Best of times, worst of times

TRIUMPH and disaster has touched the life of George Best in almost equal measure. Widely regarded as one of the world’s most talented footballers, he seemed to turn his back on his own great gifts, his footsteps leading him to heavy drinking and prison.

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 the footballer quiped: "They say I slept with seven Miss Worlds. I didn't it was only four I didn't turn up for the other three."

Best grew up in Belfast, dribbling a tennis ball around the streets as he honed his astonishing skills.

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.

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 when he made his First Division debut for United against West Bromwich Albion in September, 1963.

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", or 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.

The most he ever earned from United as a player was just over £11,000 (€16,157) 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.

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 Bobby Charlton and Denis 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."

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

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.

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.

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.

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 George Best.

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."

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 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.

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

In California, the birth of his son Calum and an arrest for drunk driving led him to try the first of many cures. But Best ignored all warnings.

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 ten-year wrangle that 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 him homage.

In 1990 he caused a storm by spouting a string of obscenities on Terry Wogan's TV show. He said the 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 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.

In the year 2000 he was treated for a liver complaint at the Cromwell Hospital in West London.

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

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.

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.

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

In August reports claimed that Best had been seeing blonde Paula Shapland.

Ultimately Alex left him after more violent rows, while Best showed no sign of giving up drinking.

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.

Finally, on April 14, 2004, 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 the year which followed his the collapse of his marriage he cut an increasingly shambolic figure. In June 2004 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.

Last July 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.

At the beginning of the month 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.

Last night he was fighting for his life in intensive care, sedated and on a life support machine.

But Best, as he has throughout his life was "still fighting away", according to doctors.

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