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Book Extract: IMMORTAL: The Approved Biography of George Best

November 7th, 2013

9781846059810IMMORTAL, by Duncan Hamilton, is the official new biography of George Best. A reviewer calls it a ‘marvellous and affecting book, which is about love and fatherhood and history and manners as much as it is about football’.

Here is a brief extract from the biography – for more details (including on where to buy the book), click here.

What Best later became started in the months after Manchester United’s Championship success. There was the carousing and the socialising and – to a very modest extent – the drinking. For at the beginning he would sip the odd beer and nothing else. He turned down free pints from club and pub patrons, politely telling them: ‘I don’t really drink.’ Wagner emphasises: ‘We’d go to the cinema and then to a nightclub for an hour of two. Going out was never about the drinking then and George didn’t drink much at all.’

Best still failed – as Matthews never did – to understand that the human body, especially one still developing, was meant to rest as well as play. Late nights became the norm. ‘It was a bit daft,’ he said. ‘I was living twenty-four hours a day and letting myself get really run down.’

Club rules stipulated that curfew at Aycliffe Avenue was 10.30 p.m. There were 14 houses in the cul-de-sac, each kept respectably by, among others, an ex-publican, a teacher, a printer, a retired Bolton Wanderers scout and several husband and wife pensioners. One of Mary Fullaway’s next-door neighbours was a window cleaner, who stored his ladders at the back of his house. This was useful to Best. He’d borrow them to climb into – and sometimes out of – his bedroom to avoid being seen. So would women. Steve Fullaway would be fast asleep when one of them, believing he was Best, tapped him on the shoulder. The window cleaner regularly awoke to discover those ladders were not where he’d left them the night before.

Best arrived back so often in the early morning that Mrs Fullaway gave him his own key, a unilateral decision made without Matt Busby’s knowledge or approval (which wouldn’t have been given) and designed not to break her sleep. She seldom knew what time Best got in. She would nevertheless wake him from a deep sleep for breakfast at 7.30 a.m. by rubbing his nose, which he ‘hated’.

Busby had a better intelligence network than the British security services. The whereabouts and predilections of his players were unfailingly fed back to him through telephone calls, letters, a discreet word passed on at the golf club. A chain of contacts voluntarily gave him information about who had been seen where, when and with whom. ‘If you had a glass of lager, he would get to know about it,’ said Best.

There was no shortage of misinformation, too, usually relayed with bad intent. Busby’s daily post brought anonymous accusations and all kinds of malicious tittle-tattle. He had learned what to ignore and what to take half-seriously. Busby cautioned his team: ‘You can be sure, if you do anything wrong, somebody will tell me.’

Also, he gathered evidence with his own ears and eyes. If someone looked haggard or was dishevelled in appearance, Busby wanted to know why. If a stray remark, perhaps overheard on the practice pitch or in the dressing room, set an alarm faintly ringing, he’d investigate surreptitiously.

Busby began to hear reports of Best’s extracurricular activities. There was a consistency to the stories, which gave them credence. Alcohol wasn’t an issue. What worried Busby were the hours Best was spending in nightclubs when he should have been tucked up in Aycliffe Avenue. At the beginning of the 1965–66 season, Busby thought Best seemed curiously lethargic. His form alternated between the barely acceptable and the abysmal. Best admitted: ‘I was going on to the field tired [and] coming off it shattered.’ In defence of the Championship, he scored only once in the first eight League matches; United won just twice. Busby assumed Best’s slump was temporary, a drop in performance stemming predominantly from the lavish and laudatory publicity he was getting. Busby thought the need to live up to the hype was making Best overanxious. He was still a pup, after all. But, as the displays worsened, he settled on an alternative reason. The inevitable followed: Best was summoned to see him.

Busby never dressed players down in front of one another and he believed managers who did demeaned themselves and eroded their own authority. ‘Private flagellation is as painful and as lastingly effective as the public variety. But it preserves the offender’s public dignity,’ he argued. ‘Public punishment is sometimes a sop to the pride of the man who decides to inflict it.’ Old Trafford’s referees’ room was located in the tunnel to the pitch. If Busby wanted to drop or rebuke someone he would station himself there and beckon inside the unfortunate recipient of the bad news. He’d solicitously enquire how the player thought he’d been performing. Gentle interrogation would often persuade the player to admit his shortcomings, which was akin to dropping himself. And if Busby was determined to make an impression, Best was called to his plainly decorated, sparsely furnished office. Busby had a broad, dark oak desk on which two telephones sat. His high-backed chair was raised a few inches above the three chairs placed in front of it. Anyone occupying one of the guest seats felt as though Busby was peering down on them.

Again Busby preferred to coax rather than demand. Even if he was screaming inside, he didn’t betray it. He didn’t slap the wooden top of the table or shake a balled fist at Best. The anxiety he displayed crossed his brow in a flutter and he explained with uncompromising lucidity what Best must put right. He looked weary. He wasn’t playing well because of it. He flinched at the things he’d being hearing about Best’s frenzied socialising. Busby was direct in his advice:

‘You’ve done the hard bit, son, you’ve got to the top. Staying there is easy if you only think about it.

‘Avoid the hangers-on. Concentrate on your work. Look after your money.

‘This is a European Cup season. I want to win it. You know how impor- tant the trophy is to the club, don’t you?’

Best couldn’t say in mitigation that his nights out relieved strain. Busby wouldn’t hear of it. His views on such an excuse were uncompromisingly hard-line. ‘One wrong way of reducing tension is to go boozing in a nightclub,’ he said. ‘Another is simply to stay out longer than orders permit. These methods may well take off tension, but they take the edge off performance, too. Such novelties must be stamped upon no matter whose toes are bruised.’

A chastened Best listened as Busby told him he was ‘a bloody idiot’. Even his silences were loaded with meaning and his stares of disapproval left Best feeling as if he’d grown smaller in his chair. Busby dropped him and Best felt the pain of it. He promised ‘never again’ to put ‘pleasure before playing’. He accepted that ‘you need a lot of sleep to play football’.

Best viewed Busby as an incarnation of his grandfather George Withers. ‘They were very similar,’ he said. ‘Both were hard when they needed to be. But they were lovable, too. I found it difficult to get around or con either of them.’ Not wanting to humiliate Best across the back pages, Busby told newspapers that Best needed time off because he was still a teenager fatigued by the unstinting demands of the League season. ‘He’ll be back quickly enough,’ he said. Best simply lied. ‘I think I’ve been too greedy,’ he said. ‘I’ve been wanting too much of the ball and not doing enough with it. I have spoilt myself.’ When his father rang to discover why his son wasn’t in the team, Best lied again because he was too ashamed to tell him the truth.

Unquestionably, he was his mother’s son; and he was used to getting away with a bit of mischief. As Ann Best’s firstborn he was indulged like an only child. Since he’d always been forgiven indiscretions before, so he always expected to be forgiven them again. He disarmed with charm. ‘If I ever felt a little cross with him,’ said Mrs Fullaway ‘he’d put on a wide grin from ear to ear and I wouldn’t have the heart to be too severe.’ Best did likewise with Busby, who failed to figure Best’s character into the equation when determining the degree of his punishment for this first offence. He believed that the cold shower of his words would tug him into the disciplined ranks. A similar approach had worked for Busby in the past. Shortly after Bobby Charlton went to Old Trafford, Busby heard he’d been drinking beer though under-age. ‘He was very young,’ said Busby. ‘So I sent for him and I told him: “If I ever hear you have been drinking beer again before you are old enough, you will be for it.” It was a long time before he had his next glass of beer, and certainly not before he was old enough.’

Like so many of his vintage, Busby found the upheavals of the 1960s perplexing. The decade was an unfathomable, rolling mystery to him. It was as if he’d been transported to another planet, strikingly similar but also – and paradoxically – so distinctly different from the one on which he grew up. Much of it seemed peculiar to someone born when the frock-coated, wing-collared Herbert Asquith was prime minister and Edward VII was king. The pop and cultural scene was particularly confusing to Busby, who knew almost nothing of the charts. When the Beatles stayed in the same London hotel as United’s squad, he mistook Paul McCartney for Freddie Garrity, the 5ft-tall lead singer of Freddie and the Dreamers. McCartney courteously corrected him. ‘We’re the Beatles, Mr Busby.’

Busby mistakenly thought that underneath his trendy clothes Best was a youth exactly like Charlton had once been, and that respect for the smack of authority would have the same effect in the 1960s as it had done in the 50s. He didn’t appreciate how Best saw things. In the coming years, as he became high maintenance, Busby would be criticised for his saintly forbearance and for being too gentle on Best. He would claim this was an ‘illusion’. But there is no doubt that the trauma of Munich made Busby more liberal than he otherwise would have been. The big stick wasn’t brought out for Best. ‘I suppose I was softer on him than I should have been,’ he conceded, eventually. ‘I had lost the other lads. That maybe made me more lenient with those who came afterwards.’

Best missed only three matches: two in the First Division, the other in the preliminary round of the European Cup. What Busby missed was the chance to draw a line that Best dare not cross. He was sure emollience and patience would pay off in the end.

Both of them reaped a bad harvest from the misjudgement.

You can buy the book here.