His glass held nothing stronger than mineral water with a dash of lime but only one glance was needed at the ranks of television cameras and telephoto lenses outside the Chequers Pub to get the message - George Best is drinking again.
The footballing genius, who 12 months ago had a liver transplant, knowing that otherwise he had weeks to live, was counting the cost yesterday of bringing three years of abstinence to a painfully public end after a weekend drinking binge that led to his arrest.
As his wife and friends made pleas via the media for the 57-year-old to seek help, Best returned to the Chequers, near Reigate, Surrey, where he was alleged to have been drinking during the past week. Alex Best, 31, said she believed her alcoholic husband was "on a mission to self-destruct" and claimed staff at the pub had served him during a succession of drinking sessions.
The former Manchester United star was arrested on Saturday afternoon on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm during a scuffle with a News of the World photographer at the pub, two miles from Best's home. He was later released without charge.
The incident, which within hours led to a large media contingent descending on the Chequers in the affluent village of Walton on the Hill, prompted claims yesterday from Best's family and friends that he was contrite and in need of help.
His agent, Phil Hughes, said: "George is obviously very remorseful. We need him to get help but it is only George who can help himself. This has happened for unknown reasons and we need him to settle down and face facts."
But as news of Best's misfortune appeared on the front page of the Sunday papers and television reporters speculated on his health, Best was in denial. Holding a glass of mineral water with lime as he mingled with lunchtime drinkers and shuffled packets of pills, he claimed coverage of his drinking had been distorted.
Visibly shaking, he said: "I am going to be around for a long time." His defiance was in sharp contrast to the pleas from Best's wife, who said the star had started drinking in the past 10 days while the couple were on holiday at a luxury resort in Corfu.
Shortly before the vacation Best had a minor operation to implant a new dose of a drug in his stomach that reacts violently and causes vomiting whenever it comes into contact with alcohol.
But Mr Hughes said the medication, Antabuse, had failed to have any deterrent effect. He said: "It was quite obvious as the week progressed that he had been drinking. He has been back down that pub every day. He has been drinking a lot of white wine and has not been sick once."
The landlord of the Chequers, Mark Noble-Campbell, denied he had served Best any alcohol during his visits.
The one-time idol, who now makes a living as a television football pundit and appeared with MPs last week to raise awareness of liver disease, is known to have been betting heavily in recent weeks and has lost up to £1,000. He announced last week that he was selling two awards, including his trophy for European Footballer of the Year in 1968, so he could have "money for me to enjoy".
The player had publicly vowed after his 10-hour transplant last July that he would never drink again after suffering a succession of illnesses caused by alcohol abuse. Doctors warned him at the time that a resumption of his drinking, which stopped in 2000, would have fatal consequences.
The transplant was at the private-sector Cromwell Hospital in London. Best paid for his room but the surgery was performed by the NHS, prompting criticism that the donated organ could have gone to a more deserving case. Mrs Best told The Mail on Sunday yesterday: "I know what people will say, that he has had this liver and has failed. I feel awful for the family of the person who died to save George. The last week has been hell. He has been on a mission to self- destruct and it is getting worse."
The main support group for transplant donors said Best's relapse was "regrettable" but said it had sympathy for his position. The British Organ Donor Society said: "There have been others who will have received a donor organ because of drinking only to fall back into old habits. They just don't do it under a media spotlight."
Mrs Best criticised managers of the Chequers, owned by the Young's brewery chain, for serving her husband during at least four visits last week, including one when she had seen him drinking a white wine spritzer. Mr Hughes added: "I would have thought a responsible person would refuse to serve George."
The Beer and Pub Association, which represents two thirds of pub owners, including Youngs, said it would review its guidelines on serving alcoholics. A spokesman said: "Clearly we will have to review what is covered during training and what guidance is given on this subject."
'RECIPIENTS GIVE NO GUARANTEES'
DESPITE THE constant battle to match a precious supply of organs with a long list of patients, the donation of a liver to an alcoholic comes with no guarantee that its recipient will lead a blameless existence.
Rules set by the National Health Service mean that the lifestyle of a recipient before surgery is central to whether they are placed on a waiting list. The rules also include a requirement that the patient has stopped drinking. But the law prevents surgeons from seeking a binding agreement from an alcoholic that they will never drink again.
According to John Buckels, a transplant surgeon from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, relapses account for less than 4 per cent of the average 700 liver transplants in Britain every year. He said: "We get an undertaking not to drink. It is not legally binding but the failure rate is very low."
Liver experts point out that less than 10 per cent of transplants in the UK are due to alcoholism.
But if a former alcoholic does start drinking again, his or her health is likely to deteriorate quickly. Mr Buckels said: "A transplanted liver is a lot more vulnerable to poisons or toxins. Damage to the liver can take place a lot more rapidly."
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