The Best of times

Lawrence Parker remembers George Best

Last weekend's media output was saturated with response to the death of footballer George Best. Even Tony Blair was wheeled out to mumble a few lines. As I have stated before in relation to the Ashes cricket contest of the summer, our modern culture is infused with a tension between a casual short-termism and anxiety about the future. Best, who flamboyantly pissed his talents up against a very big wall, is an obvious candidate to have his flair and foibles picked over. But there are other, deeper, messages at work. I can appreciate Best's prodigal talent on a football pitch. But then he was fundamentally associated with Manchester United. I support Aston Villa; therefore I can't stand United. Football is still about being partisan. But the media cannot countenance such conflict in its cosy world view. Therefore, we have Richard Williams in The Guardian writing: "When he scored one of his dazzling goals against your team, it was hard to stifle a cheer" (November 26). Crap. I have seen Thierry Henry of Arsenal score 'dazzling' goals against Villa. Post-match, I am happy to acknowledge them as such. But they made me feel miserable at the time because I didn't want Arsenal to win. At 5pm on Saturday, Radio Five Live was reporting on its news bulletins that football fans up and down the country had taken part in a minute's silence in remembrance of Best before the day's games (some grounds had a minute's standing ovation). Which was a very partial reading of the day, given that the normally idiosyncratic Five Live reporter, Stuart Hall, had been critical of the "moronic" Liverpool fans who had ruined the silence at Manchester City's ground; and after the reporter at Millwall versus Leeds expressed her "disappointment" at the Leeds supporters voicing their displeasure. No one should be surprised at these responses, given the depth of enmity Leeds and Liverpool fans have towards Manchester United. But the 'impartial' media cannot process this conflict, instead, castigating the "morons" to redraw its own consensus that everybody is upset at George Best's death - a consensus that simply does not exist in the partisan world of football. But it was impossible for working class football supporters not to reflect on some sort of loss in relation to Best, no matter which team they support. The footage that has been shown of Best in action brings to mind what football was to supporters in the 1960s and 1970s - a very different spectacle to what it is today. The impression we get is of football played on muddy, turning pitches, populated by thuggish central defenders not radically dissimilar to the big kids you were scared to tackle at school, and games enacted in front of swaying, joyous, singing masses of supporters crammed onto terraces. Without minimising its connotations of sexism, racism and homophobia, the football terrace was a key collective expression of working class culture in post-war Britain. When I began watching football in the 1970s, it was the terrace behind the goal that was the focus of the ground, and, on odd occasions, sometimes the dominant spectacle of the game itself. The more gentrified 'middle class' elements have always been present in British football grounds, but in the 1970s they tended to be a quiet minority, relegated to the dull seated areas, more interested in their packed lunches and leaving 10 minutes before the final whistle so they could miss the post-match traffic (and presumably catch the result on the car radio). Even watching footage of Best training on an inner-city training ground, dwarfed by high-rise council blocks and drinking a cup of tea with his landlady (who looks like everyone's favourite working class nan) enforces the message that football in the 1960s still belonged to working class people, even though its communal and workplace roots had already begun to be unpicked by deindustrialisation and greater mobility. Contrast this to now. Stadia in the top tiers of the game are all-seater. It is common for clubs to threaten action against supporters who stand up (that is, support their team) during matches. The gentrified elements are much more prominent (overwhelmingly so at clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United), since the repackaging of the 'premiership' as pure entertainment. Even though I would hazard a guess that most supporters are still drawn from working class backgrounds of average means, it is hard for groups of supporters to impose themselves physically on a football ground. For a start, you get your own ticket, defining you as an individual and then you are expected to sit down (and presumably shut up). You might meet your mates before a game in the pub, get a bit sloshed and sing a few rude songs. But, once in the ground, it is likely that the group will have to disperse to different parts of the stadium. With terraces, supporters could come as a group, leave as a group and those who liked a bit of vocal encouragement could easily congregate. But, lest we lapse into sentimentalism, the memories thrown up by Best's passing are also a useful means to sell this past (and hence, the contemporary game) to the more well-heeled elements drawn to football in latter years. They don't have any living history in relation to football, but can easily share this mythology of the past by just watching and listening. Indeed, Best (and other old pros) were and are key signifiers of this process when they line up on various football shows to extol the virtues of the modern game. Even though in Best's case this translated as rudderless sycophancy towards all things Manchester United. Now that I won't miss.