Around this time of year, each year now for 16 years, I think a lot about an afternoon in 1996 when I was briefly in the presence of George Best.
I was 26, in my first job in London after University and Law School. It was a time of hope. I was working at one of the world’s biggest law firms. It never closed, as the London hub serviced a whirring machine all around the globe from Tokyo to New York and 24 other international offices in between the time zones.
To keep the machine working, an army of staff was employed around the clock and I found myself proofreading billion-dollar contracts between midnight and 6 am, Monday night to Saturday morning. This was usually very dull work, although occasionally I’d get to read something interesting like the Match Room contracts when Snooker was having its heyday. I remember Steven Hendry’s contract coming across my desk and amendments for the next year including a Ferrari, instead of a Rolls, as part of his bonus structure!
Although the work was monotonous (as well as pressure because, well, miss a zero on a billion-dollar contract and you’re responsible for losing hundreds of millions) it allowed a certain louche lifestyle.
I was able to get the first tube home and be in bed at 6.30 am, and awake again just after lunchtime with a whole day of free time in front of me, every weekday.
In lots of ways it was like still being a student, but with a really decent salary instead of the penury.
Shortly after I arrived in London a friend from a rich crowd told me George Best drank in the Phene Arms in Chelsea, near the Embankment. I lapped up this piece of knowledge, and slowly it began to dawn on me that I could take a trip to the Phene Arms any day I liked. What if I went and he was there? I began to hope…
So, on a crisp April morning, I arrived home in the early light, ignored the rest of the waking world, set my alarm for midday, and fell asleep with a plan. Later, I’d make the trip on the bus down New Kings Road to see if my idol was in situ.
As United fans will appreciate – certainly those who were alive in the 70s and before – George Best has mythical status. That he won the Ballon D’or at 22 and is generally acknowledged as one of the all-time greatest players is one thing. His personal frailties add to the mix and I think they help humanize God and let us all see a little of our own flawed and fragile selves in him.
He also came like a kind of redemption after the horror of the Munich disaster, and I think it isn’t entirely a fanciful pun to our own faith that he was part of the “holy trinity” with Charlton and Law.
These days all elite athletes seem to have a focus and superhuman determination to eat the right low fat, high fiber diet and train to an inch of the computer mandated and scheduled plan 7 days a week, a little like automatons sprinkled with stardust.
George wasn’t like that. He was just imperious and impetuous.
He knew he was the best. He was able to bamboozle the opposition at will. In an age of hard tackles and lenient, blind referees, he rode malevolent ankle-breakers that’d see today’s players crumple and writhe around for 10 minutes in an agony of treatments and stretchers. He glided over, around, or past most of the murderous lunges, and defenders flailed and thrashed in his silky wake.
He also lived his life, free of the army of the entourage that plans and cajoles and advises and organizes everything for the stars of today, largely making his own decisions and mistakes.
He was thrust into the media spotlight in a way nobody had been previously. Out in the glare alone, except for his own demons.
The demons told him to drink to feel more confident in that glare. It took the edge off.
In fact, it ended up taking the edge off everything for George.
Over the years a supreme athlete saw his talent win at first. While he was still such a young man (he was playing in the Utd first team at 17 and won the European Cup at just 22) he literally outran the damage he was beginning to do to himself. But it catches up in time. It always catches up.
Even the most superlative, super-training superbeings of today – Cristiano Ronaldo, for example – can’t outrun time in the end, as we are seeing this 2021/22 season.
George was giving time a generous helping hand, all the time, and was essentially finished as a top-class footballer at the tender age of 27. The age when you’ll usually hear that players “are coming into their prime”.
Like loads of us, I felt George was “mine” somehow. I’m Northern Irish like he was, to begin with. In fact, he was the very reason I began to support United.
I can remember a question being posed by my little friends to my 5-year-old self in 1975. “What team do you support?” I didn’t know. I asked my Dad. He said: “United. George Best!” So it was United, and George, for me.
I had suffered for that decision during my youth, as lots of my friends picked a Liverpool team that won everything. My team was Utd. Our glory days, like those of George himself, seemed largely in the past most of that time. But there was always hope.
My mother also had a kind of a direct connection with the Best family. She had been a Health Visitor in Cregagh in the late 60s and I guess today you’d say that Ann Best, George’s mother, was one of my Mum’s “clients” when Ann was nursing one of George’s younger siblings. I felt that maybe somehow that brought us closer too. A kind of ethereal connection of a sort spun through the lens of the imagination.
I was thinking about all that when I took a Routemaster bus, number 22, down the New Kings Road that day, past World’s End, into the King’s Road proper, and finally to the stop near Chelsea Town Hall.
I got off and walked down Oakley Road towards the Albert Bridge and then turned towards the pub into a smaller side street, about halfway down.
The Phene Arms is a small affair and sits on the corner of Margaretta Terrace and Phene Street. If it wasn’t in a salubrious area of Chelsea it’d be just a little neighborhood local. But it is in Chelsea so it was somewhat swanky even way back then. It was more of a pub then, though. Today it’s really more of a bistro than a boozer.
I hesitated at the door, but I saw a seat at a table near the entrance, so I walked in and sat down to get my bearings.
It was easy enough to see George at the end of the bar. He was surrounded by several people, is seemingly very good spirits, drinking a large glass of white wine.
I watched for a little while, then I bought a pint at the bar, went back to my seat, and tried to watch again unobtrusively.
I began to lose the courage or the impetus, or the “whatever” it is, to go up to him. What was I going to say? How would I break into the conversation he was having? Were the people his friends? How many muppets come up and say something like: “Hello George! I’m your biggest fan…” every day? Wasn’t interrupting him quite rude, really? Would he be mad at me? Why on earth would he be interested in my second-hand story about how my mother had known his late mother for a little while? And wouldn’t it make him sad? And wouldn’t that make him angry or irritated with me? And what was I really doing here anyway? And… I finished my pint. And I walked back out.
On the 3oth of November 2005, I was inevitably thinking all that again, as I sat with the “tears tripping me” (as we’d say where I’m from) watching events at Old Trafford on my television. It was the day of George’s funeral. He’d died in the Cromwell Hospital of liver failure and attendant complications on the 25th November, aged just 59, and I remember thinking at the time that it’s not much more than a mile from there to the Phene Arms where we nearly met, nine years earlier.
United was playing West Brom (then managed by another United legend, Bryan Robson) that evening. For days the news I remember seemed to be full of coverage of George’s demise and preparations for his funeral, setting an enduringly somber tone for me. Alex Ferguson and Robson emerged into the stadium with wreaths, and my eyes began to swim watching him lead the solemn crowd as it observed a perfect minute’s silence that evening. The Sky coverage likewise paused in between the shots of banners unfurled to commemorate the great man and the platitudes of the pundits, and everything just seemed quite unreal and unbearably sad.
I don’t really remember the actual match at all. (We won 3-1, and a youngster tipped by some to follow in George’s footsteps, called Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in a one-sided match by all accounts.) I spent most of the time lost in my own thoughts about George and it’s that image that stays with me of the crowd all sharing my own sadness.
This time of year, I always remember that spring afternoon in Chelsea again.
I wonder why I didn’t just go and say hello, at the risk of rejection. I wonder what we might have talked about. I wonder if we might have become friends or whether I might have made some difference to him somehow. But I’ve been around alcoholics and I know that’s always a forlorn hope. But that’s the thing about hope, isn’t it?
Or it is at least until, one day, hope is extinguished. And after hope is gone then there’s just memories and longing for what might have been…
The last few days have been the first I’ve felt like this since – well since that night in late November 2005 when I couldn’t stop crying as I watched the United game against West Bromwich, and the tribute banners and the supporters and the feeling I had lost a member of my own family…
Like most of us, I have felt a very similar sadness at the end of the Ole era this week and I’ve really struggled to get this piece written these last few days.
In the end, there’s something delicate and intangible, perhaps almost spiritual, about supporting this team. We all feel it. Something that’s very hard to fully describe, but a little bit like belonging to a family, or a tribe, or a religion. We’re all in this sadness together right now, and I suppose it’s part of the price of admission. And we’re pretty lucky, really, because for all the suffering there’s more joy and more to celebrate and remember with fondness.
I’m pretty sure we’ll all look back wistfully on the last 3 years with Ole as something special. Like a kind of communion with one of our own.
But, I definitely know that when George is mentioned, older United fans will remember something golden and magical, given to us for too short a time. He’d have celebrated his 75th birthday this year, if only.
This year as the nights grow shorter we’ll all share a moment of sadness and remembrance of joy and “what ifs”, and feel the lost hope and the longing and if we’re alone we probably might cry a little too, before we can smile again.