I was standing at the bar, waiting for my order, when someone tapped my arm. I turned round to find George Best smiling at me. The fact that his eyes were on a level with my chin lessened their impact, but not much. His deep-blue eyes, by the way. I've had the argument so many times I'm sick of it, but now that the nation has seen in a thousand photographs those same eyes staring widely out of cavernous sockets, the only living things in George's wasted face, there can be no argument about their colour: deep, stormy ocean-blue. Many a drunk in many a pub from Enniskillen to Sydney has those heart-breaking Irish eyes.
George was speaking. Even when my ears weren't drumming I had to struggle to understand his Belfast-speak, delivered as usual very fast from behind his teeth. What he was saying was, I worked out: "Why d'ye not fancy me?"
"Not fancy you? Don't be ridiculous, George. Everybody fancies you."
"So why not you?"
"I do fancy you, George."
"So why d'ye do nothing about it?"
The year was 1968, George Best's annus mirabilis, the year Manchester United won the European Cup, and George was named European Footballer of the Year and English Footballer of the Year. The place was the Brown Bull in Chapel Street, Manchester, two minutes away from Granada where I was employed two days a week making a TV series with Kenny Everett. Kenny preferred a quiet night and all mod cons at the Piccadilly Hotel. I chose to risk assorted adventures in the shabbier purlieu of the Brown Bull.
One night I opened my bedroom door to find most of the Manchester United football team standing behind it with their fingers to their lips, because the police were downstairs. I sat on my bed, with footballers standing silent and immobile all around me, until we heard the police cars drive away and everyone went back downstairs, which is as near as I ever got to bedding an entire football team.
George wasn't there that time. George wasn't often seen out with the rest of the Man U team. George had his own team of mop-haired twentysomethings in designer suits, with nipped waists and wide lapels, high-collared shirts with double cuffs well-shot, and chelsea boots. They were involved in various ways in George's business ventures, hair salons, fashion outlets, car showrooms. I never knew whether they were spending his money or he was spending theirs. George was generous to a fault; there was nothing grasping about him. His hangers-on, mostly Mancunians, were altogether craftier.
"Because I'm not a fool, George. Every time you come in here you've got a different blonde on your arm."
Possibly because George was paying for the drinks, his courtiers were seldom accompanied by women, but George invariably displayed his latest trophy. I recognised some of the women he brought in and I was surprised that the boy could set his sights so high, but even the classiest of them would not be seen twice in his company. His team-mates had told me that George needed a wife and a couple of kids to settle him down.
George was just 22 years old.
There is a sentimental belief that Sir Matt Busby acted as a father to the lad, but I saw no sign of it. When George had been shipped out from Belfast like an Irish racehorse, at the age of 15, he had been left so frightened and lonely in his first two days that he ran away. When he got home, his father rang the club and got him shipped back again.
Even in 1968 George seemed to have no mates within the club. This may have been because he was arrogant and chippy and/or because the older and uglier men were jealous. Maybe it was just an impression, but it seemed to me that if the fans came after George for autographs, the rest of the team walked away, and signed different autographs for different people. It was as if George had one public and the club had another. The legendary threesome of Charlton-Law-Best was just that, legendary. I wasn't surprised when George didn't turn up for Sir Bobby's benefit. Bobby admitted recently he had been "hostile" to George.
The older men should have been smart enough to find a way of guiding the boy but, as far as I can see, they never really tried. So what if he was cheeky and insubordinate? That's what boys are, and that's what their elders and betters are meant to knock out of them.
George's problem was that he was just too good and they couldn't forgive him. He probably "disrespected" them, but teachers have to deal with worse cases of disrespect every day, maybe many times a day. If the men in charge at Old Trafford had taken their job seriously they would have made sure George Best didn't become alienated from the team, but they didn't. His development as a player had come to a dead halt long before Manchester United dropped him in 1974. He may have wasted his talent, but the club didn't help. It's typical of George that he never blamed anyone but himself.
I decided to tease George, if only because he was teasing me. "Besides, there's someone in the team I fancy more."
It worked. George was genuinely astounded. "Who? Who is it?"
George went right through the team: Alex Stepney? Tony Dunne? Billy Foulkes? Shay Brennan? Paddy Crerand? Bobby Charlton? Brian Kidd? John Aston? No to all of them. George was stumped.
"I'm not surprised you can't work it out," I said reprovingly. "He's been playing opposite you and you haven't even seen him yet, let alone passed him the ball." This was always my beef against George as a player. If he got the ball he kept it. He made the other players look bad (whereas Beckham makes them look good). Everyone who discusses his brilliance as a footballer talks about his amazing ball skills, his courage, balance, grace, speed and dexterity, his way of slipping through the defence and leaving the keeper standing. No one talks about Best's team play. As far as I could see, there was little of that. If there was a game plan, Best would be sure to disrupt it.
George eventually figured out who had taken my fancy and, typically, went out of his way to make sure we got a chance to get together, but that's a different story. I never did get to tell George how it turned out, and if I didn't tell him, there's not much point in telling anyone else.
One of my reasons for not entering into a flirtation with George was that, like other men I have known, George thought women were to be lied to, but if you were a mate, he was four-square. Because everyone else asked him for favours all the time, I never asked him for anything, until one day somebody begged me to get hold of tickets for a Manchester United Queen's Park Rangers game so he could take his little boy who was about to go into hospital for an operation. George told me to show up at at a hotel in Russell Square, where the tickets would be waiting for me at reception. When I got to the hotel the team had already left for the ground. The commissionaire eyed me with disdain.
"George Best has left you tickets for the game, you say," he sneered without budging from the doorway. "And why would George Best be doing that?"
"He said they'd be at reception. Could you go and look please?"
"There's nothing at reception," he said.
I was about to turn and go. It was only too likely that George had, after all, forgotten, but somehow I didn't think so. I pushed past the commissionaire, walked up to the desk, leant over and started looking for the left mail. This brought staff running, and a minute later I had an envelope in my hand with my name on it and three tickets inside.
There are a few people who could tell you this thoughtfulness was typical of George, but not many of them are women. His pattern of emotional and physical abuse of the women who shared his bed, together with a strong but mostly notional attachment to his mother beside whom he is to be buried, is depressingly familiar.
George was a genuinely hard man, but hardness results in fragility. His working-class Ulster-Scots upbringing afforded him no way of coming to terms with that fragility, except to deny it and order another round of drinks. Throughout his illness, he showed again and again that, though he would not conform, would not make even the slightest attempt to deserve his new liver, he would not complain either.
His was an unforgiving world and he was not about to ask forgiveness. No matter how far away he travelled, how much money he spent or how bright the sun shone, his soulscape remained as grim and narrow as the streets of the Cregagh estate.
Even in his moment of triumph I was concerned for George. Concern for George made me rug up on a cold dark October evening and risk the crowds at Old Trafford to see the second leg of the World Club Championship final against Estudiantes. I didn't follow football and I wouldn't have been a Manchester United supporter if I had, but I felt I couldn't stay away. The first leg had been vicious. Nobby Stiles, harassed from the time he set foot in Argentina, had been sent off, George had been virtually locked down and Man U had lost 1-0.
From the tense and almost silent kick-off it was clear Estudiantes were determined to put George out of action. For many long minutes George eluded bone-crushing tackles, skipping in and out, black hair flying, as huge defenders moved in on him in twos and even threes. Then, directly in front of me, Jose Hugo Medina turned, leant back then forward, and spat plentifully in George's face.
The response was so swift that I didn't see it, but there was no doubting Medina was flat on his back and that George's punch had put him there. Medina had to stay down for a bit before he could figure out that he and George had both been sent off for fighting. Ultimately the game was drawn, the cup was lost and I was left with a glimpse of just how tough it was to be George Best.
The last thing George would want is that people should feel sorry for him. All kinds of people are going to have their say about him, but by my reckoning he will have left more people better off for having known him than worse off. So, goodbye, George, and, again, thanks.