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Chris Orr comments on….. Dying for a Drink

If you’re a fan of George Best, you might wish to look away now ….

If you’re a fan of George Best, you might wish to look away now. I met George Best around eight years ago, when I was working for WINE magazine. A friend of mine was a sports journalist with the Sun newspaper and he suggested we get George Best, who’d just released his own wine, to do a tasting with us of all the football wines.

We gathered a whole group of wines together from clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton, Leeds – the list of football clubs wishing to cash in on their corporate wine opportunities was long. The list of those that cashed in by producing fairly appalling stuff for which they charged ridiculous prices, was almost as long. Only a handful had actually made any effort to put something decent and worthwhile into the glass. The tasting was held in a wine bar in Fulham. George turned up very late with his wife and agent. He was extremely apologetic, and wonderfully charming, and half cut. It was clear that he was desperately trying to limit his drinking, but not making a particularly great job of it. He tasted the wines, sipping and spitting with the rest of us. He was funny, entertaining and it was easy to see why he was a legend. But he also cut a rather pathetic figure – because he was clearly ill, clearly battling with alcohol problems. And here I was, to all intents and purposes shoving alcohol down his throat. Not, if I am honest, the moment that I am most proud of in my life.

His agent, Phil Hughes, who was clearly doing his best to juggle the challenge of keeping his client in the press but also keep him away from excess alcohol, registered Best’s death certificate yesterday. The second major item listed in the cause of death section was “Immunosupression following liver transplant”. We all know why he had a liver transplant and we all know that he tried hard afterwards to ensure that he didn’t fall back into his old problems. Tried and sadly failed. According to the newspapers, They are expecting almost half a million people at his funeral in Dublin. Stormont Castle will be filled, apparently, with more than 30,000 people attending the service. I’m not going to talk about the absurdity of our current adulation of footballers and sporting stars – that’s not what this column is about.

But I do wonder at the way his life has been treated in the newspapers and TV programmes of the UK. Most have reported his alcoholism – reruns of his famous interview with Terry Wogan abound. In all of them it’s a footnote – an almost comical character trait of an otherwise loveable rogue who was the nearest football had to a living god. But the fact remains, George Best drank himself to death. I repeat he drank himself to death – a fact which many in the media are glossing over. I don’t personally see that as a cause for celebration, nor an example to hold up to a nation of teenagers who are already battling in some sections with the same sad, tragic problems that Best battled with for most of his adult life. And while I’m wondering about all that, I’ll also be interested to see if any politicians or members of parliament and government show their face at the funeral. Because if they do, given the current legislation on alcohol that comes into place this week – partly with the aim of reducing alcohol related deaths in this country – not to mention general concern over binge drinking, that would be a piece of hypocrisy that I personally find perverse in the extreme.

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