It wasn’t just his unusually long hair - football was still a
decidedly hetero world when he became a pro - that got Best
football’s first fashion-led endorsement deal; though certainly his
hair was much better than that captured by the widely-mocked
life-sized bronze of the player, unveiled at Northern Ireland’s
national football stadium Windsor Park earlier this year. It wasn’t
his sideburns or even those celebrated blue eyes. It wasn’t just
that he liked standing out - he was the first player to wear his
football shirt not tucked into his shorts, a small but
much-emulated act of defiance against the old guard.
Rather, Best took his interest in fashion - and his eye for
business - seriously, in 1967 going into partnership with fellow
player Mike Summerbe to open his own chain of menswear shops, by
turns called Edwardia, Rogue and the George Best Boutique. Then he
opened hair salons and night clubs, the latter together with
Malcolm Wager, his personal hairdresser, naturally. In times before
celebrity was anything other than a US import, George Best pictured
in a pink round-collared shirt and double-breasted velour jacket,
leaving the grounds in his jet black E-type, was an image that
defined British lives.
It was, of course, the excesses for which Best would be
remembered, his talent for a one-liner defusing any envy, his
undiminished talent as a player granting him a degree of free
license. Such lines are so delicious, they’re hard to avoid
repeating. But they define his life and times. “In 1969 I gave up
women and alcohol,” he once noted. “It was the worst 20 minutes of
my life”. “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars.
The rest I just squandered,” he once explained. Oscar Wilde, as far
as we know, never played football. Best was outspoken too, about
players he admired, but also those he thought were not up to much:
“[David Beckham] cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a
ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn’t score many goals. Apart from
that he’s alright.”
Those excesses, of course, are what did for him. The peak years
of his playing career in Britain were all but over by the time he
was just 27 - and that was five years after he’d won the league
title, European Cup and European Player of the Year award.
Famously, this flawed man was less the gentleman and struggled with
the booze - he once took money from a woman’s handbag to pay for
the next round, and he died, aged 59, following complications
relating to the drugs he had to take after receiving a liver
transplant (and, yes, he’d kept drinking afterwards).
But long before then he seemed torn between his immense skill
and the lifestyle it afforded. He was regularly fined for
misconduct. He was suspended by United after missing his train to
match against Chelsea in favour of a weekend with Sinead Cusack.
Later he’d fail to turn up for training for an entire week in order
to spend the time with Miss Great Britain. He was finally put on
the transfer list after going missing again - somewhere in London
clubland. His priorities were some place other than on the pitch.
That all came too easy.
Apologists have claimed that Best was simply frustrated with
Manchester United’s failing performance - and on occasion Best said
he felt that he was carrying the team. But old habits die hard:
moving to South Africa to play for Jewish Guild, he’d miss further
training sessions. He played more consistently in the United States
through the 1970s but spent a lot of time at his new hangout,
Bestie’s Beach Club, which he opened on Hermosa Beach.
At least it was sunnier than Manchester. But it seemed to many
fans like an ignominious fading away for a man who, for sure, was a
genius in sport and, perhaps, one in high living too. As the waiter
put it in the the oft-told but no less apposite tale of delivering
champagne to Best’s hotel room, only to find him in bed with Miss
World and under a downpour of casino winnings, “Mr. Best, where did
it all go wrong?”