Ahead of our special podcast next week, Michael Heatley recounts what it’s like to sit in the company of one of the game’s greatest players.
In my time as a professional writer I interviewed the likes of Dolly Parton, Jon Bon Jovi, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and the Who’s Roger Daltrey – but George Best stands out from the crowd.
Not least because he was paid £500 to spend an hour with me and I received the square root of bugger all! But even then, in 1999, I knew it would be a tale I would be dining out on decades later.
It was full circle for me, really. I had started writing for the Fulham matchday programme in 1984 and, being a showbiz specialist, had suggested a column based on interviews with the club’s well-known fans. In many cases, the fans were more famous than the players! I even made a few friends, including ‘Streets of London’ singer Ralph McTell, through sharing our football passions.
I then graduated to the first team, and had three separate spells doing player interviews. When FulTime, the magazine given to season ticket holders, kicked off in the late 1990s, I was the writer of the Chris Coleman front cover of the launch issue. All very rewarding, hobnobbing with the stars, and what was more Mr Al Fayed paid me to do it.
And so to George Best. My brief was to meet him in the Phene Arms in SW3, his ‘office’ for some 15 years, late one morning. I rolled up, he didn’t. This must have been just before the era of mobiles, and in any case all communication had been through his business manager. So, all I could do was sit and wait.
Eventually, I asked the barman if there was any way George could be reached and, if necessary, reminded of his appointment. He disappeared to the pub’s landline and I was assured he was on his way. One hour after our scheduled meeting Best sauntered in, smiling that smile. The upside of this was that I was in no mood to be sycophantic or beat around the bush. After all, he could be gone in 20 minutes, vanishing as quickly as he’d appeared. Showing me a clean pair of heels would have been no problem – it was one of his trademarks…
So wham, bam! I crashed into the questions. And if I say so myself the result sounds all right. Print journalists have the chance to edit and sharpen their interviews: this is pretty much broadcast standard, and of course that is now what’s happening to it.
I think George appreciated the subject of the interview: his time at Fulham was one he talked about relatively rarely. He’d recently reconnected with the club, thanks to Mr Al Fayed’s hospitality, and that certainly helped the anecdotes flow. I don’t believe alcohol flowed, as I recall buying him a soft drink. Afterwards? Who knows… But we all know the role booze played in his decline, which happened six years later.
Fame is a funny thing. People who don’t have it are desperate for it, but once they’ve got it they often decide they don’t like it. Imagine not being able to leave the house without being recognised, hugged, snapped or, sometimes, insulted. If you’re a pop star you’re never off duty. And the same goes if you’re George Best. Little wonder they called him the Fifth Beatle.
One last admission: though having your photo taken with an interviewee is bad form, I made an exception in this case. If I wasn’t being paid, I was definitely going to have a photo (not selfie, note: this was in the Kodak era).
When I got together with my wife Helen a decade or so later, I put the photo of George and me on the mantelpiece hoping to impress. No comment was forthcoming, much to my surprise, until a couple of weeks later. ‘You look nice in that picture, dear… who’s the old fella you’re with?’
To many of us, George Best will never age. And while his iconic image includes an untucked red shirt, those who saw him in white will be glad they can say ‘I was there…’
Me too. Cheers, Bestie…
“Best At The Cottage”, a special audio documentary looking back at George Best’s time in SW6 will be released on the Fulhamish podcast feed on Monday 12 December. It features a never-heard-before recording of George Best speaking to Michael Heatley.