It was a very good read in The Mail today, by Craig Hope, that got me thinking. George Best died 10 years ago today.
I'm planning a special half hour tribute to the genius that was Best on Keys&Gray this Friday. We've got contributions from Pat Crerand, Alex Stepney and Kevin Keegan, who speaks very movingly about him, and Steve Evans. Not that one! 'Stephen' is currently filming George's life story. He did a brilliant job with 'Sevvy'. I can't wait and he'll be with us on Friday to give us an update on how things are going.
I find it amazing that George is as popular - arguably more so - than when he was with us. The movie promo gives us a hint as to why - the boy was a genius.
Off the pitch George was engaging company - and full of surprises, no matter how many times you were in his company. For instance, did you know he enjoyed knitting as a lad. Yes - knitting! He told me this once as I drove him to Manchester for a programme we were doing at Old Trafford the following day. Obviously it wasn't something I could keep to myself! When we gathered in the bar that evening Geoff Shreeves brought his pillow with him. 'Anymore of that boring s**t and you'll have me asleep' he said. To George Best! In a bar! What a day. Spending time with George at close quarters like that, driving him on the M6, surrounded by people who had no idea he was in my car. MY CAR! Amazing.
I first came across him during my days at tv-AM. Our Sports Editor, Jim Ferguson, got close to his agent, at the time a guy called Bill McMurdo, and we did a deal for George to become our football expert. The plan was George would come on our Saturday show - at 6.30 am. Yes, 6.30 in the morning. He was as good as gold. He only missed twice in two years. I was so pleased, as well as surprised by his attendance record I remember asking why it was he could turn up so regularly for us, but let so many other people down. He replied 'I only let c***s down. People I don't like'. I felt quite chuffed about that. Almost inevitably, he failed to show the following week! I don't know if he was getting up to join us, or coming straight on from a good night out, but he was fantastic.
He was still looking to grow his media work when I got to Sky. Time and again I tried to play him in in the early days, but there wasn't just a resistance to him - there was me! I remember being told that our Exec Producer, Andy Melvin, had issued instructions that 'we don't want Keysie's mates on our programmes'. I've told you before that Andy was a difficult man to get on with - but he was also damn good at what he did. The reason he didn't like me is that he didn't want me - simple. Andy's preferred choice to do my job was Mark Austin. Looking back I wish he'd got it!
Anyway, it took me forever to get George on a programme. Finally I got him on a show at Wimbledon. The other guest that day was John Fashanu. Melvin told me to 'address the football questions to John'. Best was there to 'look at and for colour', he added. He didn't know George like I did. He was fantastic - and guess what - 'Keysie's mate' became an instant hit. Sky couldn't get enough of him.
There were times he was a handful, like one unforgettable evening in Newcastle. He was appearing on a programme called The Footballers' Football Show. We were going live in front of a huge audience at The Leezers Road end of St James' Park, in the unfinished stand. George turned up at the hotel beforehand drunk. He'd had a row with Mary Shatillo (his agent by then and girlfriend) and he'd stormed out.
It was my job to man mark him to make sure he didn't have so much drink as to render him useless in the show. Me - man marking George Best! As we stood at the bar I noticed his jacket was bulging, making him look more dis-shevelled than he needed to. I mentioned it, he took notice - and started pulling bundles of £50.00 notes out of his pockets! He reckoned he had £50 grand on him 'I found it in the trouser press as I left' he said. Brilliant!!
The show, by the way, passed off without incident, with Kevin Keegan, Sir John Hall and Barry Venison. George was flawless.
Our guv'nor Vic Wakeling was terrific with George. That wasn't always the case with his staff. It was me that had to deliver the message to Claire Tomlinson to 'show more of her tits in that tunnel if she wants to keep her job'. That was the origin of the ironic video that was later released to discredit us - again. Taken it of context - again. None of us could believe an instruction like that from the highest office in the dept. But Vic promised George 'a job for life' at Sky and he was true to his word.
Ten years ago today I remember watching George's funeral, brilliantly hosted by his countryman Eamonn Holmes, sitting, just crying.
Yes, George was a drunk as well as a genius. He was blighted by the disease that is alcohol. He split opinions because of it. But trust me, there wasn't an ounce of malice in him. Had he been able to conquer his demons he would've done. In the end he had to compromise and live with them. Sad. Very, very sad.
In the promo for the film he says 'I hope I'm remembered for the football'. If he'd played today he would've eclipsed Messi. In my view he was better. I remember the football George - and a really nice guy that I'm proud to say considered me a friend. Thanks for the memories.