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The Magnificent Sevens
They All Wore the No 7 Shirt. This is the Story of the Finest Heroes from the Greatest Club in the World.
By Frank Worrall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2008 Frank Worrall
All rights reserved.
George Does It Best (1946-68)
'I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town.' GEORGE BEST
'Unquestionably the greatest.' SIR ALEX FERGUSON
The more I examine the evidence, the more I arrive at a rather unexpected conclusion: the closest model we have in modern-day football to George Best is Roy Keane. Not in terms of their skills or defined role on the pitch itself, of course, but certainly if you're talking about their psyche. Best and Keane had problems at both club and international level when their respective Manchester United and Irish teams went into decline. Their innate professionalism – or maybe you would call it their search for perfectionism – meant they could not tolerate playing with men they saw as losers.
Up until 1968 – and for this book's purpose, George's life story splits obligingly into the glory years until that wonderful Wembley night and his subsequent downfall until he died in 2005 – Best did exactly as it said on the tin. He was simply the best – possibly in the world – and was certainly a marvellously innovative pioneer of the glorious magic surrounding United's number 7 shirt. Yet after the European Cup win against Benfica in 1968, having been named European Player of the Year and Football Writers' Player of the Year, he self-combusted. As United struggled with an ageing, no-longer hungry team, he lost his motivation. That nagging inner dynamo that perpetually spurred him on to be the best meant he could not bear to be in a team that would never again reach the same dizzying heights.
Now, let's consider Keane the footballer, who won a European champion's medal in 1999 and was never to reach the same heights as a player again. Even that dreamy night in Barcelona left Keane with a nagging feel of failure; he would always maintain he did not deserve a winner's gong as he had been ruled out of the final due to suspension. After 26 May 1999, Roy Keane would continually strive to earn that medal and United's failure to take him there would lead to his open criticism at what he saw as the underperformance of his colleagues up to 2005, and his ultimate sacking by Sir Alex Ferguson for speaking out once again in November of that year.
The similarity of the two United icons is also mirrored in their international careers. George Best got sick of turning out for Northern Ireland because he knew they would never achieve anything of note. He would miss games for his country under the pretence of injury rather than play in a poor side. Likewise, Keane blew up over the inadequacies he found in the Republic of Ireland's approach to matches and tournaments. He publicly perceived it to be an amateurish 'we're only here for the craic' approach that turned his stomach and made him ashamed to be an Irishman. It would lead to the furore in the 2002 World Cup Finals and the bust-up with Mick McCarthy that saw him sent home.
Yet, while Best would self-destruct in an unrelenting downwards spiral right up to his death from liver failure in 2005, from the late 1990s Keane found a contentment through his family life – a sanctuary outside of the game. He would play out his career until the end and he, too, would still end up being kicked out of United, but he would not be finished in football or life outside it like poor George, who had become a social misfit until his sad demise.
Poor George? On the surface you could argue that that is nonsense – how can someone have so much going for them and yet be so fragile mentally? It is the question many sports leaders have asked of their charges over the years – they are trained to turn their rough diamonds into sparkling winners, not to become virtual nursemaids.
Former Aston Villa manager John Gregory publicly lambasted his wayward centre-forward Stan Collymore for complaining about his bouts of depression. Now, I am no admirer of Big Stan, but I did feel for him. Gregory held the much-maligned Collymore up for ridicule, saying, 'I find it difficult to understand how anyone in Stan's position, with the talent and the money he has, is stressed. I wonder how a 29-year-old at Rochdale, in the last three months of his contract, with a marriage and three kids, copes with stress. I wonder what he'd be thinking, looking at this.'
Similarly, on paper at least, George had every opportunity to enjoy life to the full. What did he have to gripe about, given his bewildering array of hedonistic riches – the Miss Worlds, the sex, the drink, the cars, the houses? Or as the two quintessential 'laddish' quotes of George's life – both from his own lips – would have it, 'I spent 90 per cent of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted ...' and 'A waiter delivering champagne to my hotel room saw thousands of pounds of casino winnings and the current Miss World both arranged tastefully on the bed. The waiter looked at the scene, shook his head and asked the legendary question, "Where did it all go wrong, Mr Best?"'
Years later, when the money had dried up and the birds had flown, a wiser George, armed with much more knowledge of his condition, would nod rather more sagely and say, 'Yes, perhaps that waiter saw something in me that I didn't.'
He suffered badly because of his demons and was also prone to periods of depression. Just as frequently, George was often told to 'pull himself together and just to drink orange juice', but as any intelligent mental health professional will tell you, that does not necessarily help addicts. A psychoanalyst friend of mine told me that they are not in a position to choose to abstain; the craving for the required substance is too powerful to withstand.
Towards the end of his life, George would admit he regretted much – all the high-octane antics could not compensate for what he had missed out on; that he would have liked to have spent more time watching his son Calum grow up; that he loved the moments when he could do a crossword or take a walk with his dogs and spend quality time with his family. In essence, he regretted missing out on what would be termed 'a normal life'.
My psychoanalyst friend puts it like this, 'When not drinking, it is the dream of every alcoholic to find peace in everyday activities and to be seen as a decent human being. But the only peace many do find is by taking another drink – it is a never-ending vicious circle that can lead to them eventually not knowing what is real and what is drink-induced fantasy. Alcoholics are seriously ill people – life is not fun for them, it is more often tortured and black. Many are on a slow, painful, suicidal journey.'
It hadn't started out like that when George moved to Manchester from Belfast aged 15 in 1961, when he literally had the world at his feet. True, there were hints of another side to his character behind that cheeky-boy grin. His first trip to United would last all of 24 hours, ending with him and fellow homesick Irish urchin Eric McMordie heading swiftly back to Belfast. Painfully shy, George was frightened by what he had found at Old Trafford: much bigger boys on the training field and an alien city that did not understand his broad Ulster brogue. Scared maybe and, even at his young age, he would reveal another common trait of the alcoholic-to-be – a feeling of betrayal wrapped up in a series of resentments. As my psychoanalyst adds, 'Injustices, or perceived injustices, are just about the biggest bugbear of any alcoholic. They will drink on them and part of the recovery programme for alcoholics is how to lose the power a grudge has upon them and their lives. You can always tell an alcoholic by the number of grudges he will harbour ... unfortunately, some die because of them.'
As he climbed back on the ferry to Northern Ireland, the young George complained to McMordie that United had not treated them well. It would be a criticism levelled at the club by many – including some aggrieved surviving Busby Babes – over the years and, in George's case, it was undoubtedly a fair one. United had expected a couple of naïve 15-year-olds to make their own way over to Manchester with no travel arrangements and no one to meet them when they disembarked the ferry at Liverpool. He and McMordie had initially ended up at the Old Trafford cricket ground by mistake when they finally arrived at Manchester and, by the end of what George described as an 'intimidating' first day, which finished with them holed up in a lonely guest house, the duo decided to head home.
That United behaved so badly is puzzling given George's obvious potential. Only weeks earlier, Bob Bishop, who had discovered the 15-year-old George playing for Cregagh Boys' Club, had sent the now legendary telegram to Matt Busby, saying, 'I think I've found you a genius.' You might think Busby would have been spurred into action by those unambiguous words and looked out for young Georgie. The boy did return to Old Trafford later the same year, but United could easily have missed out on their greatest talent since Duncan Edwards.
George's homesickness is easy to explain. Born on 22 May 1946, he came from a close-knit family – he was the eldest of six children – and enjoyed a relatively peaceful childhood growing up in a council house on the Cregagh. His father Dickie was a proud man who worked in the Harland and Wolff shipyard; his mother Ann worked in a tobacco factory. Dickie enjoyed football – he played as a full-back at amateur level – while Ann was a fine hockey player.
George would take the usual route to the football field, kicking tennis balls about in the street from the moment he could walk but, surprisingly, he preferred to watch his mother playing hockey than his father on the football pitch. The young George was not affected by the sectarian troubles that would blight the province; they did not take a hold until some time after he had left for England. That is not to say George was unaware of the hornet's nest of emotions religion could stir up in Belfast. Much to the delight of his parents, he made it to the local grammar school, Grosvenor High, but soon became disillusioned with life there.
Part of the problem was that he missed his former primary school friends and the school played rugby, not football – but he also had to face up to religious bigotry. Each day, he had to walk to the school through a Catholic area wearing his Protestant school uniform. 'They would throw stones at me and call me a Proddy bastard,' he said. 'I played truant more and more often and, eventually, mum and dad let me go to the local secondary modern school.'
That meant football when lessons finished and watching Glentoran with his grandfather whenever possible. His English club was Wolverhampton Wanderers and his goalscoring exploits at youth level mirrored those of his Molineux hero, Stan Cullis. At 14, George once scored 12 goals for Cregagh Boys when they won 21-0. Inevitably, the Northern Ireland-based scouts for the big English clubs sat up and took notice and it wasn't long before he was on the boat to Liverpool, then on to Manchester and Old Trafford.
When he finally joined United aged 15 as an amateur on 16 August 1961, George still was only 5ft 1in and weighed just 8st 7lb; Busby ordered his staff to fatten him up – quickly. Landlady Mary Fullaway, who would look after him on and off for his first five years in Manchester, summed it up, saying, 'I wanted to sit him down and fill him full of meat and potatoes.'
George himself had worries of a different nature regarding his size and, yet again, even at this early age, they highlighted his complex character make-up. He said, 'I knew I was good enough and that I could be a great player. But I did feel conspicuous about being so thin and small because I thought the girls wouldn't like me! I know it is hard to believe but, at first, I was shy and scared to chat them up because of it.' It was a 'failing' that would not last long as he filled out thanks to landlady Mrs Fullaway's hearty suppers.
George signed pro forms with United on his 17th birthday in 1963, three days before that year's FA Cup Final, in which United would beat Leicester City 3-1. His first wage was £17 a week – the shy, insecure lad from Belfast was finally on his way to a life he could never have imagined as the first pop star of football. With his delicious skills – he would jink one way, then another, that wonderful low centre of gravity taking him past man after man in the junior and reserve teams – it was only a matter of time before Busby gave him his big break.
Bobby Charlton became aware of just how good the Belfast boy with the dribbling skills would become when he asked the United coach Wilf McGuinness what he thought of the '63 crop of youth team kids. McGuinness said, 'Well, bloody hell, if you think you're a good player you should see this lad who has come in from Belfast.' He then proceeded to tell a stunned Charlton that the boy called George Best would be even better than him.
Four months after the Cup Final at Wembley – which Georgie had watched as an awestruck youngster – the boy Best was making his first team début. The date was 14 September 1963, the opponents were West Bromwich Albion and the match was at Old Trafford, Manchester. Busby had played it cool on the day of the match – in the hope of not making the youngster too nervous – giving no indication that he planned to play George. But a couple of hours before kick-off at the pre-match lunch, he finally whispered the immortal words into George's ear, 'You're in today, son.'
The local paper, the Manchester Evening News, best summed the day up, commenting on his 'natural talent' and saying he 'played the game pluckily and finished it in style'. It was certainly a day Albion's experienced full-back Graham Williams would never forget. George nutmegged him and tormented him as United won 1-0 to stay ahead of Albion at the top of the table. Williams would say, 'I wanted to kick him but I couldn't get close enough to him.' Years later, so the famed story goes, Williams met Best at a charity event and pleaded with him, 'Will you stand still for a minute so I can look at your face?'
'Why?' asked George.
'Because all I've ever seen of you,' explained Williams, 'is your arse disappearing down the touchline.'
Busby then employed something of the Alex Ferguson logic by dropping his protégé for a few matches – or, more accurately, protecting him against himself and an ever curious press. George was put in cotton wool until three days after Boxing Day, when he scored United's first goal as they steamrollered Burnley 5-1 at Old Trafford. In 1990, when talking to respected journalist Ross Benson, George gave us an inkling of the 'fix' he would get from walking out for United. His words offer a useful insight as we try to understand what made this complex, emotional man tick. Much in the same way as Jimmy Greaves would a few years earlier admit that he turned to drink after losing the high of playing football in front of thousands, so George spoke of how he felt delirious that winter's day in Manchester. 'I felt marvelous ... I remember walking out of the tunnel and hearing the roar of 54,000 people ... It is like turning on a radio and turning the volume up ... I can still recall the way the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I was numbed. At the same time, I felt exhilarated.'
Yet, without that adrenalin rush when he left the game, George would be lost. He would lose the fix, and search for it in the bottle, in the bedroom, shops ... in fact, anywhere he thought he might experience that same temporary, exhilarating high. It would be a journey with only one outcome – the inevitable, tragic finale in London's Cromwell Hospital in 2005. Greavsie himself would later confirm the 'black hole' existence footballers felt after retiring, saying, 'I look back at George ... I look back at myself ... same problem as George, same as Gazza ... we all had the same problem ... but I think it might have been lack of pressure, for want of a better word, why we succumbed. I think we missed it. I missed it. It wasn't the pressure of playing that made me start drinking heavily, it was probably the emptiness of not playing.'
Excerpted from The Magnificent Sevens by Frank Worrall. Copyright © 2008 Frank Worrall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 George Does It Best,
2 Past His Best – George's lost Years,
3 The Good, the Bad and the Bubbly,
4 A Man Out of Time,
5 Ferguson and England,
6 Too Much Bottle?,
7 From Caveman to Cavemen,
8 Heaven and Hell,
9 Rebel with a Cause,
10 When Football Was King,
11 Zero to Hero,
12 Posh, Dosh and Losing It,
13 The Two Ronnys,
14 The Boy Who Would Be King,
15 Simply the Best,
About the Author,
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