Football genius who dribbled away his talent in bars

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The Independent Online

Triumph and disaster touched the life of George Best in almost equal measure.

Widely regarded as the most talented footballer that Britain has produced, he seemed to turn his back on his own great gifts, his footsteps leading him to heavy drinking and prison.

The wayward sporting genius who was one of Manchester United's most famous names and British football's first superstar quit the game when he should have enjoyed years more at the top.

He was the despair of his family, friends and doctors as he continued heavy drinking after a liver transplant, despite regular warnings that he was drinking himself into the grave.

Famed for spending his nights propping up the bar at nightclubs and leaving in the early hours with beautiful blondes on his arm, he walked out of top class football in 1972.

He appeared for a number of clubs on both sides of the Atlantic over the next 11 years before finally hanging up his boots but became better known for his unpredictability and battle with the bottle.

In later years he worked as a soccer pundit on TV, married a second time and wound up embroiled in controversy for apparently defending wife-beating.

The darkly handsome Irishman grew up in the harsh background of Belfast, dribbling a tennis ball around the streets as he honed his astonishing skills.

He joined Manchester United as a 15-year-old after a scout telegrammed manager Sir Matt Busby with the message: "I think I've found a genius."

He was 17, with feet as deft as a pickpocket's hands, when he made his First Division debut for United against West Bromwich Albion in September 1963.

His father Dick was an iron turner in the Harland and Wolff shipyard. His mother Ann, who had once played hockey for her country, drank herself to death four years after her son's final exit from United.

The boy from the Cregagh council estate in East Belfast won a grammar school place, but lost it for truancy. He was too busy mastering the skills which would make him world-famous.

He was playing for Cregagh boys' club when spotted by Manchester United's scout in Northern Ireland, Bob Bishop.

Offered a two-week trial, Best quit after two days, homesick, and was only lured back reluctantly when Sir Matt telephoned his father.

It was July 1961, three years after the Munich air crash in which eight of the famed "Busby Babes" team had died. Sir Matt, almost killed in the disaster, still dreamed of winning the European Cup and Best would help deliver it.

After two years in youth teams, Best entered First Division football alongside Denis Law, Pat Crerand and Bobby Charlton.

At a time when English football was geared to power-game theory - about speed, strength and physical fitness - Best beat men twice his size with a bewildering repertoire of feints and swerves, sudden stops and demoralising spurts.

Hard men he would taunt like a bullfighter. Others he would humiliate by "nutmegging" - flicking the ball between their legs. He would do 180-degree turns by swivelling on his ankles.

He hit the big time at once, exploding on to the scene at the same time as the Beatles went to number one.

He boosted the box office by 15,000 and became known - perhaps inevitably - as the fifth Beatle.

He had good looks, long hair, unlimited money, a white Jaguar and legions of adoring fans.

He was the first football equivalent of a pop star and a key symbol of the Swinging Sixties.

The George Best Fan Club had branches in Moscow and Tokyo. Whoever he dated, whichever discotheque he patronised, made the gossip columns.

Outside his two boutiques in Manchester, a continual guard of mini-skirted girls would wait for him to appear so they could go weak at the knees. For his parents, he bought a fish and chip shop in Belfast.

The most he ever earned from United as a player was just over £11,000 a year, but merchandising and newspaper syndication rights tripled that figure.

A sports agent set up George Best Associates and George Best Enterprises. His name appeared on everything from plastic footballs to pop posters, cosmetics, men's clothes and chewing gum packets.

On the field, he continued to dazzle. He helped United win the League title in 1965 and 1967 and a year later picked up the English and European footballer of the year awards as United became the first English team to win the European Cup, Best scoring in the 4-1 triumph over Benfica at Wembley.

The team, which also featured Charlton and Law, was one of the greatest English club sides ever.

Sir Matt paid tribute to Best, saying: "Best was gifted with more individual ability than I have ever seen in any other player. He was always able to use either foot - sometimes he seemed to have six.

"His heading was devastating, and he had more ways of beating a player than anyone I have ever seen."

Drinking and late nights started from the very beginning but by 1969/70 the public was becoming aware that the star player was only operating at 75% efficiency.

He reportedly dated his drinking problems from the time the great United team of which he was part began to decline.

Others say he was inclined to drink heavily without it affecting his play some time before.

In 1970 he scored six goals in an FA Cup fifth round tie at Northampton, but there were signs of impending trouble as he was sent off while playing for Northern Ireland against Scotland in Belfast for throwing mud at the referee.

Sir Matt and coach Wilf McGuinness were less than delighted when Best explained in a newspaper interview: "I've been playing badly for a couple of months now, due mostly to late nights and drink... I was fed-up with everything and everyone around me."

In January 1971, he turned up 90 minutes late for an appearance before the FA Disciplinary Commission which fined him a record £250 for three cautions for misconduct. He had arranged to travel with Sir Matt to London but missed the train.

Four days later, he missed the train taking his team to London to play Chelsea and spent the weekend with actress Sinead Cusack, besieged by journalists and television crews. United ordered a two-week suspension.

Also in 1971, Manchester appointed Sir Matt a director and brought in Frank O'Farrell as manager. Best briefly declared a truce with alcohol until a series of threats against his life, allegedly from the IRA, triggered a spectacular decline.

Late-night drinking and missed training sessions culminated in a much publicised weekend with Miss Great Britain Carolyn Moore.

In May 1972, having been ordered to leave his bachelor pad and return to the care of landlady Mary Fullaway, Best flew to Spain and declared he was finished with football for good.

The House of Commons discussed the saga under a motion tabled "The Best is the enemy of the good". After four months in Spain, he was allowed to return to United on condition he went to live with Pat Crerand and saw a psychiatrist.

In December 1972, the club placed him on the transfer list. He had missed more training sessions and been found guilty of breaking the nose of a girl in a nightclub brawl.

Days later, on the brink of relegation, United directors sacked both O'Farrell and Best. Sir Matt told the press: "We want to get him out of our hair. We are at the end of our tether."

Best was lured to Canada by the North American Football League, but Tommy Docherty persuaded him into one more comeback at United nine months later.

The end came when he missed a midweek training session and walked out after being dropped for a New Year's Day match at Loftus Road, home of Queen's Park Rangers. When the crowds had gone, he sat in the stands for 20 minutes, wept and walked away.

Later, he would say: "I wish I hadn't done it. But I don't regret walking out on Tommy Docherty."

His wax figure at Madame Tussaud's was melted down and his fan club disbanded.

In a sense he was undone by the pop culture phenomenon he in part helped to create. He once said: "Nobody could protect me, advise me. They didn't know how to. It hadn't happened to a footballer before.

"All of a sudden I had to employ three full-time secretaries just to answer the 10,000 letters a week."

When he should have been at his peak, Best crossed the Atlantic and one of his finest goals was scored for the San Jose Earthquakes.

He went to America in 1975 and stayed until 1982, combining his football-playing commitments in Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and San Jose with spells on this side of the Atlantic with Fulham, Bournemouth and Hibernian in Edinburgh.

In 1977, he made the last of 37 international appearances for Northern Ireland against Holland in Belfast.

His talent, though, was suffering from premature erosion and the drinking became cataclysmic.

He was in LA when his mother died of drink in 1978.

In California, the birth of his son Calum and an arrest for drink-driving led him to try the first of many cures. But Best ignored all warnings. He was never one for taking good advice.

A surgical cure in Norway involving implanting drug pellets in his stomach. The pellets react to alcohol and he was warned: "A drinking spree could kill you."

Three months later, he was back on the bottle.

When he returned to Britain in 1982 after his season with the San Jose Earthquakes, he was met with a tax bill for £16,000. He offered £10,000 immediately and the rest in six months, but was told that was not acceptable. The result was a 10-year wrangle that, with compound interest, cost him more than £60,000 to settle.

In 1984, he served two months of a 12-week jail term for drink-driving and assault on police.

Four years later, with the help of £75,708 raised by a testimonial match, Best began to emerge from the shadow of bankruptcy. A 25,000 crowd, the largest in Belfast for 20 years, braved persistent rain to pay homage.

He had regular media work as a soccer pundit, but caused a storm in October 1990 by spouting a string of obscenities on Terry Wogan's TV show. He said next day that the BBC had plied him with champagne for two hours before his sozzled outburst.

In 1992, the mammoth maw of the Inland Revenue, which Best said he feared would consume him for the rest of his life, was satisfied and the bankruptcy discharged. He celebrated with a glass of champagne at Langan's Bistro in Mayfair.

He was married twice - in the late 1970s to Angie MacDonald James, then in 1995 to air hostess Alex Pursey, 26 years his junior.

But illness was once again to strike Best. In 2000 he was treated for a liver complaint at the Cromwell Hospital in west London.

He later made a television pledge never to drink again in an interview for the Tonight programme on ITV.

Those health problems resurfaced when the film about his life, called Best, was premiered in London.

But despite appearing determined to beat the booze, Best once again returned to alcohol after an argument with his wife.

That prompted Professor Roger Williams, who treated Best earlier in the year, to criticise people who continued to serve the former footballer with drink.

Best underwent a liver transplant in 2002, after waiting months for a suitable organ.

The months before the operation as he waited, virtually by the telephone, were harrowing. But, for the first time in his chequered life, he appeared to be heeding the dire warnings of his medical advisers that if he continued to drink it would kill him.

He made a slow recovery from the operation, having to return to hospital once when the new organ showed initial signs of rejection and he quickly restored his impish sense of humour.

But in July 2003, he appeared to go off the rails and started to drink again, to the frustration and fury of his wife Alex.

In August reports claimed that Best had been seeing Paula Shapland and that he planned to leave his wife of eight years.

Ultimately Alex left him after more violent rows, while Best showed no sign of giving up drinking. By now, 2004, he seemed totally incapable of listening to the dire warnings continually being drummed in his ears by doctors and friends alike.

Some of his friends were saying that he almost had a death wish. But the truth was that he was too addicted to pay any attention to those who had his best interests at heart.

He was banned from driving for 20 months and fined £1,500 in February of that year after admitting in court to driving while almost two and a half times over the legal limit.

On 14 April last year, Alex divorced him on the grounds of admitted adultery with another woman. She said she found Best in the bed of that woman at her home and that he was becoming "intolerable" to live with.

In June, Best was once again making his life complicated, expressing his love for a married woman, Ros Hollidge.

During a revealing television interview about his marriage to Alex, Best admitted his yearning to be looked after.

He said: "We had seven or eight years together that were wonderful. I was very ill for almost three years and she was terrific, she looked after me.

"And then when I got health, I don't know, she just seemed to lose interest and she didn't want to know."

He added: "I like being one of the boys and having a game of pool but at the end of night I don't want to go to bed on my own and you can't always have that."

During the year which followed the collapse of his marriage, he cut an increasingly shambolic figure.

In June last year he was evicted from the Forest Mere health farm in Hampshire, which had been his home for two years. In the same month he was spotted with two black eyes allegedly inflicted by Ms Hollidge.

In July this year he attracted yet more unfavourable headlines when he faced unfounded allegations that he hit a woman and sexually assaulted a girl under the age of 13. He was questioned by police but they took no further action.

But for all the controversy that surrounded him, his views on football were still respected and listened to. He championed bringing Rangers and Celtic into the English Premier League in February this year and claimed Sven-Goran Eriksson should be sacked after his beloved Northern Ireland beat England 1-0 in September.

At the beginning of October, he was admitted to the intensive care unit of the Cromwell Hospital with flu-like symptoms and was said to be suffering from an infection.

Over the years his name was linked with beauties including Sir John Mills's daughter Juliet, actress Annette Andre, singer Lynsey de Paul and Bruce Forsyth's daughter Debbie.

Not to mention four Miss Worlds. As Best used to quip: "They say I slept with seven Miss Worlds. I didn't - it was only four. I didn't turn up for the other three."

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