Evidence of the violence dealt to Best is visible after every match. His shoulders are black and blue and his heel tendons and fragile ankles show the impact of persistent boots. A scar runs across the ridge of his right brow, there is another on his left knee. The right knee has hardly any cartilage. The pain absorbed, the pressure of being hounded and his own quick temper keep Best in constant trouble with officials; the fact that he plays for United does not promote coolness, either. The club, one of the most magnetic in Europe, is no stranger to bad conduct, and its fans are famous for their misbehavior. They are not enamored of London teams, and one of their songs goes, "Oh, we kicked him where he lives and we kicked him in the head. Bleedin' old Cockney...he's dead." Such a team and fans are dry tinder to Best's inflammatory petulance, and the results seem forever splashed blackly across the tops of English papers.
"He's a temperamental player," says Referee Eric Jennings, who was caught by some mud Best threw. "No one else can take the ball off him. If things go wrong, he gets upset. I think it's his nationality."
"I don't ask for special consideration for George," says Busby, "but in some respects he deserves it. I am convinced that some opponents have gone out to hurt him. He takes some knocks long after the ball is gone. No one in the game takes as much stick as George and probably no one ever has."
Of more concern to Busby, his current manager Frank O'Farrell and the press—the latter sympathetic most of the time—is the personal comportment of Best. His lapses range from numerous nightclub incidents and romantic entanglements to motoring infractions and serious breaches of training. Always there is a girl who eventually sells her story of George to one of the papers, which usually titillates the masses with headlines like ONE DANCE AND GEORGE RUINS MY ROMANCE, GEORGE BEST THE LOVER...BY THE GIRL HE PLANNED TO WED. One of his more publicized entanglements was with a Danish girl named Eva Haraldsted: he invited her to spend a week in England, and she stayed on to sue him for breach of promise. "I finally settled it with her," says George. "I gave her some money, and she used it to get a nose job."
Eva says, "George was gentle, he was kind, he made me feel that he was the only man who mattered. When George wanted something, money was no object. Why, when my clean clothes ran out—remember I had brought only enough over for a week—he gave me a blank check to go and buy some more. One of our first differences was when he picked up some spareribs with his fingers to chew them, and I said: 'George, that's not very nice.' I wished I had kept my mouth shut. He hated me to defy or contradict him, especially when other people were present. On the way back in the dining car, after a game, one of his friends offered me a cigarette. George said, 'She doesn't smoke.' I didn't, but I took the cigarette just to let George know I had a mind of my own. He didn't speak to me the rest of the journey.
"He had a fear of breaking a leg, and he told me the trainers of the other teams always shouted, 'Go for his legs!' He also had a thing about his image as a nice guy, and he would not leave a card game if he was winning. He liked to stay until he had lost. The George Best I knew was simply sensitive and kind. But his pet hate remained. He couldn't stand for me to argue with him in public. Once when I did, he told the papers the following day that we were through. I asked him why and he said, 'Because I feel I can't remain faithful to you.' "
Another girl suggests that going out with Best "is a bit like being on a jet plane, piloted by a blindfolded Jekyll and Hyde." She says that a girl with Best is in a situation in which she has little or no control, and that above all she must have a complete disregard for human logic. "I was watching a movie with him once, and suddenly my name was flashed on the screen. There was an urgent message for me at the manager's office. I made a mad dash up the aisle, thinking of every serious thing I could imagine. The manager calmly handed me the envelope. I opened it nervously, and what do you think it says? 'I Love You, G.' " A more concise assessment of Best comes from still another girl. "Sometimes he's an Irish navvy, sometimes he's Cary Grant, but mostly he's himself, quiet, withdrawn, rarely speaking. We used to have some beautiful silences together."
The pursuit of girls, often as carefully studied as the invasion of Normandy, seems to have finally treed Best himself; that is, if girls are what motivates his truancy from training. His first brush with United came a little more than a year ago. He missed a team train back to Manchester and went off to London instead. There, with half of Fleet Street banging on his door, he was found with an actress. Busby suspended him for a fortnight.
The episode was not generally laughed off as a typical Best escapade. The press and the public, to say nothing of his team and his friends, were by this time distinctly concerned about George. "I was so bloody mixed up," he tried to explain, "that I just wanted to get away for a few days. I just wanted some peace and quiet. In the end I panicked. I didn't know what the hell to do. I only wanted some breathing space. I'm so nervy now I even look over my shoulder to see if anyone is following me or watching me. I would be lying if I said I didn't like all the fuss when I first started. I did. But suddenly it's all gone sour. Every move I make is magnified. Even my house gets it. They come and look at it and say it looks like a public lavatory. That's unkind."
A subsequent and similar flouting of training appears to have brought the full wrath of United down upon him, even that of the players who revere him. Best had not been playing to form, and United seemed sadly mediocre. "He'd been part of the decline," said one player, "and he should have been training all week to help us put it right." But Best had disappeared again. At first it was thought that, fearing for the safety of his family, he had returned to Belfast, but when Frank O'Farrell went there to see if he could help, he learned George had not been home in months. O'Farrell returned to Manchester in a graveyard mood. A week later Best proved to have taken off for London again; the script varied principally in that the girl this time was not an actress but the current Miss Great Britain.