Looking older than his 55 years, George Best shuffles slowly into the drawing room of a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Belfast dressed in casual clothes that seem to hang on his weak frame. He appears tired and frail, and is clearly still recovering from chronic health problems, exacerbated by alcohol, that nearly claimed his life last year.
His sharp wit, easygoing charm and ability to recount stories from his fascinating life are all still there. He is in fine form today, having driven down from his home in a remote corner of the province in a recently purchased Mini (“It’s his new toy,” says his wife Alex), while the afternoon holds nothing more strenuous than a massage in the hotel’s leisure centre.
“I have never been happier,” he announces, “and I never thought I would be without playing football. I love my life at the moment, it’s almost close to perfection.”
You, Keith Moon or Oliver Reed. Who was the biggest hell-raiser?
Mike Murray, via e-mail
If you consider how the other two ended up, they must have done a bit more hell-raising than me! I’m the only one still alive!
Back when you were a shag-magnet, did you ever feel empty or was it as awesomely good fun as I suspect?
Jim McCulloch, Glasgow
[Laughs] Oh no, trust me, it was always good fun. That was one thing I never had problems with at all. How could I feel empty? I will always be grateful to have experienced the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was such an exciting time. The living was free and easy, and there were none of the diseases there are today. Life was about girls, a few beers, football, good music and being a shag-magnet! It was part of life and I loved every minute of it. I was never disappointed with sex. It’s like football – if you’re having a good game, you want to continue, and if you have a bad one, you just look forward to the next game!
Is there anyone who you think was a better footballer than you?
Richard Brown, via e-mail
In a recent survey of Manchester United fans, I came runner-up to Eric Cantona as the club’s greatest ever player, but I think that was just the kids talking. If you had asked an older generation then I probably would have won. I have always been mentioned in the same breath as Cruyff, Pele and Maradona, and that’s without ever having played in the World Cup. It is a big compliment that these players themselves recognise me too. I remember seeing some footage of Maradona completely freaking out when they asked him how good I was, and then, of course, Pele said he thought I was the greatest ever player. I have always thought I was the best ever player – that’s the way you have to look at it. I have never looked at another player and felt inferior.
Why do you prefer blondes?
Tom Gadsby, Manchester
[Laughs] I really don’t, but my blonde girlfriends have always got more attention in the media. The fact that I named one of my clubs ‘Blondes’ probably added to the perception. I have actually had a few relationships with some dark-haired girls.
Did you ever feel guilty that United’s decline in the 70s started after you left?
Nick Malaperiman, Vancouver, Canada
No, I didn’t feel guilty. They went into decline for the simple reason that they didn’t have enough good players, and you can’t blame me for that! I didn’t buy the players! They replaced great players with ordinary ones, while passing up the opportunity to buy some excellent players like Alan Ball and Mike England. I also don’t think they had a good manager in Tommy Docherty. I did all I could but I didn’t have the players around me.
Who is the better player – Ryan Giggs or David Beckham? No fence-sitting!
Michael Rushcutter, via e-mail
Ryan Giggs because he is more exciting on the ball. Giggs gets me on the edge of my seat when he runs at defenders. David is a great player, you’d have to be mad to think otherwise, but I think he could do even better. He could score more goals for instance, and use his left foot more, but I suppose he doesn’t really need it.
Did Sir Matt Busby let you get away with too much?
Ben Foot, Grimsby
Not at all. He was just like Fergie: if you stepped out of line, he would have a go at you, but he always did it behind closed doors. You have to remember that I was fined and dropped by him. The problem was he couldn’t live in my pocket. You just can’t do that with 20 players to look after.
Would your life have been different if you had been called George Taylor?
Sarah Shugborough, Bagshott
It would have only been different if I couldn’t have played football like I could. The name helped me as I was a footballer, but outside the game it wouldn’t have meant a thing.
In the 1970s you had your dream home built in Bramhall. Was it a work of architectural genius or, as some locals have said, a giant gents toilet?
Kevin Whitchurch, Devon
It was a stroke of genius, but it was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the first time those white tiles had been used, which are used a fair bit now, so I suppose it looked a bit like a toilet. But to me it was a beautiful house. It’s still there, it’s changed hands a few times though.
Did you get kidnapped by a bunch of students during rag week in the 1960s?
Harry King, Hackney
Oh yes. It was a charity stunt. They kidnapped me after training, put me in a car and then locked me in a room with six girls. As you can imagine, I didn’t complain. It was a shame they had to release me.
Do you cringe when you see your infamous performance on Wogan?
Ben French, Dover
Very much so. I started to watch it once, but I couldn’t do it. I really don’t remember anything about that interview. Poor Terry! It was the first time I had ever appeared on television in a state like that. It would never happen again, for obvious reasons.
Which of the current United strikers would you most liked to have played with: Cole, Solsjkaer, Yorke or Van Nistelrooy?
Derek Carr, Ireland
Well, it wouldn’t be Andy Cole. He’s a great player, but he seems a bit moody, like he’s not enjoying himself and it’s just a job to him. I like the way Dwight Yorke plays with a smile on his face. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spends most of his time on the bench, but looks wonderful when he comes on. However, if I had to pick one, it would be Van Nistelrooy. I think we would have linked up well. He is going to be a great striker at United and I look forward to watching him blossom. He’ll score loads of goals. I certainly hope he does anyway – he’s in my dream team!
Who is the greatest manager: Sir Matt or Sir Alex?
Abigail Cane, via e-mail
Well, I’m biased, as I played under Sir Matt for all those years. Sir Matt was not only a great manager but a truly great man. Fergie has his knockers, but I judge people as I find them and he has always treated me with a great deal of respect.
How would you have reacted if you had scored against United to send them down, like Denis Law?
Cathy Whyte, Hampton
Probably in the same way – I would have been absolutely sick about it, but I wouldn’t have been in that position as I could never have played for City! I know it was different for Denis as he had played at Maine Road before and he wanted to stay in Manchester where his family was settled. But Denis is a United fan at heart – he supports the club and his daughter, Diana, works there too. He tries to laugh it off, but he’s still gutted about that goal.
If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
Barry King, via e-mail
Not a thing. I have had a great life. I didn’t want to go to prison, I didn’t want to get banned from driving and I didn’t want to get involved in the fights. But it’s all a learning process that you have to go through.
Are you afraid of dying?
Monica South, Salford
I’m not afraid of it, but I don’t want to! I don’t have any fear of dying; I never have done. I’m even planning a parachute jump soon. My wife, Alex, has done one already, so I’m going to join her next time.
Why sometimes a beard but never a moustache?
Harry Burn, via e-mail
I did have a moustache for a short while, but it looked awful. I have always been dubious about them. You either go the whole way or not at all. My one attempt at a moustache back in the ‘60s was terrible. I had it when I was opening a bakery and they made me wear a daft hat, so with that and the moustache I look dreadful. I saw the picture the next day and immediately shaved it off!
What is the worst rollicking Sir Matt gave you?
Andy Brown, Urmston
It would have to be the time he told me to settle down with a nice girl, but when I did he went absolutely mad! I got engaged to this girl after only knowing her for a few weeks, and I thought he would be pleased that I had followed his advice, but he went nuts! He said, “How can you get engaged when you’ve only known her a couple of weeks!” I thought, “Well, you told me to!”
Did footballers do drugs in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Frank Boston, Blackpool
Never. I didn’t see it going on at all. I actually spent one of my birthdays in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and they were all on the wacky baccy. It wasn’t for me.
What is your biggest regret?
James Robertson, via e-mail
I missed a penalty against Chelsea at Old Trafford. It’s the only penalty I remember missing, so I wish I could take it again!
When did you first realise you might have a drink problem?
Les Pasadena, Reading
Only last year. I knew I had a problem, but there is a difference between knowing and admitting, and I would never admit it. I finally realised last year when I had to go into hospital after they literally had to pick me off the floor. Now, every three months, I have an implant of drugs in my stomach that stops me drinking, so even if I wanted to I couldn’t. It actually gets easier as time goes by.
Who was the best defender you played against?
Rob Ellison, Ifracombe
There were two – Paul Reaney from Leeds and Sanchis from Real Madrid. They were both quick and liked to get stuck in.
Who is the most similar player to you playing now?
Paul Hunniford, Congleton
Giggsy is probably the closest because as soon as he gets the ball he goes at players. Giggs has been getting better and better in recent years and is undoubtedly at the peak of his career. Thierry Henry does the same, but he does it in the middle and now on the wing. Maradona used to do it – collect the ball, look up and go for goal.
Did you ever come to blows with a teammate?
Edith Barratt, via e-mail
No, I didn’t and I was probably one of the few who didn’t. We had a few fiery temperaments at United with Paddy Crerard and Nobby Stiles. You might get a smack on the training field, but you would be friends afterwards. Shake hands and get on with things – the man’s way of dealing with things.
What was your favourite ever game?
Steve Cooper, Swansea
There have been so many. The most important was winning the European Cup in 1968, but my best personal performance was for Northern Ireland against Scotland in the ‘60s. We were expected to get slaughtered as the Scots had some great players, but we won 1-0. Everything I tried came off, and I would have had about four goals but the keeper had a great game. They still talk about that game now. For United, it would have to be our win against Benfica in 1966. I scored twice in 12 minutes and enjoyed a great night.
Why did you and Bobby Charlton not get on?
Jason Boon, Stretford
This is a bit of a myth. We get on really well now, it was just because we were very different when we were younger. We just didn’t mix at all. I was a single guy and he was a married man with a family. There was no real incident between us. I felt he could be a bit aloof, but then everybody did. We were never at each other’s throats, we simply didn’t go and have a pint together.
Would you ever kiss and make up with Tommy Docherty?
Lee Hagan, Stoke
Never in a million years. He is a very dishonest man. I would love to give him a lie detector test on the reasons I left United. He still says that I turned up with a girl before a game. He still believes it. But I really don’t like dishonesty. He should put up his hands and say he was wrong, but he never will.
What is the story behind Billy Bingham asking you to play in the 1982 World Cup finals?
William Hoey, Belfast
I was really fit at the time, playing weekly for an American team while also playing racquet ball for up to three hours a day. The problem was my American team were really awful, and Billy Bingham came to watch me in a tour game at Hibs and we got slaughtered. He was under a bit of pressure to pick me and I suppose he could justify leaving me out as what he had seen wasn’t very impressive. I wouldn’t have expected to play every game, but I wished he had just taken me as a member of the squad and thrown me on for 15 minutes, only so I could have played in the World Cup.
Do you think there could ever be an all-Ireland team?
Pam Ferris, Belfast
I think there should be. They are both small countries and the only chance they have of doing something is if they combine forces. The fact that both of them have qualified for the World Cup in recent years has probably held them back as it has put both countries off creating an all-Ireland team. They do it in rugby and other sports, so why not football? Also, if it helps in some small way to resolve other problems then it should be encouraged. It would help bring about a sense of togetherness.
Do you regret playing so few games for Northern Ireland?
Brian Turner, Cork
That was down to Manchester United more than anything. Northern Ireland’s games used to clash with United and I was withdrawn a lot of the time. If you think about it, I made my debut with Pat Jennings, who went on to win over 100 caps and I was stuck in the late 30s. So, yes, I do regret not playing more for them.
Do you wish you had been born an Englishman?
Lee Claridge, Romford
[Laughs] No, of course not! I would have loved to have played in the World Cup, but only for a Northern Ireland or even a Great Britain side.
The Neville brothers are rubbish. Please discuss…
Steve Shandon, Castlefield
I wouldn’t say they’re rubbish, but they’re certainly not my favourite players. They get caught out too easily. They must have something about them as Fergie and the England manager keep on picking them. But they are far from world-class, that is clear. There is a lot of room for improvement.
If you could make one apology, to whom would it be and about what?
Frances Sheen, Manly
The Northampton goalie, Kim Book, who I put six past in that FA Cup tie in the ‘60s. I met up with him recently and he said he still gets ribbed about it now. So, Kim, I’m sorry!
Interview: Sam Pilger. From the November 2001 issue of FourFourTwo.
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