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Too many knew only the tabloid Best
By Jim White
(Filed: 28/11/2005)

There used to be a convention not to speak ill of the dead. Clearly it doesn't apply to George Best. Even a monster such as Robert Maxwell was safely underground before the boots started to fly at his reputation.

Many a media pundit didn't wait for Best to be gone for the chance to assault his personality, applying a hefty shoeing even as he lay dying. Self-righteous attacks were all over the papers last week, as he was lambasted for his drinking, his boorishness, his personal relations, the fact he had wilfully squandered a donated organ that might have saved a more penitent person's life.

In the Observer, Mary Riddell saw in his supporters' inability to acknowledge his flaws a failure of masculinity; only men, she reckoned, could excuse a man as bad as this. Such was the comprehensiveness of the character assassination, you half expected to find someone objecting to the ill-disciplined nature of his facial hair.

It seemed hard to reconcile the biliousness of some of this commentary with the affection that poured from elsewhere. In Manchester, the concourse at Old Trafford is currently being redecorated in heartfelt tributes; at football grounds across the country last weekend, the minute's silence was moving and respectful; in many a eulogy on the sports pages you could almost see the tears staining the ink.

And in Belfast this Friday, his funeral will be filled with memories of a time when he was the only bit of good news to emerge from a troubled place, about how appreciation of his skill at manipulating a football entirely bypassed sectarian divisions, allowing a community that differed over almost everything else to agree on this one thing: he was their Geordie Best.

How can one person elicit such extremes of response, from unequivocal love to withering scorn - particularly since he had no pretensions as to his status, made no claims about his significance beyond the touchline and was entirely honest about his shortcomings? He wasn't even a politician.

Of all the miles of comment on George Best, the item which came closest to explaining how a man as blessed as he came to be so reviled was a piece in this newspaper by Celia Walden on Saturday. In it, she recalled the time a couple of years back when she had been sent to Malta to act as his minder in the wake of yet another scandalous incident. The paper for which she then worked had signed an exclusive deal with him: rivals were moving in on the story and she was dispatched to protect her employers' investment.

That was how Best lived for 30 years. Although less physically debilitating, he was as helplessly addicted to gambling as he was to drink; all his money ended up at the bookies or on the roulette table. He needed cash constantly, because he had no investments from his time as the country's most celebrated sportsman; money stayed in his hands for even less time than some of his women. And though he was a fine television football pundit, applying his considerable intelligence to the game with real judgment, the fees from such appearances were never enough.

How he principally earned his living for nearly three decades was to trade on his own notoriety. If he made his first career from triumph and success, his second was entirely predicated on disaster and failure; that is what sold.

BestEnders was how newspaper insiders referred to the long-running soap opera of his decline. He couldn't keep out of the papers because he couldn't afford to. For three decades, he engaged in a mutually reliant fandango with the tabloids, upping the stakes to the point that his final financial exchange with them was to sell a picture of himself on his death bed.

The upshot of this is that much of the British public knew Best only through his painful, public suicide. Those who were never moved by him as a footballer - either because they were born too late or had no interest in the game - observed him entirely through a tabloid prism and were enraged.

It is not how we ought to remember a man who, in his prime, brought so much joy to so many. But sadly, that is the way of modern celebrity.