Criticism grows of Best liver decision

THE decision to grant George Best a liver transplant was criticised again yesterday with news that the football legend has returned to drinking.

The former Manchester United and Northern Ireland star, who vowed never to drink again after the life-saving operation last year, was yesterday back in the same pub where he was arrested on Saturday night for allegedly brawling with a news photographer.

The incident came at the end of a reported seven-day drinking binge, despite doctors’ warnings that another drink could kill him. He was held by police for two hours and then released without charge.

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Another man, believed to be the photographer, aged 31, was also arrested and released following the incident, just before 5:30pm. Best was reported to have sworn at a female journalist who approached him and claimed that the media was telling lies about him.

But his wife and manager separately confirmed that he was back on the booze.

His wife, Alex, 30, said he was "on a mission to self-destruct".

Last year, Best, 57, said he had abandoned alcohol forever after a transplant when he was said to have only weeks left to live. At the time, critics said there were more deserving cases for the NHS surgery.

His ten-hour operation, costing about 60,000, would be coveted by any one of the 150 patients on the transplant waiting list, they claimed.

Mrs Best told the Mail On Sunday: "I feel awful for the family of the person who died to save George. The last week has been hell. He seems to be on a mission to self-destruct and it is getting worse. I have tried everything I know to help him. I have been through every emotion. I have tried to be understanding and talk it through with him, but I have been angry, worried and upset and have ended up screaming at him.

"I have been so desperate that I have even thrown things at him. But, in the end, I feel desperately sorry for him."

Best’s manager, Phil Hughes, confirmed the football legend had been on a drinking binge. "He has been back down that pub every day," he said. "We need him to get help but it is only George who can help himself."

He added that Best had been given stomach implants which should make him ill if he touches alcohol, but said he had not been sick once despite drinking white wine.

Best appeared in The Chequers pub in Walton-on-the-Hill near Redhill, Surrey, at about 1pm yesterday wearing the same white and blue shirt and faded jeans he had worn on Saturday. He accused reporters of telling lies about him and said: "I am gonna be around for a long time."

But a spokesman for Young’s Brewery, the pub’s owners, said Best had been drinking white wine spritzers at The Chequers for months.

After drinking mineral water all day, Best left the pub at about 7:30pm and was driven away in a silver Mercedes. However, he did not return home and later a friend of his wife emerged from the marital home in Lower Kingswood, Surrey, to ask reporters: "Alex has heard that he left the pub in the company of a young blonde. Is this true?"

At the time of Best’s transplant, opinion was divided about whether or not he should be given a second chance.

Dr Robert Lefever, who runs an addiction centre in Kent, said that given Best’s age and lifestyle, he should not be "the most urgent item on the NHS agenda".

Dr Lefever spoke out again yesterday.

"We know that George’s liver was in such a state that he would have died without the operation so from a physical point, he had to have it," he said. "But the implants he was given aren’t always successful. Patients may feel ill drinking on them but then the cravings for alcohol can just over-ride that.

"A liver transplant will not always save a patient’s life because it’s not a cure for alcoholics. Research in the United States has shown that transplant patients who go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings stand a much better chance of keeping up their sobriety."

He added: "Livers for transplant are a scarce resource and people in George Best’s position need to respect that. I’m not saying an addict should be punished as they do have a clinical addiction, and chronic addiction is an illness, but they should be made to face up to this; to commit to a programme of recovery. If they fail to do that, they should pay for subsequent treatment themselves."

Dr Iain Murray-Lyon, a retired liver specialist, said it was "highly unlikely" Best would be allowed another transplant if he damaged his second liver through binge drinking. " If you have gone back to alcohol abuse to the extent that you need a transplant, you are highly unlikely to be offered another in the assessment process for suitable candidates."

But Dr Murray-Lyon added: "He has effectively started afresh with his new liver and it would take some years of alcohol abuse before a transplant became necessary."

Lifelong battle with alcohol

JUST as George Best got his second chance so Jim Baxter, the Rangers and Scotland legend who was an alcoholic, got his second and third chance with not one but two liver transplants in 1994.

After his operation, Best vowed not to stray as Baxter did afterwards, seen back drinking in Glasgow dressed in his pyjamas in a bar.

Baxter died, aged 61, in April 2001, from cancer. He had won 34 caps for Scotland, and starred for Raith, Rangers, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest. In 1969, he returned to Rangers, but the magic had waned.

Like many retired footballers, he bought a pub. But his liking for three bottles of Bacardi a day saw him slide deeper into alcoholism.

There was an outcry when he was given two transplants in 1994 - the first had quickly failed - because he had developed cirrhosis.

Few were really surprised when he did drink again, though he never did to the same degree.

In the UK the death toll from liver disease is 7,500. The numbers dying from cirrhosis have doubled over the last ten years.

More than 200,000 people in the UK have the chronic viral infection, chronic hepatitis C, which can lead to cirrhosis, cancer and liver failure.

Figures show that 70 per cent of people (665) on the waiting list had liver transplants in 2001. Currently, about 10 per cent of transplant patients who receive the new organ after alcoholic liver disease go back to drink.