'None of us, in a culture that encouraged boozing, thought George had a problem'

Tributes
galore have been penned in the last week to George Best, the soccer
legend whose truly incredible life has provided more column inches than
Beckham and Rooney ever will.

The truth is that none of them were
around in Manchester in the ’60s and ’70s when George was more
accessible than any of today’s Premier League players, in spite of his
pop idol status.

I was one of a handful of reporters who followed
his every misdemeanour, doorstepped his digs, the clubs, the boutiques
and the lunchtime hangouts week in, week out.

And for a mad month
in 1974 I was George Best’s new best friend – or at least the guy who
held his hand while he appeared in court charged with stealing Miss
World’s fur coat and passport, and pouring champagne down the loo of
her swish London hotel.

I was working for The People when the
paper paid a then astonishing £20,000 for his life story. George was
living the playboy lifestyle in Manchester where his favourite pastime
was pulling the birds (George’s phrase)n who flocked to Slack Alice,
the trendy nightclub he co-owned in Manchester.

I’d haunted him
for five years as part of the Manchester press pack and I was dreading
the interviews. But George was his disarming and charming self.

“Forget it – we’re doing this now,” he said. And we got on like a house on fire.

He
was a great storyteller (for someone painted as shy and withdrawn in
many tribute pieces), witty, intelligent, gifted and garrulous. He made
the task of putting together 10,000 words easy.

George certainly
knew his value to the press. The People’s four-part series put up sales
by half a million, without the aid of a Max Clifford to put the spin on
the story. George did it all by himself, telling tall story after tall
story without pausing for breath.

On the night before George’s
appearance at Marleybone magistrates in April 1974 I was tasked with
minding him. We were out on the razz all night.

In court the next
morning a glassy-eyed Bestie listened non-plussed as his solicitor
successfully argued there was no case to answer on the theft charges.

“Drive,”
I yelled at the peak-capped driver as the pack descended outside the
court. The Roller roared off, taking the next left before I realised
we’d hijacked the local mayor’s car and our limo, with biographer
Michael Parkinson inside, was half a mile behind.

A whisky or two
from the bar of the second Roller and a bungled press conference later,
George was decanted on to a train for Manchester. Delivered safely to
Slack Alice, George had a nap before starting another bender that would
end at 2.30 in the morning, with half a dozen hacks from rival papers
running up huge expenses bills to no avail.

At that time none of
us, seasoned drinkers in a press culture that encouraged lunchtime
boozing (meeting contacts) a pint after work (de-stress from the
pressures of the day) and sessions at the Press Club (one for the
gutter) thought George had a problem.

I was running our newsdesk
when the newsflash came up on Sky that he’d died. George may have done
some bad things in life, but these days I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses.

The
title of his last autobiography, Blessed, sums it all up. He was
blessed – and some of us were blessed to know him, if only for a little
while.

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