George Best died yesterday morning at age 59 from complications arising from his alcoholism.
I'm too young too have seen George in his prime with Manchester United in the '60s, and only remember seeing him a bit on TV in the '70s when he went to the U.S. to play soccer and was as much a marketing attraction as he was a playing force. But even Pele has called him the best player he's ever seen, so let's just say that the Northern Irishman was at least the best European-born soccer player ever.
But he was a larger than life figure who became known for his drinking, womanizing and gambling as much as he was for his incredible skill on the field, so I was well aware of who he was when he walked into The Clarence, a pub that I bartended at in London's posh Mayfair district in the summer of 1987.
George was friends with Brian, the pub's manager, and would come in at least twice a week for drinks. He'd almost always have a woman with him, and I rarely saw the same one twice. He was very friendly and introduced himself the first time I served him, and he got to know my name on subsequent visits. He was also generous and would buy me a beer every evening (instead of tipping like we do in North America, it's customary in England to say "And one for yourself" and then buy a drink for a bartender who gives good service). Sometimes George would stay in the pub talking to people, but at other times he'd take his lady of the evening upstairs to Brian's apartment. I can only assume what he did with her up there.
I've done a fair bit of reading about George since that summer and he was a fascinating figure and the ultimate tragic hero. He'll be missed.
I returned to The Clarence for the first time since 1991 in September 2004. The place had been renovated to look like another of those generic British pubs that are unfortunately running rampant these days. Brian no longer had anything to do with the place. And George was nowhere to be found.
But I still managed to have a celebrity sighting while I was there. MC Hammer apparently likes his Guinness.