The end of the road: George Best 'enters his final hours'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

His genius was the purest British football has known and George Best's surgeon did all he could to convey that fact as he revealed yesterday that the legend's flickering flame was all but extinguished.

"I'm afraid Mr Best is coming to the end of the long road of his ill health," declared Professor Roger Williams outside Cromwell Hospital in west London where the Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend remained unconscious in intensive care last night. "I have to tell you his hours are numbered. He is in the final stages of this illness."

It was a declaration befitting the king which millions will always consider "Bestie" to be.

Professor Williams's palpable distress said much about the profound effect that Best has had on many of those around him, right to the end of his life. "My wife's a nurse and said she'd never seen a doctor shed tears ever until Georgie's did," said one of the many Manchester United faithful who posted their thoughts on the club's website. Other fans clung on to hope until the very end. "A true United legend in a time when that word is over-used," said one. "Just hope the doctors are wrong."

But they are not. Yesterday medical staff were no longer able to treat the internal bleeding which had spread to Best's lungs and was affecting other organs. "I am afraid he could die at any time over the next 24 hours," Professor Williamstold reporters at 12.50pm. "I would be very surprised if he survives another 24 hours."

Best seemed to be overcoming the latest of several relapses which occurred in the early hours of last Friday and left him dangerously ill. But he suffered another "very bad night" on Tuesday when he began suffering internal haemorrhaging which began affecting a number of his organs.

Staff at the Cromwell's intensive care unit were attempting to restore the lost blood through transfusions, but their efforts appeared hopeless. "The intensive care team and everybody concerned have managed to cope with pretty well all the complications, except the one that's happened again during [Tuesday] night which you know about - this bleeding which though it has been replaced, is now affecting the lungs and other parts," said Professor Williams.

"There is really no return from that situation. He has complications which we are not able to reverse, one never is able to reverse when that happens. It's just not possible to recover from that episode he had during the night and he is now facing." Best - who once defined his lifestyle in the immortal words: "I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars - the rest I just squandered" - has spent years fighting alcoholism, and underwent a liver transplant in 2002. He was urged to stay away from drink and give his liver a chance - but he could not. He was admitted to hospital on 1 October suffering from a flu-like infection, suffered a kidney infection, seemed to have beaten it, but then developed the lung infection and was put back on a ventilator in intensive care.

As a player, he scored 90 times for United between 1966 and 1971, most famously in the 1966 European Cup quarter-final against Benfica, with two goals which signalled his arrival on the international stage.

But Manchester, his adoptive city, preferred to reflect last night on the little pieces of Best mischief, rather than the goals. Some recalled the nutmeg he set out to achieve against Johan Cruyff for Ireland against Holland when the drink was taking its toll in 1971; others remembered the story he loved to tell of the bell boy who in the early Seventies entered his hotel room with breakfast, found him in bed with the current Miss World and a thousand pounds of cash won from a night's gambling and exclaimed: "George, George, where did it all go wrong?"

By contrast, the Manchester United corporate machine was strangely bereft of any Best memories. The United megastore had precious few reminders of him yesterday amid the Cristiano Ronaldo bronze statuettes and the new Wayne Rooney DVDs. None of the Best biographies was to be found amid those for old legends like Nobby Stiles, Bill Foulkes and Dennis Viollet. The only sign of Best was his fresh face grinning out of two club histories, The Treasures of Man United and 100 Years of United.

At Best's bedside were his son Calum, 24, father Dickie, 87, and other family members. Despite the days of preparation, they were devastated, according to Milan Mandaric, Best's good friend and chairman of Portsmouth Football Club, who joined them in mid-afternoon - to be followed by the Irishman's former teammates Denis Law and Bobby Charlton.

As he left the hospital, Mr Mandaric said: "What is a shame is that people who don't know George don't know what a great man he is. He's got a large heart."

Best carries a donor card and his organs will be used to help others live.

Asked how he felt, Professor Williams was close to tears as he replied: "I think we are all very upset." The liver specialist then went on television to criticise the introduction of 24-hour drinking. It reflected a society that was "falling apart," he said. "People will go in and start drinking earlier, drink larger amounts of alcohol and, because there is no closing time, go on and on."