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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

George was Best. Philippe Auclair writes for Red News on George Best

(this article first appeared in the fanzine, Red News 162)

Philippe Auclair is the author of the excellent new book on Eric, Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King (published by Macmillan and available for just £8.99 on the RN site Amazon links). Writing exclusively here for Red News, he talks of his relationship with George Best and being the last journalist to interview him.

This was the sort of assignment you dream of when you become a football journalist. In the last days of the summer of 2005, the magazine I write for, France Football, was about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Ballon d’Or award, known as the European Footballer of the Year trophy in England. My enviable task was to get in touch with living former British recipients, who’d be invited to a gala evening on the Champs-Elysées in early December. These were - in order of appearance on this roll of honour -: the mighty triumvirate of Denis Law (1964), Bobby Charlton (1968) and George Best (1968), plus Kevin Keegan and Michael Owen. As we’d always enjoyed a very warm relationship with United, which was rekindled when this arch-Francophile, Alex Ferguson, took over in 1986, it was easy to make sure that Dennis and Sir Bobby would attend the ceremony, which was beamed live on national French television. But what about Georgie?
We all knew how frail he was. He attended very few games, and when he did, it was mostly at Fratton Park, where his friend Milan Mandaric loved to have him by his side in the Directors’ box. When his health allowed him to do so, he’d still appear on Sky Television (though very infrequently of late), making a great deal more sense than most other pundits, if I can say so.
I’d also been told that Best, whose financial difficulties were a secret to no-one, might be reluctant to grant us the lengthy interview we required unless he was paid a substantial sum, a common practice in England, an absolute no-no in France. We needn’t have worried. Over a three-four week period, I exchanged several emails with his long-standing friend and agent Phil Hughes: money was never mentioned once. We’d meet at Phil’s office, in Fulham, 15 minutes down the road from where I lived. I’ll re-phrase this: I was to meet the footballer whose picture was stuck above my bed when I was at my state boarding school, a bleak, brutal place where relief came every afternoon, just before evening study, when we could kick a football on a concrete pitch. You’ll have guessed who I fantasised being then.
Almost forty years later, accompanied by a photographer (you must have seen these last shots of Best, wrapped in a leather jacket, standing against a brick wall, gaunt, haunted, but still smiling that wondrous smile), I knocked on Georgie’s door. No answer. Phil finally opened the door – George had been delayed. What’s more, he had another appointment later on that day. ‘How much time can he spend with us?’ – ‘Half-an-hour, probably’. I froze. By the time the photographs had been taken, I’d be lucky if I could put half-a-dozen questions to the greatest genius British football has ever produced.
George, having phoned twice to apologise for his lateness, eventually emerged from a cab, looking much more sprightly than I’d feared. I hadn’t come empty-handed. In a bag, a replica of the famous blue shirt he’d worn at Wembley in 1968 (which is now framed and hung on our ‘Wall of Fame’ in Paris, signed by the great man, next to autographed memorabilia of Pelé, Yachine, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Beckenbauer – what a team...); a copy of a CD that had been produced by my friend Jim Phelan of Exotica Records, ‘The Best Album’, to which I’d contributed a song (I daren’t tell George what the title was – ‘When Georgie Died’ – it referred to his retirement, of course, but it hits hard, very hard when I play it today); and, in a large white envelope, the formal invitation to our celebratory dinner.
The shoot seemed to last forever. I kept looking at my watch. 10, 15, 20 minutes...When on earth would we sit down? But we did, finally. Phil brewed some tea, and, for the umpteenth time in his life, the angel of Manchester United retold his stories of heaven and hell. Re-reading the interview, I realise that there was little in there that he hadn’t told before; how could it not be the case? For thirty years, George Best’s life had been lived on a wire strung between a legendary past and an uncertain tomorrow. He earned this life by talking about himself, with Jimmy Greaves, with anyone who’d give him a bit of cash. Somehow, however, the stories still sounded fresh, unrehearsed. There’d be unexpected asides, as when he told me that, of all the players he could see on a field at the time, only one of them made him dream – Thierry Henry. He felt a kinship with him, just like he’d felt a kinship with Eric Cantona. Beautiful footballers both, and, crucially, entertainers.
The eyes sparkled. How he loved the game of football, and how he loved Manchester United. There was his charm, too – so many people have spoken about the extraordinary attraction he could exert on both sexes. In that office, a couple of months away from death, he was still a magnetic presence; he was also a keen listener, jumping in mid-sentence, always willing to find a common ground from where to speak to, not at someone – a someone who happened to be me, lucky me.
No mention was made of the next appointment. They’d wait. But as the minutes passed, tiredness started to creep in. His answers became shorter, more perfunctory. I finally woke up and realised I wasn’t talking to my hero, but to a very ill man. I rushed through the questions I’d prepared. I wanted to get out of that small, dimly-lit room. In my haste, I forgot to pass on to him the France Football invitation. I was to be his chaperone. A suite had been booked for him in one of Paris’s best hotels. I’d pick him up, travel with him on Eurostar, first class, of course. His table would be...something else. Denis Law and his daughter Diana, Sir Bobby Charlton and his wife. Eusebio. Luis Figo. Giancinto Facchetti. And two starstruck journalists, Jean-Michel Brochen and myself.
One week later, I heard the news.
George had been rushed to the Cromwell Hospital, just down the road. Television crews were crowding the reception area. Well-wishers were congregating, of which I was one, reporter and fan, desperately anxious to be given some hope that he’d pull through, again. It was an atrocious agony, lived in public, with pictures stolen on mobile phones, garish headlines, you name it – awful, awful. Denis Law fighting back the tears in a car park – we all remember that.
Then, one day, a phone call from a friend at talksport radio. ‘We’ve been told George’s died, mate’. I phoned my paper. ‘Best won’t be with us next week’, I told my editor. ‘His body just broke in a 1,000 pieces’. Then I began to cry uncontrollably, like thousands of others. It was stupid – I didn’t know him – he wasn’t a friend of mine – he was just a footballer I loved. But, of course, he wasn’t ‘just’ a footballer. The important word was ‘loved’. Very few people are given the gift of being loved. He’d been a right bastard at times, I knew that. But he was loved, truly, despite his many faults. And what is there to do but cry when you lose someone you love? When Princess Diana’s car crashed in Paris, the grief that engulfed millions, it seems, had something deeply disturbing about it; what the mourners were mourning was a fantasy, an upper-class woman whose life they’d intersected in gossip columns and little else. Not George Best. A footballer is a giver, and very few gave more than he did. We grieved for someone who’d spent his footballing life offering us the kind of presents you never get at Christmas.
Last week, moving offices, rummaging through boxes containing the flotsam and jetsam of a journalist’s life, I found the envelope I was meant to give to George Best. My heart stopped.
We presented the Ballon d’Or to Ronaldinho that night. But the evening was George Best’s. My then editor, Gérard Ernaud, walked on the stage and said that ‘someone who should be here tonight isn’t. We’ll remember him now, as we will remember him always’. A hush fell into the room. A screen scrolled down and, for two minutes, we watched Best being Best.
All of us, the superstars, the hacks, the hangers-on, turned our eyes towards him. God, how beautiful he was. He should be here tonight. I’m thinking of that moment again, and, honestly, I hate it. Then I think of my favourite poem, Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, of which the last line is, famously, ‘What will survive of us is love’. If our ‘almost-instinct is almost true’, George Best will be with us for a very long time to come.

thanks to Philippe Auclair for writing such a moving, emotional and personal piece. His book Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King is available from the RN website via the Amazon links.


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