1996 and I videotaped the entire match to analyse a performance I had read so much about for so many years.

On March 9, 1966 a 19-year-old George Best announced himself to the football world with a stunning two-goal performance against Benfica in the quarter-finals of the European Cup that helped his side to win 5-1. ‘El Beatle’, as he would become known in the Portuguese press, had arrived. It wasn’t just the achievement of so roundly defeating one of the giants of the European game, it was also the manner of the performance on foreign soil that suggested the young Best was on the verge of securing his place amongst the pantheons of greatness like Pele and Di Stefano.

The Daily Express’ Desmond Hackett wrote: “I have never seen a British team abroad play with such spirit and brilliance… Best so bedevilled the muscular men of Benfica that finally the crowd were compelled to applaud his brilliance and impudence.”

Unfortunately the recording of the match exists only in monochrome but Best’s two goals exemplify the very essence of technicoloured virtuosity. Describing his second goal in his autobiography, “Blessed”, he wrote:

“I dipped a shoulder and swerved inside a defender – I knew from that point I was going to score. A second defender came at me but I knocked it past him. I looked up to see the ‘keeper coming towards me. I caught the look of uncertainty in his eye and instead of waiting for him to move, I knocked it past him before he could make his mind up. It has to be one of my favourite ever goals.”

Northampton Town v Manchester United – FA Cup Fifth Round 1970

Best’s first competitive match following a six week suspension. Opening his account in the twenty seventh minute he went onto rattle in a further five goals as United romped home 8-2 against the beleagured Cobblers. It might not have been top class opposition but George’s finishing that day was an object lesson in ballwork and clinical precision. The home team even fluffed a penalty as the men from Manchester overwhelmed them thus ensuring the absence of any giant killing cup headlines that particular day. Youtube has highlights from the game and Best’s sixth strike commencing at 9.07 offers a hint to the uninitiated of his silky skills as he sells the opposition goalkeeper the sweetest of dummies to rifle home at his leisure.

On a muddy pitch reminiscent of so many encounters from this era, United cruise to victory as the biting wind serves only to trouble Bobby Charlton’s combover!

Recommended reading

Scoring at Half-Time (George Best) 2004

Inside stories, lurid tales, embarrassing incidents; George gathered together both his own favourite stories and those of his friends to produce a lighthearted and entertaining read. It was almost inevitably ghost written, but the recollections are authentic.

George Best : An intimate biography (Michael Parkinson) 1975

Parky’s book was denounced by at least one reviewer for its sneering, denunciatory commentary, punctuating what were obviously extracts from a drunk­en interview, since it cast Best as a foul-mouthed misogynist, his mind fixated on the next drink and a “quick fuck” with the willing tarts who con­stantly offered them­selves to him. Suggesting that the author’s pur­pose, aside from profit, was to expose the decline of authentic working-class culture, and its re­placement by the shal­low world of consumerism and shabby celebrity, was a trifle mean spirited in view of the pair’s longstanding friendship which dated back to the early 60’s. Parkinson was finding his feet on Granada’s flagship magazine programme “Scene at 6.30,” introducing The Beatles on their earliest regional television appearances, whilst marvelling at Best’s emerging talent from the stands of The Stretford End. If George truly did have his work cut out rebutting the unpleasant figure he cut in its pages then he was being unduly sensitive, for Parkinson truly conveyed his subject’s ultimate professional frustration at the end. Watching the 1974 World Cup final between West Germany and Holland, a friend commented that he wouldn’t trade places with Neeskens when the Dutch were awarded a penalty in the second minute. Reflecting on his Irish ancestry and failure to ever grace a World Cup competition, Best was quick to respond that he would have relished the challenge. As it happens, Neeskens hit the back of the net as indeed would have George.

Best’s Eighties autobiography “Where Do I Go From Here?” ends with him in rehab, briefly embracing the AA programme, admitting his alcoholism after his ex­tended lost weekend in California, awaiting the birth of his son Calum, and the hope of recovery. It’s not just hindsight that tells the reader that this was a forlorn hope. This book and the 1990 follow up “men behaving badly” opus, “The Good, the Bad and the Bubbly,” in different ways still defend the boozy lifestyle which ended his career prematurely and attempt to justify his disastrous move to American soccer.

Memories of George Best (Christopher Hilton & Ian Cole) 2007

Published two years after his death, mystery still surrounds the creative and destructive forces which ruled George Best. What gives this volume an edge are the recollections of people who knew him throughout his life. “Memories of George Best” gathers the candid experiences of a host of friends and enemies, team-mates and opponents, journalists who lived it with him, celebrities and fans. Here the creative forces live again in the glorious games, captured through the words of those who played in them.

Co-authored by Christopher Hilton, formerly of the Daily Express and an acclaimed writer of sports books, and Ian Cole of the Daily Mail, a lifelong football follower and respected expert on the game, “Memories” seeks to unlock the mystery of this genuinely likeable yet deeply troubled individual.

Revelations abound as when first wife Angie admits “There was nothing you could do to make George happy. Telling him I was pregnant didn’t make him happy. His quote was ‘I have to finish my bender first.’”

Incapable of caring for anyone, Best was adept at picking somebody to look after him and repeatedly did so throughout his life. His will was reportedly scribbled on a piece of paper and handed to his agent.

Insightful yet a light, breezy read.


George Best - Official Website

An attractively constructed official website, suitably embossed with the colour red to reflect Best’s enduring love for his club Manchester United. The unprecedented public support following George’s death in 2005 led to the creation of, an official platform to help fans commemorate George’s life and playing career. offers fans the latest updates regarding official George Best merchandise (including the officially sanctioned biography) as well as providing an historical look towards George’s playing career through interviews, articles and our photo gallery.

There’s considerable work to be undertaken in order to ensure it becomes the definitive on-line statement about Best, and the merchandise section is predictably brimming with product.

Let me reserve judgement for now.