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George Best and Manchester United: the story behind the break-up


As the ‘ghost’ assigned to write George Best’s newspaper column in the early 1970s, journalist John Roberts was in an enviable position as Best’s career at Manchester United began to unravel.

With unparalleled access to football’s original superstar when Best first walked out on United in 1972, Roberts enjoyed exclusive, inside knowledge -- perfect material for a book about those turbulent years in the Irishman’s life.

Those unique insights are published this week.  But should you be wondering how it took almost 40 years for Roberts to reveal the secrets he knew about an extraordinary story, The Sports Bookshelf can reveal that it didn’t.

Sod This, I'm Off to Marbella - George Best, published on July 1 by Trinity Mirror Sport Media, enjoyed a brief life -- under a different title -- in 1973 but while there was undoubtedly an audience that would have lapped it up, the book effectively failed to reach them.

“It was published independently as George Best: Fall of a Superstar,” Roberts told The Sports Bookshelf. “But we couldn’t get the right deal with a wholesaler and apart from a few copies sold under the counter at the United souvenir shop, very few were circulated.

“Thankfully, when I told Trinity Mirror about it, they said, ‘let’s do it’.”

The story recalls the night that Best invited Roberts to dinner and made the confession that marked the beginning of the end for him at United.

It was February 1972.  Roberts was a football writer on the Daily Express, for whom one of his assignments was to ghost Best’s weekly column. It was an enviable job. Best was 25, and still at the peak of his powers despite an already established, alcohol-fuelled taste for the high life.

On the night in question, Best summoned Roberts to The Grapes, a favourite Manchester watering hole, bought him a steak and, as his journalist confidant lifted his fork to his mouth, uttered the words that Roberts could only visualise in massive black type on the back -- maybe even the front -- of the Express: 'I’m sick of United'.

"It would have been a sensational headline," Roberts recalls. "He told me that he had reached the point at which he was ready to leave United.

"He had become disillusioned.  The team in which he had won the European Cup in 1968, which probably reached its peak a year before that, had gradually fragmented and he was really the last survivor.

"He was having to carry the team and while he was capable of brilliant, virtuoso performances, on the days that he did not play so well there was no one else to step up.  It was a team he felt was going nowhere yet if things went badly it would be he -- and his lifestyle -- who attracted criticism.

"United had some good young players yet they were years from reaching their peak and Best felt he couldn’t wait that long.  He would have gone anywhere that would have brought him success.’

It would have been the scoop of the decade.  Yet, incredibly, the Express declined to chance to run it.

“George was willing to go public,” Roberts said. “But he knew the aggravation the story would create, with reporters outside his home, round the clock.  He wanted the Express to make him an offer.

“So I went back to the office in Great Ancoats Street and told them what he’d said.  But they didn’t want to be seen to be interfering in a dispute between Best and United and declined to pay.”

In the weeks that followed, Best’s disillusionment only deepened.  It reached the point when, infamously, he really did ‘sod off to Marbella’.

“He should have been joining up with the Northern Ireland squad but instead he fled to Spain,” Roberts said. “That was the inspiration for the new title for the book.  It seemed just right to sum up his attitude at the time.”

It was the Sunday Mirror that ultimately broke the story of Best’s desire to quit Old Trafford, which he eventually did early in 1974, after a brief but unsuccessful reconciliation.

Best played his last professional game a decade later, by which time he was making only cameo appearances.  He had enjoyed a brief renaissance at Fulham between 1976 and 78 but otherwise was never the same player, although Roberts wonders if his career might have been followed a different path if the Express had been bold enough to run with his dinner-table scoop.

“He simply wanted success and if a big club had come in for him at that time, who knows?  But after he walked out clubs were wary of what they would be taking on.”

The common perception is that by quitting when he did, at the age of 27, Best squandered his talent but Roberts, who had some sympathy for his subject, does not hold entirely with that notion.

“If you look at the records, he spent 10 or 11 years at United, played 470 games and scored 179 goals -- that’s not a bad career.”

John Roberts wrote for the Daily Express, The Guardian, the Daily Mail and The Independent, where he was the tennis correspondent for 20 years. He collaborated with Bill Shankly on the Liverpool manager’s autobiography, ghosted Kevin Keegan’s first book, and has written books on George Best, Manchester United’s Busby Babes (The Team That Wouldn't Die) and Everton (The Official Centenary History).  Now freelance, he edits Tennis Life UK magazine and writes fine pieces for http://www.sportingintelligence.com.

Shankly: My Story by Bill Shankly, which was banned from sale in Liverpool’s club shop when first published in 1976, has also been reissued by Trinity Mirror Sport Media.

For more by John Roberts and more on football, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.

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