I’d no idea at that stage that he was a footballer, only that my family were terribly excited at securing me a shirt with the “George Best” label on the collar. Usually, everything was hand-me-down, but this was new, and I wore it as often as I was allowed. Thinking back on it, I hear echoes of a song, “Georgie Best… Superstar..” in its unbowdlerised playground version.
Thanks to an ancient copy of “Shoot!” that made its way into our back yard somehow, I was aware of football, and knew that Pat Jennings – a reassuring, father-like figure in his green shirt and gloves on the cover – played it. I didn’t: I lived with my mother, my sister and two elderly female relatives, so I was about as likely to encounter gridiron as the beautiful game. Georgie Best was a more shadowy figure altogether.
Jim White’s new “biography” of Manchester United hints, apparently, at a different kind of shadow in Best’s life, reflecting, but not confirming, rumours that Best’s drinking was connected to a sexual ambiguity that he found it hard to cope with. I.e. Best was bisexual or homosexual, and lived in an age and milieu in which such people either didn’t exist or were considered to be rejects.
Whatever the truth of the matter, and I have to say that the evidence in Best’s case is somewhat slanted towards a greater likelihood of heterosexuality, the milieu hasn’t changed and shows no sign of doing so any time soon. British football’s ahead of the game in racism terms, and is beginning to recognise the women’s game properly (most of you will be able to name five or six top female footballers, and you probably won’t have been able to do so ten years ago). But homosexuality just hasn’t been raised as an issue yet. It would be hard to deal with, harder perhaps than finding a way of removing prejudice in the military. But the job isn’t even underway.
My expression – as seen above – retains the same defaults today – haughty, better-than-you, delicate. Add to that interests in the arts, literature, history, in a family devoted to computing and the sciences. In British culture, this kind of combination is often enough for the kind of people who, whilst not being out-and-out bigots, think that they can read sexual orientation from external signs such as these. And think it their business to do something about it. But at my school, it was the monosyllabic six-foot-wide sporting thug who came out.
In Best’s case, I wonder if it wasn’t the flair. What he could do: in what style. Think of the vocabulary that goes with it: fancy dan etc.. and add to that the way his representatives sought to maximise his income by giving his career a musical and pro-fashion aesthetic at a time when football still had its own and very distinct image. I wore a Georgie Best shirt, not a Ron Harris one.
And jealousy. George was a brave and tough player, for all his slight and elegant exterior. But it was George, and not the men who did for his knees, whom Michael Parkinson described as able to pull like no man he had ever seen. How comforting for some to attribute unreliable sexuality to a man with the “unreliable” traits of skill and spectacular genius.
George Best will never be allowed to rest in peace altogether. I haven’t let him rest, have I, writing this? It’s his misfortune that if rumours of this kind are to surface, they surface in amongst the culture of a world in which homosexuals are either in hiding or connected to fine institutions like this one.
Similar questions have been raised about Kingsley Amis, a man who shared two of Best’s most obvious traits. But they’ve been raised kindly, amongst people who are comfortable and unexcited by such things. And regarded as oversimplifications of a complicated man’s complicated life, when all of us are complicated and live complicated lives.
It can never be like that for Best, let alone for gay footballers brave enough to play in the big leagues and stick their head above the parapet. Imagine this kind of thing, only many, many times worse. In the face of it, I feel compelled, in 2008, on a blog read by intelligent and grown-up people, to indicate that I am heterosexual, as though to express sympathy for the dilemmas of men placed by fate in a minority role is to invite a kind of ignominy, as if such ignominy would have validity or force.