Best coming to the end of his life

Key points

• Best likely to die within 24 hours say medical staff

• Former Manchester United star in hospital for eight weeks

• Best, an alcoholic, received liver transplant in 2002 but did not stay teetotal

Key quote

"I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds, and fast cars - the rest I squandered" - George Best

Story in full GEORGE Best lay on the verge of death last night, having come, as his doctor explained, "to the end of the long road of his ill-health".

The legendary footballer was in the intensive care unit of the Cromwell Hospital in London, surrounded by family and friends, as medical staff said he was likely to die within 24 hours.

Professor Roger Williams, who has been Best's doctor since he received a liver transplant in 2002, was close to tears as he briefed the media. "I am afraid Mr Best is coming to the end of the long road of his ill-health. He is still alive, he is still having standard medical care and treatment, but I have to tell you that his hours are numbered now and it's all very upsetting for all of us who look after Mr Best. I can't be precise as to time, but it is the final stages of this illness and I am afraid he could die at any time over the next 24 hours," he said.

The former Manchester United and Northern Ireland player has suffered from alcoholism for many years. He was admitted to hospital on 1 October with flu-like symptoms. He was being treated for a kidney infection and internal bleeding, but his condition suddenly worsened overnight. His internal organs have suffered extensive damage and were said to be shutting down.

Best's son, Calum, 24, his father, Dickie, 87, and other family members, including his sisters, were at his bedside last night. Close friends Bobby Charlton and Denis Law visited their old team-mate yesterday afternoon.

Asked how the family was coping, Prof Williams said: "We have just all been sitting down together, and it's very upsetting for everybody, isn't it, those looking after him, the family. I have talked to them at great length. I think they understand everything. Calum is there; I think they accept what's going to happen."

Prof Williams was asked how he felt personally. He replied: "I think we are all very upset."

Troubled genius faces the final whistle after a life of wine, women and more wine

GEORGE Best's favourite film was a little-known work directed by and starring Albert Finney, with whom he once drank, called Charlie Bubbles. In the film, released in 1967, Finney is a wildly indulged, heavy-drinking writer who can no longer cope with fame or the expectations of others. "In the end, he goes up in a balloon and cuts the rope," Best explained to a reporter. "He sails off into the big blue sky. That has always stayed in my head, that scene. Pure escape, turning your back on it all, on the world."

Tragically, Best had no need of a balloon when there was a bottle to hand. For him, like so many other alcoholics before and since, the old mantra applied: "One drink was too many, and a thousand were not enough."

What are we to make of George Best, once the greatest football player on the planet, yet a man who became a symbol of alcoholism, before succumbing to its slow, painful demise? To many, he was the epitome of a loveable rogue, a hellraiser in the mould of Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole. To others, with a less sympathetic approach to the ravages of an unstoppable drink problem, he was a waste of a good liver.

Born in Belfast in 1946, the son of working-class parents, his father was a shipyard worker and his mother worked in a tobacco factory. His vocation was football: as a child he would dribble a tennis ball through the Gregagh estate, and when a scout for Manchester United saw him play, he sent a telegram to Matt Busby which read: "I think I've found you a genius." The word "troubled" was unfortunately absent.

He travelled to Manchester for a two-week trial, but returned after just two days suffering from homesickness, however, a reassuring phone call from Busby to Best's father was enough to coax him to return. He served a diligent apprenticeship, training hard, shining the football boots of the senior team and saying his prayers each night before bed.

At the age of 17, he signed as a professional and made his debut against West Bromwich Albion in September 1963. He later recalled: "When you walked out of that tunnel in your kit on Saturday afternoon, it was like stepping into another world. Every game was like a new adventure. All I had ever wanted to do in Belfast was kick a ball around and now I was doing it for real, for one of the biggest clubs in England. Once I was on that pitch, I never wanted the final whistle to blow."

His long hair, good looks and Belfast charm soon attracted a legion of fans and the monicker "The Fifth Beatle", but it was what he was capable of doing with a football that set him apart. A generation of football writers swear that the laws of physics, which hold sway over the entire universe, were routinely ignored by this young player who bent both the ball and his body in a manner that should have been impossible.

Best's genius was never more clearly displayed than in a European Cup match against Benfica in 1966 when he scored a hat-trick, with the first two goals within ten minutes of kick-off. Notoriously greedy with the ball, fellow players would grumble up until the last second when the ball hit the back of the net.

By the age of 26, Best had won a European Cup winner's medal, two English league championship medals, European and English Footballer of the Year awards and had been Manchester United's top scorer for the previous six years.

Yet his drinking was already dragging him down. In 1966, he was fined for speeding. In 1968, he was banned for six months after ramming his Jaguar into another car. The bar brawls were too numerous to mention. His thirst for alcohol and good times had replaced his passion for the roar of the crowd. His career eventually imploded in January 1974, when he was dropped from the team after missing training and turning up drunk.

Life after Manchester United was a perpetual party punctuated by violent outbursts, court appearances and even jail. His good looks secured him a steady supply of women, including three Miss Worlds, a Miss Great Britain, a Miss Northern Ireland and, bizarrely, a Miss Motorway Scotland. He steadily worked his way through a string of relationships and had a son, Calum, with Angie James, his first wife, but every relationship was to end, often in recrimination.

In the 1979-80 season, Best made a number of crowd-pulling appearances for Hibs, but could not prevent the club from being relegated.

In 1984, he was jailed for two months for drink-driving and assaulting a police officer, yet despite this he retained the public and the media's affection. In 1990, he appeared on Terry Wogan's television chat show drunk. But a greater faux pas was to attend a footballers' dinner in Belfast and stun guests with a racist jibe at Pele, the great Brazilian striker.

The personal life of George Best began to turn around in 1995 when he met Alex Pursey, an air stewardess, then 22, in a London nightclub. It was his new wife's support that allowed Best to achieve a year's sobriety that finally made him eligible to have a liver transplant in July 2002. By the time of the operation, his own liver was functioning at one fifth of its intended capacity, pickled by alcohol.

At the time, he made a promise to the family of the dead donor that he appreciated a second chance at life and would never drink. In retrospect, he had set the bar too high and primed the media to watch for any fall. His recent on-again-off-again relationship with alcohol was familiar to anyone with an understanding of addiction.

Once a footballer, a respected commentator, and a loving husband, Best was no longer any of these things. In the summer of 2003, his life descended once again into the realm of soap opera. Best stumbled into a honey-trap and was photographed by the News of the World with another woman. Alex Best, driven to despair by her husband's alcoholism, abandoned him on holiday, leaving Best to wander about his hotel in Malta with only journalists for company.

The last two years saw a swift decline. His wife finally divorced him in April 2004 after he had an affair with Gina DeVivo. Both sides accused the other of drunken violence and infidelity. In February 2004, he received a 20-month driving ban and 1,500 fine for drunk driving.

A famous anecdote about Best involved a porter opening the penthouse suite of the Ritz to find him cavorting with a Miss World on a bed scattered with 20,000 in crisp new notes. The porter reportedly quipped: "Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?" Best reworked the line when he said: "I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds, and fast cars - the rest I squandered."

As the final whistle is now being blown and Best loses the struggle against his toughest opponent, fans of fine football will prefer to pass over the pain of his past few decades and fix in their mind Best at his best: on the pitch, ball at his feet, his talents still untarnished.

The fall and fall of a footballing legend

1966: George Best picks up his first fine for speeding.

1968: Receives a six-month ban after crashing his Jaguar into another car.

1971: Misses cup tie to go on a date with an actress.

1972: Skips a key Manchester United game to go off for weekend with Miss Great Britain, Carolyn Moore.

1974: Dropped from the team after missing training and turning up drunk.

1984: Jailed for three months for drink-driving and for assaulting a police officer, during which time he plays for Ford Open Prison.

1986: Divorced by Angie Best, the mother of his son Calum.

1990: Appears drunk on Terry Wogan's television chat show and kisses Omar Sharif.

2002: Has liver transplant.

2003: Begins drinking again and assaults journalists while on holiday.

2004: Banned from driving and divorced by Alex Best.

2005: In October, Best is re-admitted to hospital.