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Interview with Duncan Hamilton

March 4th, 2014

9781846059810Duncan Hamilton is the brilliant author behind the official George Best biography, IMMORTAL.

We recently got a chance to sit down with Duncan and ask him a few questions about the book and about George Best. Tell us about how this came to be an official biography, and how long it took you to research and write.

Duncan Hamilton: I had the idea to write about George about six years ago. Back then, I was already contracted to do another book and I assumed there’d be someone out there who thought as I did – namely that George was due a big biography – and that he or she would beat me to it easily. So I was gathering material and taking notes more in hope than expectation. I suppose from serious research to completion of manuscript took just over three years. The number of cuttings on George would fill Old Trafford. The number of books in which he is mentioned would fill the wing of a library. And, of course, there were about one hundred people to interview. Then you’ve got to write the book on top of that. I thought 100,000 words – which is roughly the standard for a biography – would be sufficient. I was wrong. In the end, I wrote almost 150,000 because I found there was so much more to say than even I’d imagined at the beginning. It became approved after I met Barbara, George’s sister, and Norman, her husband. They ‘got’ straight away the fact that I wanted to write a book that explained George, celebrated his skill and placed him in the context of his time; I’m very keen on social history, you see. I owe an enormous debt to them, another to Malcolm Wagner, George’s best friend, who introduced me to them and a third to Sir Michael Parkinson, who introduced me to Malcolm. They all have one thing in common. They loved George.

GB: How important was George to you when you were growing up

DH: If only I’d taken a picture of my bedroom walls in the late 1960s! I was a fanatical buyer of football magazines, such as Goal and then Shoot!, and also Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly and Jimmy Hill’s Football Weekly. The magazines were stripped of pictures and pinned up. George was at the centre of this montage. One of my proudest childhood mementoes is a sticker album from that period. It covered the whole First Division. Guess whose sticker was most prized of all? George was football to me then. He was glamour and glitz and we all wanted to be him in those games on the park where you used coats and jumpers for goalposts. George was my footballing hero. The shame is that so many of his matches weren’t televised. I can see as many live games in one week now – especially when the Champions League is played – than I could in ten years during my childhood and adolescence.

GB: People who met and watched George play say that he was different from any other footballer of his day – on and off the pitch. You’ve talked about the social and economic conditions of the time making a perfect storm for George to become the cultural and national icon that he became at a very young age. In your mind which other footballers/sportsmen have been in similar situations – where everything seemed tailor made for them to come in and make their name.

DH: As the critic, Clive James, says so perceptively: ‘There has always been fame’. The Greek poets were writing odes to the Olympians in ancient Greece. So a lot of people seem tailor-made for their time – or at least do retrospectively. I’m thinking of Babe Ruth in the 20s because after the Great War Americans in particular became obsessed by sport and a real golden age of it began for them. I’m also thinking of Dempsey in boxing. Tilden in tennis. Jones and Hagan in golf. In the 1950s here Denis Compton was the Brylcream Boy and famous in both football and cricket. But the 60s were different because the young were consumers for the first time in their own right and also a powerful lobby in regard to protest. They weren’t going dress or think or act like their parents and they wouldn’t listen to the same music as them either. George chimed perfectly with the era, as if he’d been made specifically for it. I don’t think there’s been anyone like him in this country – before or since. Forgot David Beckham for a minute. George was the first ‘branded’ footballer. And he was the first footballer who everyone knew – irrespective of whether or not they liked football. But, of course, the game was also at its zenith in England then because of the 66 World Cup, which meant footballers were more popular than ever before. George couldn’t have timed his arrival in 63 more perfectly.

GB: You’ve compared Brian Clough and George and talked about the key differences, such Clough wanting the limelight and being a family man. Do you think living alone in Manchester in his early years had a major influence on George’s life after football?

DH: Everyone asks me to compare George and BC because of the alcoholism, which is a bit simplistic because people slip into that disease – and that’s what it is – for different reasons and under different circumstances. George was very shy at the beginning. He didn’t like going into a room to mingle with a lot of strangers. BC would have taken possession of that same room. He was brash and he shouted his opinions. I know one thing. Had BC managed George, he would have got the maximum out of him and to answer that great ‘What If’ question he’d have extended his football career by at least four to five years. I’m sure of that. As for living alone . . . well, I don’t think it made a difference in itself because George never minded his own company and often sought it out. The thing is that no one in football was able to identify what was happening to him in the 60s and to find a ‘middle way’ to cope with it. It goes back to the mood of the decade, which was so culturally different from what had gone before that it was new and baffling to the middle-aged. Also, George bought himself a goldfish bowl rather than a house. I think Malcolm had the right idea. He suggested he and George buy adjoining houses with a connecting door. George could open it when he wanted company and lock it when he felt the need for some ‘me time’. In hindsight what should have happened to George seems obvious to us. He should have been policed and cosseted from the publicity and wrapped in cotton wool the way Ryan Giggs was at the start of his career. But Matt Busby thought all the hoo-ha would be a passing phase and you can’t blame him at all for that. The 60s created a new way of living.

GB: Where would you rank George in a list of greatest Manchester United players and why.

DH: I hope you’re not surprised when I saw number one – unquestionably number one, in fact. There’s been no one like him. Put it this way. If he were playing today, you wouldn’t get the ball off him. Because of the changes in the offside rule and the threat of a yellow card for simply tackling someone, he’d be rampant. Think also of the quality of the pitches, the lighter weight of the ball and the modern boots. Honestly, he’d be unstoppable. I’m not sure anyone could have afforded to buy him. He’d be worth more than £100m – and the rest. What always impressed me was the ease with which he took a pass, controlled it and went off on his run. It was effortless, beautiful and devastating to stop if you were a defender. You could chop him down and his balance was so good he could right himself again in full flight. Frankly I think the Oxford Dictionary compilers ought to add a new definition for genius. Mr G Best Esq!

GB: When George was playing in the US, did he ever want to go back to Manchester United? Why didn’t that happen for him?

DH: The heart always said yes to Old Trafford, but the head said no. Firstly, because Tommy Docherty remained as manager –and George held him responsible for the end of his United career. Secondly, because by the time The Doc left, George knew he couldn’t back because he’s lost his zip – that burst of speed over a few yards that left others flat footed, like a sprinter stuck in the blocks. He didn’t want people to think of him as he was – only as he had been, which was the best. It’s a shame because I so wish George had played in an FA Cup final. He’d have turned it into a one-man show. It’s another ‘What If’ question. Ron Atkinson tried to sign him in the early 80s. George didn’t turn up for the meeting. He could have played in the 83 Cup final against Brighton . . .

GB: After George himself, which other footballer has most remind you of George?

DH: On the pitch Lionel Messi. That’s simply because Messi, like George, possesses not only fantastic skill but also a fantastic strength, which isn’t apparent when you first see him. But try knocking him off the ball. He’s as tough as teak. So was George, despite that wiry frame. Messi is like a small bull in dancing slippers. Imagine them both in the same team! Mind you, I don’t think Messi would get much of the ball . . .

GB: Finally, what’s your most treasured memory of George?

DH: I once saw him nut-meg a defender and then nut-meg him again. He was almost right in front of me when he did it too. My favourite YouTube clip of George is the goal he scored against Spurs. He lobs the ball over the defenders and over his mate Pat Jennings. Everyone is done in a second and yet the whole thing seems to have been planned to mathematical precision. No matter how many times you see them, those few seconds of action never lose their allure. 

Thank you, Duncan, for taking out the time to speak to us about George.

Duncan Hamilton is the author of “IMMORTAL – The Approved Biography of George Best”. You can read an extract and buy the book here.