Anyone with a surface knowledge of the footballer George Best will probably recall the two defining elements of his life – namely football and alcohol. But I have always felt that there is more to his story, that there was somehow a deeper reason behind how he chose to live, or rather how life happened to him.

I’ve always had the impression that he was a man who was somehow bemused and confused by life, as is often the case when someone is blessed with a pure talent. It can somehow become a curse – when you are not engaged in using that talent, what defines you?

As a young boy, whenever I heard people speak his name, it was often followed by a reverential sigh, as if they were speaking of a saint or a departed statesman. His was one of the names that resonated with me as I grew up (alongside others such as Lennon and McEnroe). Despite the fact I was too young to see him play, I somehow knew that his was a rare gift. As the years passed I saw clips of him in action with Manchester United and Northern Ireland and everything fell into place.

It may sound strange but this post isn’t really about his talents as footballer, although they were clearly in realms of the supernatural. It is a well-trodden line to say that he was the first superstar footballer. The intertwining combination of his skill and dark good looks meant that he was attractive to both sexes in equal measure.

The received opinion is that he squandered his talent early and spent the rest of his life on a continuous round of alcoholic binges and disastrous relationships. I won’t defend his choices in life and cannot hope to comprehend why alcohol had such a hold on him. But I feel that it is easy to write him off as someone who disregarded his innate ability in favour of a hedonistic lifestyle.  His relationship with the world and people in it were far more complex than that.

Many people overlook the fact that he was essentially a very shy man, which seems a contradiction when one considers the sporting arenas that he graced and the masculine environment that his talents seem to effortlessly dominate. Intense public focus was inevitable; some thrive on it of course, but I feel that Best never really wanted a part of that. 

It is true that he benefitted from his fame as he became caught up in a whirlwind of external interests led by opportunist investors. A mini-industry grew up around his name and he fronted a range of questionable campaigns, including flogging sausages for long-forgotten brands and ‘gentlemen’s grooming aids’ (the strangely named Fore! range) that presumably, if the low-grade advertising was anything to go by, smelt like horse piss. He even opened his own Manchester boutique, selling mod-influenced menswear that has gained a cultish following in recent years .  

At this point it may be worth pointing out that, in a rather circuitous and convoluted way, I am working towards the relevance of the photograph above. It features the house that Best had built on the outskirts of Manchester, a bachelor pad that was designed to be a retreat from the pressures of public attention.

Despite its sleek, modernist appearance, it was to become impossible to live in.  In fact, Best came to hate the place, describing it as a ‘madhouse’.  Some of the reasons for this are comical, such as the fact that it featured state-of-the-art electronic blinds that repeatedly opened at awkward moments (such as when he was walking around naked). But the main reason he left the house was that its location soon became well known and he was plagued by fans.

To me, the house acts as a kind of metaphor for his life. He was in many ways a deeply private man and had a need to escape from a public attention that he simply didn’t understand or desire. His early retirement from football was related to his disillusionment with the game and having won every major honour open to him at the age of 27, perhaps he felt there was nothing else to prove. But perhaps in the end, he may also have felt that he had nowhere to go.