BEING a sports interviewer for much of my life has delivered many bonuses – not least the one I received back in 2009 when I met Michael Parkinson in London’s exclusive Ivy Club. There, he talked about his close relationships with some of the biggest names in sport. And, as far as Britain was concerned, there was none bigger than George Best.
PARKINSON: A TV film provides a rather interesting concept. What they’ve done is focussed on his mum rather than George. She was genetically the woman who gave him all that which made him so desirable. She was an international hockey player, Olympic standard, she looked like George, had the same eyes as him, and she never had a drink till she was 44.
She died at 52. George always blamed himself; he blamed it on the disturbance to her life and his family’s life in Belfast. (He claimed it was) caused by his celebrity: people door-stepping them and saying terrible things to them in the street. So there’s a play about this. It doesn’t quite work because if you have a play about George Best and he’s a peripheral figure, you’re always thinking that there’s something more interesting happening and we’re not showing it.
But the (real) film about George has yet to be made, and it’s far more complex. It’s about all kinds of things. In the end, the final analysis what you have to understand, what all his friends have to understand, is that he didn’t want to stop drinking. Because he was a decent chap and because he wasn’t too sure about arguing with his friends, he’d go to anything. I came to this conclusion about ten years before he died. I said to Mary: “We’re doing all this, but he doesn’t want to stop drinking. You can do what you like, you can give all the advice that you want, give him all the potions, but if he doesn’t want to stop drinking. Well…”Anybody who’s had an addiction, as I had for cigarettes, would know that. You’ve really got to want to. So, in the end, we’re all dancing around George trying to persuade him about this, that and the other, and he didn’t want to know – and he died.
And he said to me, just before he died, that he wouldn’t have changed a thing. He said: ‘I hate the word tragedy applied to me. I loathe it. My life’s not been tragic; it’s been wonderful! Look at the girls, I mean…” But it’s true. This what the film should be about; the only tragedy about George Best is that he never knew, or we never knew, how good he could have been. You think at 27 he was finished. Christ Almighty! At 32, he would have been in his prime; he could play anywhere.
As Matt (Busby) said, he was the best full-back he’d got, the best midfielder, best passer, best header, possibly a better goalkeeper than Harry Greig. Oh, I daren’t say that because he (Harry) might kill me. But that was what Matt thought about him and when he said that you get the idea of how good he was. But even that doesn’t convey to you the kind of excitement he generated when he walked on a field. There’s been no other footballer since him in my time, in British football, certainly, who’s done that. Nobody.
COONEY: I remember Rodney Marsh telling me he’d only once told George not to drink. And he was rewarded with this reprimand. “Don’t you ever tell me what to do.”
PARKINSON: He could be like that. He got sick of people telling him what to do with his life, and you would, wouldn’t you? I mean, in the end you make your own choices. But, generally speaking, you would have to say about George that he would rather smooth it over rather than actually confront it in that sense. About three weeks before he died, I went down to the pub-restaurant my son Nick has; we have a solid core of Man United supporters living in Berkshire. Every year, the whole squad comes down and does a big dinner for charity, Nobby Stiles, Alex Stepney and all that lot. George had never been. The organiser had tried very hard to get him, but failed. So a man came to me and said he’d give me ten thousand pounds for charity if I could get them George Best.
So I called him up. “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Fine. He never turned me down, to a point where I’d not ask him ’cos I knew he’d say yes. Anyway, he turned up trumps, as I knew he would. But I said: “We’re not going to serve you any drink.” There was a long pause. And he said: “Well, I’ll have to bring me own, then.” I felt so stupid saying it to him. Anyway, he comes down the pub and he sits there. I asked him if he would like a drink. “Yeah, I’ll have a water, please. Sparkling water with lemon.” He’s looking at me. Here we go, I think. I’m sitting next to him at dinner. Wine comes round. I don’t drink at all. We go through the entire evening without drinking. Not a drop. And he had the time of his life. You can imagine, can’t you, the reaction of the players, never mind the punters? The players just thought this was bloody wonderful. He talked a lot, laughed a lot. He rang me up the next day and said: “That’s one of the best nights I’ve had for years and years.”
“That’s because you were sober.” I said. “F*** off!” he replied and put the phone down. That’s the last…two weeks later, he had an alleged altercation with his girlfriend. They took him to hospital and he died.”
COONEY: You must have had riotous times with him?
PARKINSON: Oh, did I. We had some wonderful times. That’s for another book. I mean, George was so much younger than I was and he had as a drinking social crowd in Manchester a younger group than me. I always felt I was a bit of a granddad figure in George’s mob. But the nice thing about him was that he became part of the family in a sense. He used to come down to our house, particularly when he was on the run from the media, and he’d spend days down there. Sometimes he’d bring a young lady with him, sometimes he wouldn’t.
Sometimes, about two in the morning, I’d hear the door bang downstairs. I’d say: “What’s that – George going to a nightclub? ” Then, about six thirty, the door would bang again. “That’s George coming back from the nightclub.” But there would be more than one person: yes, there’d be George and the hostess for the night. He was part of the family in that sense.
He was wonderful with my children. He would always bring a net of balls and then they’d go out and play. What I observed in those days that adults bothered him, but kids didn’t; he loved playing football with them. I tell the story in the book; my youngest boy, Michael, was asked in school what he’d been doing at the weekend. “Please miss, I played football with George Best.” He was told not to tell lies and ordered to stand in the corner.
Then we had this annual cricket match played for charity; it was a showbiz thing. George turned out and played; he’d never played cricket before, yet he took a catch on the boundary. His hand-to-eye coordination was marvellous. And then we had this little thing where we set a net up. It was Stop a George Best penalty. Well, I have to tell you, it went on for about two hours and he must have kicked about two hundred balls – at a fiver a time – and he never flagged. And the kids, of course. You can imagine, can’t you, they were goggle-eyed. He had an extraordinary effect on people, and he had that rare thing that Ali had which spread right across the community; boys, girls, men, women, old people, young people, he had that appeal. Very few people have got that, that’s for sure.
COONEY: Did you go to the funeral?
PARKINSON; No, I was in Australia. All that happened when I was away. They asked me to speak at the funeral but I was working and just couldn’t do it. So I missed all of it. I saw it all on television, of course, because they showed it there. It’s curious. George was in Australia at one point as I was when he had an ill-fated encounter with a spiv down there and, thank God, I was in the same hotel as he was.
George was in the corner of the hotel and absolutely pissed out of his head. He’d lost his bloody passport – this guy had run away with all the tickets – but we managed to sort him out. He looked like a bloody down and out. A destitute and a hobo. Anyway, we got him sorted out and all that with a flight back to England. That was the Thursday and he was flying back on the Saturday. I told him he had to get straightened out for the flight because if you’re pissed, they won’t take you on board.
He said he’d be all right. So, Saturday morning comes, he’s had some breakfast and he’s looking a bit better. We’d cleaned him up and he had his passport and his ticket. So we’re just about to say farewell. I had to go upstairs to get something for him. I went upstairs – somebody stopped me at the lifts – so I maybe was away for 15 to 20 minutes. He looked a bit different, a bit more sparkly, but I didn’t think anything of it. It’s breakfast time, for Christ’s sake, nine in the morning. And he’s getting a flight shortly. Anyway, away he goes. The waiter brings the bill over. I look at it and ask: “What’s this?” He says: “That’s a bottle of Cognac.” I said: “What bottle of Cognac?”
“Mr Best took it.” That was a long time before he died. So he’d actually drunk that bottle of Cognac. It was sad, actually. In those moments you kind of despair. He was still a young man then, you know. He wasn’t so much playing as eking out his career; I think he’d got some deal playing for some weird club or other. If someone paid him a few hundred or thousand dollars, he’d be there; he needed the money. He was sort of cast adrift there. Very sad.
And yet, you know, that wasn’t the sum total of the man. I think I agree with George in the end. It must have been very boring and upsetting for him to have his drinking predominate over the rest of it, which is wonderful. And when I think of George, I don’t think of him being pissed. I think of him playing, the excitement he gave me. I think of that noise that I heard at Old Trafford for the first time in his second season there. That soprano section of the crowd, you never heard women like that at a football match. Oh, you heard deep bass and tenors, but a soprano section.
Why? Because there were 20,000 birds fancying him. That’s what he did; he made the game sexy. And finally, all you have to say is this: warts and all, what would a player like him today be worth? If Ronaldo, that posturing fellow, is worth 160 grand a week, what would George have been worth?
NEXT: Geoffrey Boycott and Fred Trueman
PICTURE COURTESY OF: “Aankomst Noordierse elftal op Zestienhoven; trainer Blanchflower en George Best (r)” by NL-HaNA, ANEFO / neg. stroken, 1945-1989 – Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons.