Monday, July 07, 2008

Book Review: Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion by Gordon Burn

Duncan Edwards and George Best. Entwined in Manchester United’s history and mythology. Separated by only a few years, they may as well have been from different worlds.

Edwards, the man child, the phenomenal athlete who would run all day for Matt Busby and who stood to conquer the world. Best, a man child in a very different way, the prodigy who did conquer the world.

One life snubbed out on a snowy Munich runway. One life snubbed out by an inability to cope with a world that his talent had created.

Edwards was the epitome of a lost breed of footballer: he trained and he played to a phenomenal level. But when he was done he went home, went to the cinema, shyly courted a girl.

Best provided the blueprint for every player who has ever had the world at his feet and then pissed it all away.

Burn brilliantly examines their backgrounds, their motivation and their character. Bobby Charlton overshadows the book: sensible, dull Bobby, forever dealing with survivor guilt, battling to keep Big Dunc’s memory alive as Best created a new reality for footballers that Charlton could never understand.

Matt Busby is here to, more complex than the genial patrician of United legend, looking on them both as sons. And never understanding how he had lost them both.

Burn comes to grips with immortality: Edwards, still talked about in hushed tones, but remembered in the name of a boarded up pub that attracts nothing but junkies. And Best, remembered in full technicolour, but also as a gaunt, broke drunk who took every second chance and flung it away on booze and birds.

In their own ways Edwards and Best created the Manchester United we know today. They also created the idea of a modern footballer. One was left to go blameless into eternity. The other was left to kill himself.

Burn transports us back to Manchester in the late fifties when Edwards ruled the roost in a quiet understated way, full of optimism but level headed to the end. And then to the 1960’s when Best, always too complex to enjoy optimism, turned the professional dream that Edwards had into something squalid and dirty. Faced with the twin temptations of football and celebrity Best chose the latter. When he crossed that line the end was as inevitable as it was painful.

Burn handles all this expertly. We end up with a study of the nature of fame and celebrity. Munich denied Edwards the chance to live with celebrity. Charlton survived and chose the route he thought best honoured Edwards. Best chose the route that brought him adulation, the route that a hundred reality TV stars dream of. It was a life that Duncan Edwards could never have imagined and a life that George Best could never escape.