The Golden Boy

by Kieran Healy on November 25, 2005

George Best has “died in hospital”:, aged 59. It’s no surprise, of course: he drank himself to death over a long period. The Guardian has a “nice obituary”:,16836,1650898,00.html and “some photos”:,8555,1647552,00.html. For those who don’t know, Best was born in Belfast and was one of the most gifted players ever to play football. He was also an archetypal wastrel genius, spending just four or five years at the peak of his form in the late 1960s and then careening downhill. “I spent most of my money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he said once, “and the rest I just squandered.” A much-told anecdote has a hotel porter finding him drinking champagne on a cash-strewn bed with some starlet or other and asking, “Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?” The sad thing is that the porter was right.

I’m too young to have seen him play, but old enough to have grown up seeing footage of his best moments and wanting to play football like him. The pathetic, drunken old wreck he became never quite overshadowed the brilliance he once had. Just look at the photo on the right. Or “this one”: where he’s out-jumped players a lot bigger than himself. Or “this one”:, leaving a defender or two in the dust. Even in snapshots, he seems like he’s moving.



Backword Dave 11.25.05 at 1:57 pm

The Torygraph has a rather beautiful elegy by Michael Parkinson (the chat show host).


Backword Dave 11.25.05 at 2:14 pm

Actually, the Telegraph’s coverage is very good. I doubt it means anything, but in their photos of George Best, they have the same one of him with a glass of white wine, but they left his girlfriend in it here. Henry Winter is too young to remember him, but does a very good job from clipping and old film.


paul 11.25.05 at 3:19 pm

Various members of my family remember him in his prime and I saw him playing here in the US (he played for a couple of teams here), but my grandfather’s summary sticks with me: “George Best is a chump.”


chris bertram 11.25.05 at 3:30 pm

A very sad day. I did see him play once, for Man U at Notts Forest in the late 60s. Can’t say I remember much though (my first ever game).


Backword Dave 11.25.05 at 4:48 pm

Paul, yes, but your fellow countrymen refer to the beautiful game as “sack her” and Best was good at that too. Who’s the comparable player in what you call “football”? There was some business with a car chase, lots of lawyers, and a glove. And, oh yes, two corpses. Better a chump than a [consults with legal team] …

Nil nisi bonum.


Tom T. 11.25.05 at 6:22 pm

Very nicely written. From this side of the pond, he puts me in mind of Mickey Mantle.


mrjauk 11.25.05 at 7:06 pm

I am just old enough to have had the pleasure of having played a game with Georgie Best. He was in his 40s at the time and the match was part of an annual tournament in Vancouver, Canada that pitted local ethnic teams against each other. We (Croats) played against the Irish (I assume Best was Catholic, then?) and Best played one half for each side.


Alan Jacobs 11.25.05 at 8:00 pm

There really is no comparable figure in US sports — certainly not O J Simpson, who (though an excellent running back) has never been thought of as even the best of his generation, and who in any case played a full career. Mickey Mantle (as tom t. suggests) is closer, because Mantle’s career was compromised by his heavy drinking and partying. But even so, Mantle played nearly twenty years, and when he retired only two players (I think) had hit more home runs. Best is unique because he simply threw away, out of boredom and distraction, one of the most brilliant careers in the history of football, when he was at the height of his powers. (And he gave his full attention to none of his several comebacks.)

Best’s career is actually unique, I think. Bjorn Borg’s retirement (at the same age as Best’s first quitting) is different because it was a meditated, rational choice, and in any case Borg never commanded the fascination that Best’s did. I find myself looking outside sports for analogies, and the one that comes to mind is Rimbaud. (Pretentious? Moi?) In each case there’s a genius that seems to gets sick of itself, that leaves its field of excellence in what seems to others an unnecessarily mercurial fit — so that observers can never stop asking both “why” and “what if.” But at least Rimbaud had the decency and good sense not to come out of retirement and write lousy poems for a high-paying newspaper or something. . . .


des von bladet 11.25.05 at 8:01 pm

Every Englishbladet but one put Besty on the front cover. This is, however, by no means the main reason I left the shop with the Doshbladet (“Financial Times”).

Meanwhile the missus, who is Dutch, had never heard of him and showed no signs of wishing to listen.

We may not see his like again, but in some of our cases it will mostly be because we won’t be looking.


Mrs Tilton 11.25.05 at 8:56 pm

Mr Jauk,

one really shouldn’t assume that ‘Irish’ = ‘catholic’. Best was Irish all right, though from the part of Ireland that is part of the UK. And he was protestant by background, not that this should matter (and it normally doesn’t these days, outside that part of Ireland).

IIANM his mammy was a hanger-on of the ‘Revd’ ‘Dr’ Ian Paisley, whose hangers-on are not merely blacksouled proddies but also frightfully serious about the whole thing. They tend as a rule to abjure ‘the devil’s buttermilk’, as the ‘good’ ‘doctor’ terms alcoholic drink. Not George’s mammy, though; like her son after her, she died of drink.

Very sad altogether. Time’s swift stream flowing on and all that, but still, one can only stand gapejawed and gobsmacked before those who, like his imperial majesty’s netherlandly missus, don’t know Georgie. In her case one might suggest: think of yer man Cruyff (surely he says something to you?), only better-looking, better-brained, better all round bar the one fatal flaw. Nondutchpersons in her position of bafflement are going to have to fend for themselves in finding suitable analogues.

Odd. We’d all known for some time now that this was inevitable. But I could never have foreseen how very upsetting it would be when the day finally came, and I can think of no good cold reason why I should be so upset. And yet here we are.


A. G. Rud 11.25.05 at 9:07 pm

Sensitive posting, thanks. My (English) wife Rita told me quite a bit about him today, especially when I initially got him confused with fifth Beatle Pete Best! The horror… And yes, Mickey Mantle stateside is a good comparison. Best getting a transplant and then going on drinking brings up concerns, of course. What about the next in line for the liver, who may not have gone on swigging like Best did?


mrjauk 11.25.05 at 9:18 pm

Mrs Tilton:

I don’t assume that Irish necessarily equates to Catholic, but it’s my experience that most of the diaspora Irish are most certainly Catholic–and (how to put this gingerly) exceedingly so.


P O'Neill 11.25.05 at 9:29 pm

The Times obit mentions two instances of his interaction with Northern Irish sectarianism that I had not seen elsewhere: that he dropped out of grammar school due to the difficult walk through Catholic areas between his home and school, and that he got threats from the IRA which led a brief withdrawal from the Northern Ireland team.


jayann 11.25.05 at 9:44 pm

I could never have foreseen how very upsetting it would be when the day finally came, and I can think of no good cold reason why I should be so upset. And yet here we are.



hirvi 11.26.05 at 3:31 am


“Best’s career is actually unique, I think”

You could be right, but Best reminds me of Matti Nykänen, the ski-jumper, in many ways.


dave heasman 11.26.05 at 9:35 am

“he got threats from the IRA which led a brief withdrawal from the Northern Ireland team.”

Intersting parallel with Neil Lennon a couple of years ago. Football is a Proddywack sport in NI (see the Portadown News sports pages) and Lennon as a Catholic was intimidated out of the team.

Mrs T’s experience : –
“We’d all known for some time now that this was inevitable. But I could never have foreseen how very upsetting it would be when the day finally came, and I can think of no good cold reason why I should be so upset. And yet here we are”

mirrors mine when George Harrison fell off the perch. Much sadder than for John Lennon.


Nick 11.26.05 at 12:00 pm

He’s on the front cover of every newspaper in Britain. This story has been on the radio for the past week.

I’m Britsh and male and 21, and I’d like to know why the fuck I should care that some footballer’s dead.

What’s he done to influence my world? Squat. Had I heard about him before Radio 4 started putting a 5 minute segment into every news bulletin a week ago? Nope. Yet the media has basically been feeding off his corpse all week.

There are plenty of other people in hospital who deserve to be remembered more. People who didn’t have an organ donation then carry on boozing. People who were hardworking their entire lives instead of for 3 or 4 years. Next week, will it be Mrs Noggins from down the road who gets her dead mug on the front page of the Independent?


Dan Hardie 11.26.05 at 12:11 pm

My father saw the Busby Babes play in the years before Munich, and he always rated Duncan Edwards as a better player even than Bobby Charlton, more complete and, amazingly, more athletic. He said Charlton and Edwards had a partnership on the right side of the field, ‘and Charlton was the junior partner’. But he also said none of the Babes, not even Edwards, were as good as Best turned out to be.


Jake 11.26.05 at 2:07 pm

re Alan’s comment–
another not-perfectly-comparable player would be American football’s Jim Brown, who was by far the best running back in the game every year he played, and quite while he was still quite young. Can’t remember the reason he gave, it might have been he was bored.

outside sports, how about Axl Rose? :)


cirdan 11.26.05 at 3:08 pm

What Mrs. Tilton said.


Ray 11.26.05 at 5:01 pm

Re. Best’s mother also drinking – I think I read in one of the obituaries that her drinking was a direct result of George’s success. She couldn’t handle the reflected glory/attention.


blah 11.26.05 at 8:38 pm

Many still consider Jim Brown the greatest running back ever to play. His combination of speed, power, and agility was unprecedented. Watching old footage of his runs, I think many of them were quite beautiful.

Anyway, he quit at the age of 29, at the height of his career, to become a Hollywood actor!

Not such a tragic tale as a career ruined by dissipation.


Ted 11.26.05 at 9:12 pm

I only knew of George Best because The Wedding Present put out a record some years ago called “George Best” with a photo of the man on the cover. I’ve remained too lazy to try to find out whether it was a genuine tribute or some kind of attempt at cleverness and/or social commentary – being American, I have no clue.

Good record though, especially if one is going through an unpleasant breakup and wishes to wallow in it, and although it has no songs about George Best as far as I can tell, it does have one called “Shatner,” which references a different famous entertainer….


John Emerson 11.26.05 at 10:15 pm

The subtle disparagement of Jim Brown, simply because he was a great athlete who failed to drink himself to death even though he retired early, has been noted in the building.


Alison 11.27.05 at 4:24 am

I think Germain Greer in the Independent strikes a good balance between love, admiration, and frank appraisal.

“His deep-blue eyes… the nation has seen in a thousand photographs those same eyes staring widely out of cavernous sockets, the only living things in George’s wasted face, there can be no argument about their colour: deep, stormy ocean-blue.”

Our own Achilles.


Margaret McGill 11.27.05 at 11:44 am

#17 The 21 year old British male – Nick the prikc – “what have you done for me lately” – go out and create something yourself – whiner!


Another Damned Medievalist 11.27.05 at 1:05 pm

Anyone who’s seen footage of Best knows why we should care. Despite the fact that he played for United, there’s no way to avoid admitting he was truly amazing.


theo 11.29.05 at 3:32 am

to Nick why is it news? cos fucking ‘boomers control everything and plauge the entire world with their banal idols and ideals. i’m a football fan but blanket coverage of a guy who was good but threw it away and then died (not unexpectedly either) can only be relevant if all the journalists and media proprioters were of the same generation.

i’m also a fan of Aussie politics but The Australians insane coverage of the 30th anniversary of the dissmisal is another indication of the media’s priorities. it happened in the life time of the senior journos/editors so that’s what gets the coverage. man, boomers should be blamed for everything.

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