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The Best clan at war: The legend, the father, the man

Tonight’s Story of a Lifetime with Stephen Nolan, on BBC NI, reveals the bitter split at the heart of the football legend’s family

By Ivan Little

Calum Best has never had the closest of Waltons-style relationships with the rest of his father George's relatives. The rift between the Los Angeles and Belfast sides of the Best family has been painfully apparent to insiders for years.

And since George's death after suffering multiple organ failure in November 2005 the divisions over the Manchester United icon have widened and there's even been a court case over libel allegations.

But now the bitter feud has exploded like never before into the public domain in a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary about Calum's life - a programme which sees George's son, his sister Barbara McNarry and his ex-wife Angie involved in a war of words over one of the world's greatest ever footballers. And just as it's easy for millions to enjoy DVDs of George, in full majestic flight giving hapless defenders the slip for his club and for Northern Ireland, it's hard to watch his loved ones' angry claims and counter-claims in interviews with Stephen Nolan in tonight's Story of a Lifetime programme.

Calum, who's 33 and sports a bushy beard in the programme, pulls no punches. "He was there as a footballer; he was there as a legend but as a father he didn't play a role because my dad wasn't a f****** good dad," he says, adding that all he wanted was to be loved and for George to tell him he was proud of him but he doesn't remember it ever happening. "The hardest part was losing my dad and losing my dad in the public eye and my dad being loved by so many but not loving me," he says.

"We didn't have an 'I love you' relationship. I think that's because he was an old school Irishman who didn't know how to show emotions, but I'm sure there's lots of old school Irishmen out there that tell their kids they love them."

Calum's mother Angie is even more trenchant, with a vitriolic attack on her former husband who she says in sobriety was the best-looking, sweetest, kindest, most generous, intelligent, humorous man on earth, but she adds: "When he's drunk, he's the ugliest, most violent - he's a liar, he's deceitful, he's manipulative, and he's aggressive. Calum only ever knew a drunk father."

Angie's onslaught has clearly infuriated her one-time sister-in-law Barbara, who defends her brother against what she says are the "horrendous comments". She says she's been hurt and adds: "I think it's shocking."

When Nolan puts it to her that George probably wasn't the best father in the world, she replies: "How many times do we have to hear this same old, same old. It's just making out that George was a horrible man and he wasn't a horrible man. I'm not saying he was perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Everybody knows George's history, his background. His problems with alcohol have been well-documented and debated and dissected ad nauseam.

"But I just thought - why do we have to hear this all again? Why can we just not let George go? George may not have been the best father in the world. He probably wasn't the best son or brother in the world, but he was what he was and people just have to accept him, warts and all."

Calum is filmed returning to Stormont and to the Cregagh estate where thousands of people gathered in the rain to pay their last respects to his father at his funeral. "If there's a way to be sent off, that's the way to be sent off," he says.

But while he reflects that even George would have been surprised by the admiration in which he was held in Belfast, darker memories of that day still clearly haunt Calum.

He says he had to organise his own taxi to take him and his mother in the cortege and Angie wasn't allowed into the Best home in Burren Way. "I broke down in tears when I was told my mum couldn't come in and pay her respects," he says.

Barbara counters that the only mourners in the house were the people who were around George's hospital bed when he died. "If that's the way that Calum wants to interpret it - that his mother wasn't allowed into the house - so be it. But Angie Best wasn't top of my priority list, my father was," says Barbara, who also refutes Calum's claim that he didn't receive any of his father's possessions after his passing. He says he would love to have his original pair of football boots to pass on to his children.

And Barbara McNarry says that to outsiders, the way Calum portrays the situation does seem bizarre, cold and callous.

"In actual fact, he does have something," says Barbara. "He got his father's very good watch that he left him."

She says that when she heard she was going to be the sole beneficiary of her brother's will, she knew there would be trouble.

"They were five long, difficult, emotionally draining and expensive years trying to get George's estate settled because of liabilities and I wasn't in a position to give Calum anything. I owned absolutely nothing."

After the death of George's father Dickie, he left instructions that all of his son's memorabilia in his possession should be sold. And Barbara bought them.

When asked what Calum chose to buy she replies: "Nothing."

Nolan asserts that George Best's death set the wheels in motion for his son's spiral into self-destruction.

Calum says that drinking was the only way he could "deal with my demons" and that on the night of the funeral he went "on the razz" in Belfast where snooker star Alex Higgins walked into the pub.

"Out of all the wingmen I could have picked for that day!" he laughs, adding however that parts of his life have been lived in a "constant blur of sex, drugs and rock and roll".

The famous son of a famous alcoholic talks of drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels every night, claiming that he never realised that the very same addiction which ultimately killed his father might be putting his own life in danger. And he tells Nolan to "f*** off" when he challenges him on the point.

"I don't know. I don't have a f****** answer for you," he snaps, adding that he was never an alcoholic and didn't crave a drink during the day, only drinking at night "to get girls, to get p***** and forget about the situation".

Calum says he'd always been desperate to be George's friend as well as his son, trying to keep him as happy as possible.

He recalls on one occasion getting a call from George, who said: "Bestie, I'm in a bad way. Come and see me."

He says he was elated that his father wanted to spend time with him and he went to join him in a pub on London's Fulham Road. But the laughs and the banter stopped when Calum accidentally broke George's glasses.

"He switched. He totally turned on me," says Calum, adding that George called him a "piece of s***", before storming off.

Calum says: "Every story I have about my dad has a bad side to it. It's so sad, it's so unfortunate but that is the case."

George's ex-wife Angie says: "He hates his father for what he has done to him. He loves his father as a father but he let him down so badly, he hates and you can't blame him."

Just before he died George urged people to remember him for his football. But an emotional Angie says: "Sod off. Look at the damage you've done you selfish bugger."

Barbara McNarry insists George was a good man. "The George that I knew was seriously funny, extremely intelligent and generous to a fault."

She says she never saw George behaving aggressively when he had alcohol taken. "I did see him agitated. I'm not trying to sweep his problems under the carpet but we discussed them time and time again. I really do want to remember him for his good points."

Barbara says she doesn't bear Calum any ill will but adds: "I just wish he would stop casting such desperate aspersions on his father's character. He really does paint the most awful picture of his father especially at this time of his anniversary. I think it's just sad."

At one point Barbara says: "If he's wanting to live up to his father, then stop bad-mouthing his father. Have a little bit more respect for your father's memory please."

Calum says he wishes things could have been different and if George hadn't been dependent on alcohol and so ill he thinks he would loved to have had a son.

"He would have been a great dad because when we had our good moments they were great moments. When we kicked a ball; when we laughed at United; when we ate Chinese and he showed me how to roll a crispy duck wrap - those are the memories I cherish."

Angie Best says George's infamous drunken appearance on the Terry Wogan show in 1990 made her realise she didn't want her son growing up watching her father's decline and she took him back to California.

She says she'd previously lived with the vain hope that George would see his "beautiful" child growing up and maybe one day say "I gotta sober up" for his son's sake. Back in the USA, few people knew about Calum's father but Angie says she encouraged him to keep in touch with his father and when George became ill, he went to live in London. "I wanted to get to know this man that I didn't really know," he says.

He also got to know life in the spotlight where, though he was modelling, his only real claim to fame was that he was George Best's son.

He talks of how he was advised not to get sucked into the nightlife and he assured people that he wouldn't. But he did. "I was lonely. I liked being around people, especially around girls at the time."

The drink and the girls weren't the only temptations and he accepted invitations to star-studded opening nights.

He also took drugs and thought he could handle cocaine with ease.

He was constantly appearing on the front pages of the tabloids with a succession of beautiful women on his arm and he admits that the attention gave him a buzz. "Who wouldn't?" he asks. "I liked the surroundings. I liked the high life. I liked the nightlife. I liked making a bit of money and spending a bit of money. It was good."

He talks of having loved the way doors opened for him just because he was who he was but he says he became gripped by insecurity.

And as time went on, the headlines grew ever more lurid. "When I f***** up people knew about it."

Nolan recounts how Calum was described in the red tops as a "serial s******" but wonders if he'd ever fallen in love.

"No, I've never been in love," he says, adding that people might blame commitment issues in his past.

But the Calum Best of today isn't the Calum Best of yesteryear, he says.

"I sit on this couch by myself every night with my dog, cook myself dinner and watch television. I want nothing more than to be loved."

Calum, who's trying to re-launch his modelling career as well as a new fragrance, says he believes he has now emerged from his father's shadow. But it's been a long journey.

He says: "Since he passed, I've been through some highs and some lows and now I feel on top of the world.

"My mind's right. My business is good.

"I am myself. I never have said, 'I'm George Best's son.'

"Everybody else does that ..."

A legend, on and off the pitch

  • Born in 1946, George was the first child of Dickie (who died in 2008) and Anne Best (who died in 1978). He was raised in the Cregagh area of east Belfast
  • At the age of 15, his talents were discovered by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop, whose now legendary telegram to then team manager Matt Busby read: “I think I’ve found you a genius.”
  • He made his First Division debut for the club at the age of 17 and by the end of the 1963–64 season he had made 26 appearances, and scored six goals
  • He gained superstar status at 19 after scoring two goals in a European Cup quarter-final match against Portuguese team Benfica
  • Unexpectedly he quit United in 1974 at the age of 27, but played for a number of clubs around the world before finally retiring in 1983, at the age of 37
  • He became famed as much for his antics off the pitch, frequenting nightclubs and enjoying the company of numerous celebrities of the day. His chronic alcoholism was to get the better of him, however, and ultimately led to his death in 2005 at the age of 59
  • He was married twice, to two ex-model, Angie Best — with whom he had son Calum — and former air hostess Alex Best

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