Keith Duggan’s Sideline Cut this week is a balanced elgy for Best (subs needed). For all that his public warmed to him, loved him even, nothing of that warmth could save him from himself after the glamour and the adulation of his early career could help him returning to a normal life.
Although he was perhaps too indulgent and too indulged to prevent himself from a chaotic late life, it should be recognised Best was let down by his adoring public as much as by himself. He was let down by English soccer. He was let down by all of us who watched him slobber his way through that Wogan show – a nasty, cold exercise in exploitation. Boozing and the stories were all Best had after the game deserted him. And he was preposterously clever and desperate enough to make a living off the very element that was killing him – alcohol – and nobody shouted stop. At least not with any great conviction.
The trade-off for top-class sports people is that after they fade, they have to learn to become mortal again. The moderately talented and sensible often manage that. Neil Webb, who just missed out on the Premiership days, had the humility and discipline to become a postman when the cheering stopped. But there was nothing moderate about Best. Bright, beautiful and brilliant, he was helpless against life’s extravagances being, as he was, its most compelling and exalted embodiment when he wore the red shirt of Manchester.
The difference between today’s soccer heroes and Best is not just that he remains peerless as a footballer. Best was – and will remain – loved. Best was loved in a way today’s players will never be. Best had the gift of bringing out people’s better nature. It is no mean feat to lie on your deathbed with the love and thoughts of thousands of people – as the Beatles sang way back then – across the universe. What a pity, though, that it could make no difference.