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I WAS doing a sporting dinner up North with George Best. He rolled in, seemingly on top form. "He looks fine," I whispered to the Liverpool comedian who was closing the show.

"Of course he is," replied the comic. "He's always fine. We're the ones who've got to be bothered. We've got to work tonight. All he has to do is turn up. He's a legend."

And there you have it. George Best is one of that select band who have near global fame. Hundreds of millions of people around the world love football, and they all adore George Best. Or what they think is George Best.

Either the wizard of the 60s captured on grainy black and white film, or the twinkly-eyed terror who could drink a bar dry, bed all the women, and still be back next morning looking for more.

The reality of George Best is rather more complicated.

He was a great footballer, perhaps one of the finest handful ever to grace a pitch.

But as he himself has said, he was probably an alcoholic by the time he was 19, a legacy of his parenting.

And his career as a footballer was all but over at 25.

He was the James Dean of football, the dazzling comet snuffed out in his prime, except George of course was spared to live out a half life, half genius half monster, but always forgiven because he has never damaged anyone besides himself.

But his early departure from the pitch only added to the legend, because all too many heroes of that generation, paid a pittance, lingered on spiralling down through the leagues, still trying to scratch a living and revealing feet of clay in the process.

George didn't do that.

Even his comebacks at funny places like Fulham had glamour.

And in the folk memory of millions George's feet are always of burnished gold, and constantly in motion, hopping and skipping goalward however mucky the pitch.

There's a streak of self-indulgence in all of us, only with George it's a disease.

The last 30 years have been marked out by newspaper stories about his battles against the booze - from chemicals that made him sick whenever he raised a glass, to marbles or some such thing sewed into his stomach. None of them were any more effective at deflecting George's will than the goalkeepers who faced him in his prime, because I don't think George ever wanted to beat the bottle.

Till now, I hope, because cirrhosis is a more merciless opponent than any defender.

I've seen George working the halls when totally boozed up. I've cringed for his delightful wife as even the hulking drinking men in the room were stunned by the grossness of his comments about her.

But then, there was always a moment, however well rehearsed, when with a twinkle in his eye, he would say something completely irresistible, that would make you love him despite it all.

If I thought I would never again experience the extraordinary emotion his presence at almost any event engenders, even when he's barely capable of making it to the top table, I would be desperately sad.

In George Best talent and charm meet in a perfect conjunction, so irresistible it can survive even an Atlantic Ocean of alcohol.

And that is why my thoughts are with him today, and I hope yours are too.

-Man of People - Page 25
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Author:Mellor, David
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Mar 12, 2000
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