Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Best of Times?

I have missed some of Dominic Westbrook's current BBC2 series so I don't know if George Best has featured in it at all, but "the football folk hero" (as Sandbrook dubs him) does turn up in the historian's 2010 book State Of Emergency when it turns its attention to football in the early 1970s.
It is difficult to find anything new to say about Best now so much has been written about him over the years. In fact writing Whose Side Are You On? I felt quite privileged that by focusing on him as a specifically Northern Irish figure I had some space to reframe his story to some degree.
 Even so, the patterns of the story are now well engrained, almost mythical, with Best as a kind of Mancunian Icarus soaring through the sixties only to have his wings singed when the decade changed. As a result he fell hard (into a bottle most likely).
There is also a tendency to make Best's story emblematic, to see in him a marker for football in that era. In some senses that's inevitable. Where Best led, the likes of Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington and all the other seventies fancy dans followed as football became the new rock 'n' roll. (Best is described in the Tiger Book of Soccer Stars 1971, above, as having "pop star hair".)
For some that was a reason to celebrate. For others it was a reason to despair. In State of Emergency Sandbrook does rather cleave to the latter line. He quotes Arthur Hopcraft who in 1971 said that Best was synonymous with "contempt for authority and heedless petulance". For Hopcroft Best had "come to represent almost every extreme in the modern footballer's lifestyle".
This argument is reflective of one of the main strands of conservative thinking on the 1970s which sees it as a time of decline. That decline might have been an economic one (caused by the rise of union power) or a social one (the death of deference: Best's drunken insubordination at his club can stand - unsteadily perhaps - for this ). Football was violent off the pitch (from Best it's notable that Sandbrook moves on to look at football hooliganism) and arrogant on.
It's tempting - just out of pure contrariness - to try to put a different spin on Best's actions. Is it possible to argue that he in fact represents the employee railing against the strictures placed on him by his employer? This was still a time when players were not in control of their destiny. They were there to be bought and sold and in between they were expected to do what they were told. And Best always complained that he felt he was carrying Manchester United at the start of that decade.
Or can we say that he was the embodiment of individualism in a team game? In short that he represented an otherness the powers that be in football and in the wider culture couldn't contain and so condemned?
It's a stretch, perhaps. All too often Best was his own worst enemy and increasingly football was less important to him than wine or women. But that said, it seems harsh to condemn as all that was wrong with football culture. His failings were his own.
And it should be said that while football fans are conservative in all sorts of ways the narratives they most respond to - and celebrate - are utopian ones. And so for them Best the footballer tends to matter more than Best the alcoholic. The striker who left defenders with, in Alex Ferguson's memorable phrase, "twisted blood". On the field Best was anything but conservative. That was what was great about him

PS: In the May issue of GQ Robert Chalmers interviews Pele. Right at the start they talk about Best. "An unbelievable player," says Pele. "To me he never looked like a European. He was a Latin player - a Brazilian player." What is it Northern Ireland fans sing? "We're not Brazil". Oh let's imagine we are. Just a little.

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