A MEMORY. An 11-year-old boy stands outside his hotel. He’s travelled from his home in California to spend a holiday with his dad in London, but at some time during the evening, his dad has disappeared with the room key. It’s the 1990s, before mobiles, so the boy leaves the hotel, finds a call-box and phones his mum back home. She tells him to go back inside, phones reception, sorts out food and a room and he eventually falls asleep alone. Some time the next day, his dad reappears, bleary-eyed and hung over.
Another memory. The dad takes his son to the park and teaches him how to kick a corner. The boy loves his dad to bits, he’s his number one fan, and he’s in seventh heaven.
Both of these memories, belong to Calum Best, son of George, one of the greatest footballers of all time. They appear in his book, Second Best: My Dad And Me, which was published this week to a storm of controversy over whether the son has denigrated his father’s memory. But then a warts and all appraisal of what it’s like to be the child of an alcohol dependent parent was never going to be an easy read, especially for the legendary player’s legion of fans.
The Belfast-born winger, who died in 2005, aged 59, of liver failure is still a hero to football supporters the world over. His 11 years at Manchester United included the team’s 1968 European Cup win, and there is a statue to Best, along with Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, at Old Trafford. Another graces the airport in his home city, which is also named in the player’s honour.
“I don’t tell these stories to put my dad down, I tell these stories to explain what happened in my life with him. In many selfish ways it’s because I want people to know the journey I went through, maybe show the reasons for some of the things I did, and reasons for the things he did,” he says.
“I came along a bit too late. I think my dad started drinking before I was even born, so all I really knew was someone who was alcohol dependent, although there were times he was on great form too. You don’t think to yourself, ‘My God, my dad scored in the 1968 European Cup Final,’ you think ‘Holy shit, I have no relationship with my dad, why is that? It’s because of alcohol.’”
Best has been receiving tweets from people thanking him for putting a name to a problem, for putting the problem out there, but there are also those who are upset by his decision to write a book that shows his father’s darker side.
Among the bad memories in the book are George hitting his son, and accusing him of having an affair with his second wife Alex before telling him he never wanted him. Then there’s the night a drunk George climbs into bed, mistakes the boy’s long blond hair for that of a woman and kisses him. But along with the tales of binges and prostitutes, there are happy memories too, of trips to Old Trafford and time spent with the father he idolised.
“Thankfully most people understand. But others say, ‘After ten years, he still can’t let his dad rest. How can you think like that?’ I’m not doing this book to put my dad down. I sing his praises more than anybody in the world, from the rooftops, you know, but it’s deeper. I can understand people will say you’re taking away from the hero and genius of George Best, but I’m not. That will never be taken away from him and I will continue that legacy, but for me it’s a case of getting my story out there. It is hopefully something people can relate to, and understand they’re not alone.”
Those who are upset by his account include George Best’s sister Barbara, 62, and her husband Norman McNarry, who have accused Calum of “denigrating” his father’s memory. They want George to be remembered as “shy but kind” and repeat his final words: “I will be remembered for my football.”
But that wasn’t the player’s only parting message. At his request the News of the World printed a photograph taken on his hospital deathbed with the words, “Don’t Die Like Me”.
It’s this final act that his son remembers when he ponders what his dad would think of the book.
“That picture was his choice, on his deathbed, looking right out, ready to go. He’s thin and there are tubes and it is just so scary. He chose to get that out to the nation. He wanted to say these are the mistakes, these are the problems,” he says.
“I’m going to have my doubters and critics and I’m prepared for that, but the only way I can do this is to tell the truth. I had to think about the outcome, to open people’s eyes to a subject some might not want to talk about. People idolised my dad for football, and I totally get that. I would never ever want to take that away from them. I love him more than anything, I respect everything he did in football. I’m super proud of it, and always will be. But it’s a bigger picture for me. It’s the story of an illness and a problem between father and son and the effects it had on both him and me.”
In the wake of such a glittering sporting career, Best is something of a lone voice when it comes to speaking out about the negatives of his father’s illness.
“Nobody has a bad word to say about him. People are scared to because he’s such a football icon. So, it’s going to be me, you know?” he sighs. “It’s going to be me.”
Best is blond and buff, the odd stray tendril from his tribal tattoos escaping his blue top, and he looks every inch the model he used to be. Softly spoken, with a laid back California drawl, he fixes you with his blue eyes and talks. And talks. Unselfconsciously touchy feely, he taps your arm for emphasis, constantly apologises for swearing and draws you into empathy with repeated “you knows?” As he flexes and stretches, the 34-year-old is completely at ease in his skin. It wasn’t always like this.
He was 25 when his father died, and for a few years, in the aftermath of that shattering event, he appeared to be following in his father’s footsteps, finding solace in drink and drugs. The return of his mother Angie from the US got him on the straight and narrow, and ten years on, Best junior is in a place where he feels he can tell his story and speak up on behalf of the children of alcoholics. He’s patron of the charity NACOA, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.
“To parents I want to say, ‘Think about the effect on kids when you’re drinking,’ and to the kids I say, ‘Find someone, somewhere, to talk about it.’” The best advice I can give to the child of an alcohol dependent or anybody dealing with that issue is talk about it. It can help. That’s why NACOA is so important, because it’s anonymous. A lot of kids don’t want to talk to anybody because they don’t want that person to know what you’re going through.”
As a child, Best felt he couldn’t talk about his father’s drinking, not even to his mother, who had taken the boy to live in Malibu away from boozy existence his father led. “I kept so much of my stuff bottled up and I think that creates a lot of demons,” says Best. “I’m not saying I’ve had it so bad, I’m just trying to get awareness that it affects children and can stay with them as they grow up. For years I couldn’t express myself, but this is my chance to speak my mind.”
Best is also keen to set the record straight about the perception of him as a dilettante hanging on to his father’s coat tails. “For a long time, people were thinking I’m living off my dad’s name and it’s all George Best fairy tales and I’m living the high life. Yes, I’m very blessed in my life and I’m grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had being George Best’s son and Angie Best’s son. I know it’s the case, but I work my ass off too. ”
Best has worked hard to leave behind the playboy who was pictured in the tabloids falling out of nightclubs when he was in his twenties. He had his phone tapped by the News of the World, was papped with Lindsay Lohan and Lizzy Jagger, and there are claims he has fathered a daughter. “Allegedly,” he says.
“There was a time when my reputation went to shit because I was drinking every night. I had just lost my dad and didn’t know how to cope with it and had no family around, no-one to talk to. The nightclubs were welcoming because there were girls and booze and gear to keep me occupied. Then my mum moved back here for me, and I found that family vibe I had been missing. She got me back on track around 2007/8 and she’s always been there for me.
“I’m sure I’ll screw up a few more times in the future, but I think the worst of times is behind me.”
When Best came to live in Britain at the age of 18, he was already making a good living as a model in Los Angeles, but his desire to forge a relationship with the father he barely knew saw him relocate to London.
“My mum said, ‘Your dad’s getting ill,’ and I thought, ‘Hell, if he goes and I’m not there,’ you know? So I gave it a go. Luckily an agency took me on and I did some great jobs, shoots for Burberry with Mario Testino, with the Jaggers for Monsoon and British Vogue and things were good with my dad. He was taking me to the football, I was meeting him at the pub, and it was cool. But it didn’t ever evolve into anything deeper and he started to get even more ill and my work was coming in less because I was enjoying the limelight too much.
“People thought I was just living off the back of something, but I never was, I was just trying to be my dad’s son, reaching out to him. I know he wanted to too, but because of his illness he couldn’t.”
Of course, if George had been just any alcoholic father, and Calum any son, telling the story would have been easier. There wouldn’t have been any heroes to topple and backlash to be endured. But then no-one would have listened.
“I’m telling the story as a son, with an alcohol dependent father, but it happens to be George Best and Calum Best. That’s what’s going to raise awareness, make people talk about it, open their eyes. I’m not going to act like I’m some kind of guru, but if I have a pedestal I will use it.
“Nothing is false, everything is true. I don’t want to pull down a hero and it won’t. The genius of George on the football pitch is there in the YouTube videos and will be talked about for years to come. But I’m addressing an issue that is a massive one as well here. If not as big as football.”
Whisper it, perhaps it’s bigger? Could we commit soccer sacrilege and turn the Bill Shankly assertion of football being more important than life and death on its head?
“Well, maybe you could say the detrimental side to people’s lives is bigger than football,” Best concedes. “If a team loses, yeah, you’re upset, but it isn’t affecting your health and your family.”
Anyone who criticises Best for dissing his father’s reputation is missing the point. The goals and the genius are all there and his son practically bursts with pride over his father’s talent. But the book is about living with a dad who is ill and his son’s aim is to carry on fighting a battle that George Best was never able to win.
“If he’d had a choice, deep down inside he would have loved to have a second chapter of his life. Some lads the other day were saying how good he was on Sky’s Soccer Saturday. He had great banter and would have loved to continue to do that. He would have loved to have been a good dad, to have been a better person to some people where he might not have been. It’s just sad to think that now I could be hanging out with him, just two mates, both a bit older. But you can’t do that to yourself because it f***ing tears you apart. You have to just crack on.”
So Best has been cracking on with life, most recently by being locked into the Big Brother House where he came third behind Katie Price and Katie Hopkins.
“It’s car crash television at its finest, but it was one of the best things I’ve done. I wanted to put myself out there and show people who I am. They picked so many over the top characters with hardcore opinions, it made me look normal. But I liked everybody. Katie Hopkins might have some extreme views I don’t believe in, but I still liked her as a person. Katie Price, she was very chilled out, I got along with her. Kavana was cool, Ken Morley I thought was a darts player at first, and Perez was over the top, but that’s what he was hired for.
“Talking about Big Brother and then my dad, it’s two very different things,” says Best. “With my dad, I’ve never wanted to big myself up, because he was the main man. But with Big Brother, I’m proud of what I did.”
I point out that his dad might not have been an ideal candidate for the show.
“Ha, ha. He might have been, you never know! He was good with people. No, he probably would have said ‘Get me out of here.’”
So, each to their own.
“Exactly. And this entertainment thing is what I do, and I like to think I’m good around people.”
Best also has an entrepreneurial streak which has seen him launch a clothing line, Ibiza Boys Club, his 12th fragrance, and a health supplement range, Best Life Supplements. In addition to this he runs a gym with his mother Angie in Henley. Along with work with NACOA and Action on Addiction, there are charity treks through the Himalayas for the British Heart Foundation and Vietnam for the Children’s Trust, and he’s run the London marathon twice for Elton John’s Aids Foundation. Then there’s his girlfriend, Ianthe Rose Cochrane-Stack, formerly of Made In Chelsea, whom he met seven months ago.
“I’ve never felt as strongly about anybody as I do about her. She gives me stability. She’s stunning, and very good for me. She’s also studying for a degree in linguistic psychology so she keeps me on my toes.”
Best is determined to live up to the family name of which he is very proud, and make a success of his life now that he has his eye on the future.
“My dad didn’t leave me with a penny, but I was blessed that he left me with a name that I am proud of and that has and will help me open doors, but I will work my ass off to keep those doors open to build credibility for myself and a career,” says Best.
There was no money at all then?
He guffaws. “The poor guy went bankrupt twice!”
Oh yes, he spent it all on…
“‘…booze, birds and fast cars. And the rest I squandered,’” finishes Best, laughing. “Genius quote, and I love sharing it. But, and you can’t say this to people… it’s sad, because I lost my dad to that.”
As Best recites some of his father’s best lines, he dissolves into laughter yet it is tinged with sadness. His father’s celebration of his reckless lifestyle may have been entertaining for bystanders, but it ultimately killed him.
“‘In ’69 I gave up booze. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life,’” Best continues. “And as funny as that is, it’s brutal, because I lost my dad to booze,” he says.
Which brings us back to the book and how important its message is to Best junior.
“My dad wanted to be remembered for the football and I had to think about that a lot, because I’ll never take that away from him. This book isn’t about football. This book is about a dad, and me, a son.
“Some people might not like it because it’s George Best the footballer and I get that, but listen, I’m George Best the footballer’s number one fan. There isn’t a day goes by I don’t miss him. I loved him. He was my dad.” n
Second Best: My Dad And Me is published by Bantam Press, hardcover, £11.89, Kindle £6.99, out now