George Best: A last, tiny act of defiance - then the inevitable came

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Those who remembered the effortless miracles George Best once worked on the football pitch had been clinging to hopes of another off it. But, in the final reckoning, his surgeon knew better.

At 12.55pm yesterday, 24 hours and five minutes after Professor Roger Williams had given football's purest genius one more day of life at the most, Best lost his last battle. Those five minutes were the last act of defiance in an extraordinary life.

Professor Roger Williams' candour about Best's proximity to "the end of the long road of his ill health" had barely begun to prepare the family of Manchester United's finest for the grief they would encounter when he finally reached it.

First to emerge from the Cromwell Hospital in west London was 86-year-old Dickie Best, who had passed the night helplessly watching his 59-year-old son fade away. But it was left to Best's 24-year-old son Calum to deliver the news. He placed a hand on his grandfather's shoulder before declaring, in a voice cracked with grief: "My father has passed away. Not only have I lost my dad but we have all lost a wonderful man.''

A woman in a crowd of hundreds shouted: "God bless you Calum, your father was a wonderful man."

Best's sister, Barbara McNarry, struggled to suppress her own grief after stepping forward from a group that included his three other sisters and his brother. "As you can imagine, this is a very difficult time so you will understand if we ...", she said before her spirit broke, "... are a bit emotional."

But the man who found it too much to endure was Phil Hughes, Best's agent and confidant, who was visibly crushed as Best's family spoke and who wept when Mrs McNarry paid tribute to his role as "nothing but a firm friend" to Best for 25 years.

"He has gone somewhere now where no one can hurt him any more," said Mr Hughes. "He is safe now."

Denis Law, Best's former Manchester United teammate paid his own, articulate tribute outside the hospital where he, too, had spent the night. "It was just a matter of time," he said. "It was not 'if', it was 'when' that things would not go right and, in the long run, knowing him for such a long time, it is the best thing that could have happened to him because he would have been slightly like a vegetable and he would not have liked that. It is awful to say sometimes but it was a blessing."

Had Best "loved life"? Law was asked. To which he laughed. "He certainly did, yes. We won't go into that too far." Best might have disappointed those who, after his liver transplant three years ago, urged him to give up the booze. But his medical team evidently adored him, for all those failings. Dr Akeel Alisa described him as "delightful to look after." He was "very brave, a fighter to the end".

Best, 59, was admitted to the Cromwell Hospital on 1 October with flu-like symptoms and soon developed a kidney infection. Particularly susceptible to infection because of medication he needed after the transplant, he deteriorated sharply last Friday with the development of a lung infection that led to internal bleeding.

He will be buried beside his mother, Ann, in the Castlereagh hills above east Belfast - probably in a week's time.

Best's second wife, Alex, who left him after losing her fight to get him off alcohol, said in a statement: "George was the love of my life. He was a unique and talented person who made a lot of people very happy."

Prime Minister Tony Blair also joined tributes to the man he called "probably the most naturally gifted footballer of his generation, one of the greatest footballers the UK has ever produced". Sir Bobby Charlton said his former Manchester United team-mate had " enriched the lives of everyone who saw him play". He said: "I have lost a dear friend. He was a marvellous person."

For all Best's goals in a United shirt, Manchester's memories of him are about his cheeky charm. Alan Gowling, a former teammate, recalled thanking Best for delivering the cross from which he mishit a debut goal past Gordon Banks in the 1970s. "He told me, 'you were meant to head it, not kick it!" said Gowling.