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Calum Best: George Best, alcohol and me

In his most frank interview yet, George Best's son talks to Barry Egan about living in the shadow of his famous father, and how he too turned to drink to blur the pain when the footballing legend died

Published 29/10/2013

Calum Best is raising awareness of the genetic link associated with alcohol dependence on behalf of the Reduce Your Alcohol Use campaign
Calum Best is raising awareness of the genetic link associated with alcohol dependence on behalf of the Reduce Your Alcohol Use campaign
Calum Best pictured with father and Manchester United legend George
A grieving Calum at George Best's funeral
Calum Best dated model Georgia Salpa
George Best and baby son Calum asleep pictured in 1980 when the young family was living in suburban San Jose, California, while Best playing for the Los Angeles Aztecs
George Best feeds baby Calum
Calum with his mother Angie Best
Calum Best with Rebecca Loos on ITV's Celebrity Love Island reality television show
Calum pictured at George Best's testimonial at Windsor Park in 1988
George and Angie Best with baby Calum

Calum Best has lived more than a fair share of his life in the shadows of a painful past. At the age of 32, the man who was starting to become a byword for dissolution and excess appears to be finally coming, however tentatively, towards the light.

When his father George died in London's Cromwell Hospital on November 25, 2005 after suffering multiple organ failure, Calum, then 24, was at his bedside. It didn't matter to Calum that his dad, the son of a Belfast shipyard worker, dazzled the world with his footballing genius with Manchester United. It only mattered that George Best was his dad and he was gone forever.

George Best in action
George Best in action
George Best
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
George Best with the Portadown football team and mascot before they played Glenavon in 1981
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
George Best: Manchester United and Northern Ireland Legend
Memories: George Best trudges off the pitch after being sent off against Scotland
George Best larks around in his kitchen with Angie in 1976
George Best footballer in Manchester United kit
Alex with George Best in 1995
The birth certificate
Books:GEORGE BEST: The Legend - In Pictures, Ivan Martin, Appletree Press
George Best and his dad, Dickie
George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages
George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar
Belfast boy: George Best is the most heralded Northern Ireland sports star... but Rory McIlroy can close in
George Best is regarded by everyone as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and by many, including Brazilian icon Pele, as THE best of the lot. The Belfast boy, who lived a rock and roll life, had staggering skill and balance, which he used to score for Man United in their 1968 European Cup final victory, one of 179 goals for the club. A breathtaking talent.
George Best in a Glentoran shirt with another ex Northern Ireland international Norman Whiteside - and a young Stephen Chick
George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966
Manchester United legend George Best
George Best. Football. Manchester United and Northern Ireland. Ireland v England Oct. 1966. Best and Parke outwitted by a headless Charlton as Englend mount an attack.
HEALTH Best 11...Library filer dated 08/03/1969 of legendary footballer George Best who is "coming to the end of the long road of his ill-health", his doctor Professor Roger Williams said Thursday November 24, 2005. See PA story HEALTH Best. PRESS ASSOCIATION photo. Photo Credit should read: PA...A
Benfica's Goalkeeper Jose Henrique (left) races back to his goal in a vain attempt to stop George Best (right) of Manchester United from scoring his team's second goal in the the European Cup final at Wembley, 29th May 1968. United eventually won 4-3 after extra time.
George Best pictured with Pat Jennings
Football legend George Best pictured at Windsor Park
Manchester United footballer George Best with manager Tommy Docherty.
Best man: George Best (c) shows off the 1968 European Footballer of the Year award, which journalist Max Urbini (l) presented to him before the match, as team-mates Bobby Charlton (second l, 1966 winner) and Denis Law (r, 1964 winner), and manager Matt Busby (second r) look on
Simply the Best: George Best shows off some of his wide range of skills during his time at Manchester United, where he became a worldwide star
George Best playing at the stadium
George Best in training for Manchester United
Football legend George Best
George shakes hands with the Glenavon captain Alan Frazer and referee Malcolm Moffatt
George Best's wife Angie hands out balls during the game
George Best with Gerald Black
Angie Best with the referees
George Best leading the teams out with mascot
Excited young fans mob George at the game
Angie is greeted by fans
The Bests having fun on the pitch during the game
On the ball: George’s wife Angie on the pitch
Fond memories: mascot Stuart McKinley aged six
George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin
Style icon George Best outside his Manchester Boutique in the 1970s
George Best in action for Manchester United
George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.
George Best with Lawrie Sanchez
George Best
John Chaffetz, an official of the Los Angeles Aztecs, points the way for soccer star George Best. Best was attending a press conference after joing the Aztecs in 1976
George Best and his mother Annie
Molly meets soccer star George Best
Football legend George Best, pictured with Pat Jennings (left) and Billy Bingham (right).
Lining up: George Best joins the rest of the Tobermore United squad for a team photo before the Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United in 1984
The late George Best with then wife Alex Best is pictured with family and friends outside his boyhood Burren Way home after he received Castlereagh's Freedom of the Borough
Close friends George Best and Mike Summerbee at 1966 World Cup Final
George Best in April 2002 at the house in Burren Way, where he unveiled a plaque after being awarded the freedom of Castlereagh
George Best with son Calum
George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum
George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum
George Best and Calum Best
Football legend George Best pictured in 1990
Football legend George Best with his wife Angie, brother Ian, father Dickie and baby son Calum
George Best with his sister Barbara McNarry
George Best at home in Belfast with his father Dicki
George Best, ex-Manchester United footballer, smiling with bruised eye
H&H auctioneer James Wheeler polishes up the Jaguar once owned by George Best
George Best
Manchester United and Northern Ireland football legend George Best
A bus stop on the Cregagh Road on the morning of George Best's funeral.
Flags at George Best funeral at Stormont. Saturday 3rd December 2005
The garden of the Best family home in Burren Way, Cregagh, on the day of George's funeral.
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
New stamp depicting George Best
Calum Best in the funeral cortege.
Calum Best shakes hands with well-wishers as George Best's funeral cortege leaves the Best family home
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
Calum and Dickie Best at George Best's funeral
The crowd on the Cregagh Road waiting for George Best's funeral cortege.
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
A view from the balcony of Parliament Buildings in Stormont
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
George Best's coffin is carried up the steps to the Stormont buildings
George Best's coffin is draped with the Northern Ireland flag
George Best's agent Phil Hughes (centre) with Eamonn Holmes next to George Best's coffin in the Parliament buildings in Stormont, Belfast, Saturday December 3, 2005. The world of football was today paying its last respects as George Best, one of the greatest ever players, was laid to rest. Best, 59, died last Friday in London's Cromwell Hospital.
The Best family at the George Best funeral at Stormont
Billy Bingham at George Best's funeral
Robert Dunlop at George Best's funeral
Dickie and Calum Best at the funeral of George Best funeral at Stormont.
Terry Neill at George Best's funeral
Paddy Kielty and Gerry Armstrong at George Best's funeral
Frank McLintock at George Best's funeral
Mike England at George Best's funeral
Derek Dougan at George Best's funeral
Milan Manderic at George Best's funeral
Pat Jennings at George Best's funeral
Phil Taylor, George Best's agent and Jackie Fullerton at George Best's funeral
Alex Higgans at George Best's funeral
Bobby Jameson at George Best's funeral
Barry McGuigan and his wife at George Best's funeral
Rodney Marsh at George Best's funeral
Dennis Law (centre) at George Best's funeral
Martin O'Neill at George Best's funeral
Callum Best and mum Angie at George Best's funeral
George Best's grave
George Best Belfast City Airport handled more than 2.5 million passengers last year
A mural of George Best and David Healy on the wall of the Times Bar, York Road. Brian Little/ Presseye
The Best family plot at Roselawn on the day before George's funeral.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. Pictured a silver Benfica letter opener, dated 1966, given to George which marks Man Utd's 5-1 European Cup defeat of Benfica in Lisbon. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years
Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon holding a replica European Champions Manchester United Trophy presented to Dickie Best when George Best died. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Best Fans - Mark McIlwaine (13, left) and David McCracken (13), both from Lurgan Junior High admiring some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon (dressed in his school rugby kit) holding a cast from George Best's original match worn boots, pictured amongst Best memorabilia at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Items on sale of the Dickie Best collection which will go on public auction on the 19th march at the Wilsons premises in Mallusk with 110 lots of George Best memorabillia available which was collected by Dickie over a 40 year period.
Family Portrait (left to right): Carol Best - Lisa Hogg; Julie Best (Twin) - Catherine Quinn; Ann Best - Michelle Fairley; George Best - Tom Payne; Dickie Best - Lorcan Cranitch; Grace Best (Twin) - Amy Quinn; Barbara Best - Laura Donnelly
George Best played by Tom Payne
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
George Best played by Tom Payne
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
George Best played by Tom Payne
George Best played by Tom Payne
Richard (Dickie) Best with a picture of his son, footballer George Best pictured at his home in Belfast. October 2005
Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday were Michelle McBride with Lyn Smyth
Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday was Ivan Little
Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes
Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes

"It drove me f***ing nuts when he died," says Calum. "People were just losing a famous football player. I lost my dad. I lost my father."

I ask him how he dealt with the loss. "By drinking. To avoid thinking about it. That's how I dealt with my old man dying. I kept my mind blurred by drinking."

How did Calum stop himself going down that road of self-oblivion as his father had? "After a few years of just going nuts, I just realised this is getting me nowhere," he said. "I was losing work. My health was bad. I was falling out with people. I wasn't in touch with my mom. The only people who were letting me onboard were club owners."

And bartenders! 'Come in, Mr Best!' I joke. "'You're welcome here!'" Calum jokes too.

"Look, I had no support. I didn't know my dad's side of the family. My mom was in the States still. She didn't really know the depths of how much I was drinking. Dad had unfortunately passed away, which is one of the toughest things I'd ever dealt with. A few years back I was losing the plot."

What did you learn from losing the plot?

"Not to do it again," he laughs. But the reality isn't even remotely funny. Calum has recently been helping raise awareness of the genetic link associated with alcohol dependence on behalf of the Reduce Your Alcohol Use campaign in the Republic. He explains that "nearly two-thirds of people in Ireland believe alcohol dependence has a genetic component that runs in families", referring to a new study launched last week.

"Alcohol dependence, more commonly known as alcoholism, is a brain disease. Alcohol dependence is a chronic disease. I witnessed this first hand with my father, who drank heavily every day of his life up until he died at the age of 59," he says.

He can remember being 15 years old and his dad bringing him to a game at Manchester United. On the way, he also bought Calum his first 'George Best' jersey. "I was so proud wearing it. He got me a football signed by all the players. Then that night he went on the p**s with all the players and went missing for three days. You know? It was a real hard balance to find."

To illustrate this chronic lack of balance in his youth, Calum recalls flying from Los Angeles, where he lived with his mother Angie, to meet his father in England, and the scenario that would inevitably unfold time after time. George would go on a bender. "People in the pub would always say to me: 'Your dad has been saying for weeks how he is so excited to see you.' That was a big let down," Calum says. He says it hurt him on lots of emotional levels: the apparent rejection. "I didn't know how to accept that, or take that on board. I just thought: 'Why is this happening?'

"But as the years went by," he adds, "I figured it out personally: I think with most alcohol-dependent people it would be a case of when the booze goes and their mind goes clear, they realise all the people they've let down, or hurt. And I think that would be the same with me and him.

"He'd see me in the morning when he was kind of fresh and he'd be happy and then he'd start thinking: 'F**king hell. I've got a son here that I haven't really paid attention to.'

"He would just drink his sorrows by the bottle – which is what most alcohol-dependent people would do. It was a tough relationship because I'd show up and say: 'Dad, now's our time. Let's build a bond.'

"My old man never gave me a cent but I don't complain about that," he adds.

When I met Calum's mother Angie for dinner in 2008, she told me a fascinating – but unsurprising – thing about George Best. Angie said that when she had Calum on February 6, 1981, it meant that she finally realised she "had to look after the deserving baby not the undeserving baby. I could do one baby not two. I got on with my life. I got on with raising my son. I didn't try to deal with any of it. I left George to get on with his s**t."

"My mum being a very cool woman has helped get me through things," Calum says. "She told me she used to babysit my dad a lot. As much as he was George Best the iconic footballer, he was a nightmare."

What was he like as George Best the father?

"I could go on for days about that. Not a day goes past when I don't hear what a legend he was from everybody. I am proud of that. I love being his son. But he wasn't George Best the footballer to me. I had a dad who had a serious drink problem. There was good times of us going to the football and us talking about girls, but there were also dark times of me coming over at 15 years old and not knowing about his drink problem and having to go to the pub with him at eight o'clock in the morning.

"By then, he had been drinking for many, many years. So I think his brain was quite sick with the disease. He was very witty, he was a good man. But he had a serious drink problem and I had to deal with that side of him."

Did he ever say to you : 'Don't do as I do'?

He shakes his head. "We didn't have that kind of relationship." Isn't that kind of odd that he wasn't able to emote that?

He adds: "Well ... there were some very odd things about my old man. He was a very old-school Irish man. He wasn't very open in the 'I love yous' or any of that stuff. That's not me feeling sorry for myself in any shape or form.

"He didn't know how to open up. It wasn't his style to say what the problem was or to talk about what the problem was. All you could do with my dad was support him when he needed it."

There were crazy stories that would seem apocryphal and made up if Calum hadn't told me himself how true they are. The tale about him losing his virginity as a teenager to the flatmate of an ex-girlfriend of his father's is entertaining to read, but such stories must have been psychologically damaging to him in the long term.

"You are not wrong," Calum says. "I can laugh about it now, but when you think about it in hindsight – you think: 'Jesus, I was 15 years old, I had come over to see my old man, his ex-girlfriend at the time invited me to her house and I lost my virginity to a 35-year-old woman'. Those things can damage you, but this is not 'poor me'. I am doing this campaign to say: 'If you are someone that is alcohol-dependent, like my dad was, you have to think about the effects on your kids or your siblings or whatever it may be.' It gives me issues. I have definitely got some issues."

There is not a person in the world without issues, I say to him.

"That's why I don't want to sit here in this interview and say: 'God, poor me.' I am not a poor-me kind of person," he says. "I dealt with a lot of s**t, but then you move on."

He is candid enough to admit that he's still got some demons in there. Still, Calum is witty like his dad was. Ask him what goes through his mind when he is hungover, he has the perfect riposte: "Where can I get a fry-up?"

"Nothing too dark," he says, referring to hangover thoughts. "Maybe back then I was like that, when I was drinking to avoid things. But now I'm in the gym every single day. I eat well. There were times when I drank every night but I have never woken up craving a drink.

"Nowadays I barely drink at all. I am always going to be a bit of a bad boy. I'm quite rock 'n' roll as it is and I never want to shed that. I like to be healthy and my mind to be clear but, f**k it, I still enjoy a good time. Just as long as it doesn't get a hold of me."

"I'll never have a drink problem, ever," he adds.

Maybe not. But he perhaps has a woman problem. As Polly Vernon wrote in an Observer magazine profile in August 2008: "For seven years, shagging has defined Calum Best. Shagging has perpetuated his celebrity. Best has enjoyed celebrity shags (Lindsay Lohan and Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud), glamour-girl shags (Abi Titmuss, Rebecca Loos and Jodie Marsh, who rated Best's performance a seven out of 10, which isn't bad, when you consider she gave Westlife's Kian a meagre two out of 10). There have been shags characterised by hookers and cocaine and exposes in the red-tops, and there have been inter-celebrity outdoor shags, captured on closed-circuit TV cameras."

In person, he is a pretty sweet guy, honest to a fault, sometimes coming across like a little boy lost in the adult sweet shop.

One of Calum Best's most discussed relationships was with high-profile Irish model Georgia Salpa. It ended badly in September 2011, with Salpa telling the Sun newspaper that "I've dumped Calum" over allegations he cheated on her with former TV star Donna Air, who is now dating James Middleton, brother of the Duchess of Cambridge. "We're not in contact," he says now. "I wish her all the best. Bless her."

So how long was he with Georgia for? "I don't really want to talk about it."

Was it a month? A week? A year? "We hung out for a while. We were with each other for a good few months. We travelled around. We went to Jamaica together. We had a great time together. But it just didn't really work out, you know? Because I got caught cheating!"

Does he think his perception of his womanising father shaped his ability, or willingness, to commit to women in relationships?

"The thing is," Calum says. "I have been blessed in many ways, but I am still my own person. So, whatever reasons I have for being with girls and doing this and that are my own reasons."

He clams up visibly when I ask him did he have a last conversation with his father before he died. He says he is not here to talk about that. But was he able to resolve things with his father? "Yeah. You do what you can do with someone that is sick.

"The long and short of it is my dad had an illness and it screwed me up for a bit back then, and you could very easily go down the same road," he says.

I ask him, even though I know the answer, what age his father was when he had him.

"I don't know. That's a good question – 37 maybe? 38? I've still got some time. I'm still figuring my stuff out... but I'm in a good place now. I'm feeling good. Four, five years ago I wouldn't have been able to sit here having this conversation with you. I'd have been an absolute mess."

Would he like to be a dad himself one day? "When the time comes, it will be the right time," he says. Part of Calum Best coming in to the light, he says, was a few years ago, when his mother moved back to the UK from LA. "She was here to support me and she made me realise the good things and how I should change.

"As soon as I started to change, the BBC came to me and said they had a documentary Brought Up By Booze for Children In Need and they wanted me to be a part of it. I spent six months travelling around the UK meeting kids and meeting alcohol-dependent people and putting all these pieces together and trying to help people. The massive thing for me was finding out that there were places that they could go to and people they could talk to. Which I didn't know at the time."

He says he hasn't stopped drinking. "I still enjoy a drink and I am not going to say I don't. I still go out and enjoy myself. I have a real bad, addictive personality," he says. "I can't go out and just have a drink. That's why it has to be few and far between.

"If I go out it is a heavy session. I can't do that any more. I did that for years. I partied from 15 years old up until 24.

"These issues screwed me up for a while but the point of my story is: you can come out on top. You can make your story end well, which is what I'm doing, which is why I am doing this campaign."

Calum, who lives in Fulham on his own and is single, adds that he loves his mother "to bits and she loves me to bits".

Do you love yourself to bits? I say. I don't mean in an ego way but a way of actually liking himself.

"I know. I have still got some anxiety about what people think. I'm still nervous what people think of me... but I am happier than I have ever been now," says Calum, moving away from the shadows of his past, finally.

Life and loves of a legend

George Best was born on May 22, 1946 to Dickie and Anne Best and raised in the Cregagh area of east Belfast

He was discovered by a scout from Manchester United at the age of 15

He married Angela MacDonald-Janes in January 1978 in Las Vegas, and divorced in 1986. Son Calum was born in 1981

Best married model Alex Pursey in 1995, but they too divorced in 2004

He died in November 2005 from complications following a liver transplant. His ashes were interred at Roselawn Cemetery

Belfast Telegraph

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