Brian Clifford was a touch shaky. 'Look at me,' he said, holding out his hand. 'I'm like a bloody leaf.' Mr Clifford, a nervous man in his sixties ('I've got a bit of a heart') was, he hoped, about to meet his hero, George Best. Under his arm he carried a framed oil portrait of Best in full footballing flow, kicking a globe. It was titled George Best: the world at his feet.

'Nice job of work, eh?'

Mr Clifford was retiring and emigrating to Malta, and wanted to present the picture to Valletta branch of the Manchester United Supporters' Club. He had come to the Tameside Hippodrome in Ashton-under-Lyne, where the great man was due to appear in An Evening with George Best and Rodney Marsh, hoping to get it signed.

After a heart-stopping half-hour wait, Mr Clifford was ushered into a dressing room recently occupied by Derek Hatton, who had appeared at the theatre as King Rat in Dick Whittington. There was Best, relaxing with his girlfriend and a bottle of chilled chablis.

He was all charm. 'Ah, The Maltese Falcon,' he said. 'Sydney Greenstreet?' He made Brian's day with a flourish of his Papermate.

People still value Bestie's autograph. Last Saturday the queue at Manchester United's souvenir shop snaked round the block as fans lined up to buy signed copies of his latest video or his book. This is Best's career these days - trading in memories. His conversation is full of references to 'functions' or 'lunches' or 'after- dinners' that he has 'done'. The theatre tour, in which he and his old playing chum Marsh take questions from a paying audience, is an extension of his ability to deliver a handy anecdote about the old days and to be comfortable and easy with people.

And he needs the money.

'I was lucky back then, playing with United at their peak,' he said, after Mr Clifford had repaired for a calmer in the bar. 'I was earning about 800 quid a week when the average was about 20 quid. I won 26 grand one night gambling. This was the Sixties. If I fancied it, I would go out and buy an E-type Jag for cash.'

So where did it all go? Ripped off, apparently, sponged by parasites, pissed away through a live-for-the-moment attitude: if Bestie was director-general of the BBC, you can bet your Gary Lineker-endorsed boots he wouldn't put pounds 36,000 a year aside for a pension. How he must wish he had been cotton-woolled, kept from the press and agents, in the way Manchester United are protecting Ryan Giggs, 19, 'The New George Best'.

'The fact was I didn't need to be when I was Giggsie's age,' said Best, his eyes clear, sober and capable of holding the most examining of gazes. 'The press weren't as bad back then. That's what's going on with Giggsie. It's not that they don't trust him, they don't trust the press.'

But wasn't it George Best who single-handedly invented the notion of the footballer as pop star, a man whose life could hold interest beyond the sports pages? He set the trap and obliged everyone by falling into it. George's tragedy was not that he didn't fulfil his potential on the field - he won far more there than Gary Lineker, that model of career management. It was that he threw everything away in an undignified manner when he was at the very top.

Making a mess of one career, though, has its compensations. It has given him the material for a second career telling gags about how he buggered up the first.

'I'm lucky, I've found something that gives me a buzz. We did two great shows yesterday and felt really uplifted.

'What I am doing is certainly a lot better than getting up at seven in the morning cleaning windows, like some ex-players are doing. I don't think for a second that anyone who has played in front of 60,000 people can enjoy getting up and cleaning windows.'

Getting up and telling gags to 600 people is, apparently, different. And Best is handy at his new career. The first night of a short spring tour had been in London ('a lot of showbiz and media types,' said Marsh. 'Kenny Lynch was there'). In this Manchester suburb, back among the people who made him, Best was expecting things to be a little more down-to-earth. So was Marsh.

'I tell true-ish stories about London players, so I came a bit of a cropper in Sheffield this lunchtime,' said Marsh, who was wearing crocodile-skin loafers and white socks. 'But George, his stories have a flavour which transcends any geography, any demographics. I was astonished when the first show was a sell-out. Tickets were going on the black market. I thought, that's ridiculous. But then I heard George.'

Back in Ashton there was no need for a black market; the 1,200-seat theatre was no more than half full. But Best had them rocking with laughter from the off.

'I understand you're researching your autobiography, George,' said Gary Richardson, the compere.

'Yes,' said Best, taking the feed. 'And the publishers asked me to ask you lot if anyone has seen me in the last 25 years. You have? Well, could you tell me what the hell I've been doing?'

There followed a mock interview with Richardson in which Best meandered through his life. There was some talk of his football, but he came alive dealing with his other interests. His career as a lothario, for instance: 'I've had four Miss Worlds. Should have been seven, but I didn't turn up for three.' And as drinker: 'Did anyone see me on Terry Wogan? Yeah? I wish I had. After that show I got a call from Oliver Reed and Alex Higgins. They said, 'you looked all right to us'.'

Even his alcoholism has been neatly post-rationalised as a one-liner. 'I went through some terrible times. I'd been through years and years of treatments, shrinks, I had implants in my stomach to stop me drinking. Then one morning I woke up and I figured it all out. I like getting pissed.'

After a 45-minute routine, Best invited the audience to go and have a drink themselves and think of some questions. The second half of the show belonged to them. They could ask him and Marsh anything, anything at all.

Up in the bar, where Mr Clifford was leaning against the wall, eyes shut, breathing deeply, everyone agreed Best was value for money.

'I've not been to anything like this before,' said Graham, 39. 'But you know one thing, it's not going to be a boring night with George involved.'

These were typical Best worshippers: men whose childhood coincided with his golden era at Old Trafford.

'Oh aye, we thought the world of Bestie back then,' said Mark, 33. 'Me dad used to drive us out of a Sunday afternoon to have a look at that 'ouse 'ee 'ad built in Bramhall what looked like a bloody big toilet.'

Back in the theatre, fortified by a bevvy or two, the questions flew, middle-aged men fulfilling life-long ambitions to first-name their hero.

'I'd like to ask George,' said a man at the back sounding a ringer for The Word's Terry Christian, 'if he got more excitement scoring at Old Trafford or with Miss World.'

'Well,' came the answer after the laughter had died down. 'The goal lasted longer.'

After 45 minutes of banter, Gary Richardson asked the audience for a final question.

'George,' said a man at the front, 'would you give us your team of top footballing bevvy-ers?'

'Apart from me and Marshie here, you mean?' said Best. 'Well, I think Mooro would have been well insulted not to have been included in that one.'

Which, coming from a man who knows, was probably as heartfelt a tribute as any in the past week to Bobby Moore.

(Photograph omitted)