As Best struggled during the final hours of his life, Tommy Docherty was at work on the after-dinner circuit, speaking at a sporting dinner, organised by Luton Town. It was a scenario Best knew well, having done his own tours of the same hotels, halls and club rooms.
Predictably, the Doc was hilarious, insightful, sometimes lewd and, of course, passionate about the game. Unpredictably, he was reluctant to talk about the man whose career in the No 7 jersey at Old Trafford was brought to an end following a brief meeting in the manager's office more than 30 years ago.
"I'm not saying much because it is not for me. I was never privileged to manage George Best when he was at his best, but I was there when it all went wrong," said Docherty. "He was the greatest British player of all time, but I was the man who ended his days with Manchester United... You can say I have a lot of memories, some good, some not so good... That is why I am not saying much right now about George. But that is not to deny his talent, or that he was a great man. It is very sad."
Best, who made his debut for Manchester United in 1963-64, was in his 11th season with the club, not all of them complete by any measure, when his playing days at Old Trafford came to an end in a prolonged public process. Girlfriends, beauty queens, champagne, night-clubs and escapism rolled together into a blizzard of headlines that stretched the patience, and tolerance of not only Docherty, but nearly all at United. He was, too often, so inebriated that he could not train, let alone play, and his talent was being destroyed. Warning followed warning.
Docherty recalled those weeks and months with a grin and a shake of the head. "It was impossible," he said. "I wanted him to play. He was such a fantastic player. Anyone would want him to play, but he was never there when you needed him then. I remember we played an FA Cup tie, third round, against Plymouth Argyle, and I wanted George to play. He was down for the team. But when we got the ground, he wasn't there. We had the pre-match meal - no George."
Docherty shrugged. That match, on 5 January, 1974, in which United defeated then Third Division Plymouth 1-0, was the last for which Best was selected, even if his name was not on the sheet handed in before kick-off. To make matters worse, while the team were preparing for the game, with 20 minutes to go, there was a knock on the dressing-room door. When the door was opened, there stood George Best with a beautiful girl. "He was too drunk to play," recalled Docherty. "And there was nothing to be said. He wanted to play. I told him to report to my office to talk about it on Monday... and that was when his contract was terminated."
As a result, Best's last appearance for United was not even at Old Trafford, but at Queen's Park Rangers, in a 3-0 defeat at Loftus Road on New Year's Day, 1974. He was only 27. For Docherty, it was no laughing matter then and, to his credit, nor was it used as one on Thursday night.
Like everyone, the Doc knew the passing of George Best signalled the loss of Britain's greatest player of all.Reuse content