I spent an afternoon with George Best last week. The appointment was in an Italian restaurant in Chelsea and I was there early, just in case he arrived early. Fat chance, though his agent had assured me that George is a reformed man, now he's given up drink, always punctual, not like the old days.
I first interviewed him in 1965. I was doing the Atticus column on the Sunday Times, just at that moment in time when the world changed, or at least my world changed: the Sixties had arrived and I was at last able to stop interviewing boring bishops and masters of Oxbridge colleges and talk to real people, like northern novelists, pop stars and footballers.
George was aged 19, a naive young lad with a strong Belfast accent and Beatles haircut. He was in the first team at Man Utd, but still living in digs, polite and deferential, worried that the older players in the dressing room would tease him about his haircut and the flash new jacket he'd just bought. He had arrived at Old Trafford aged 15, then run away, homesick, to Belfast. "I thought I'd never make the grade. It was my father who talked me into coming back." He still seemed a bit in awe of senior players such as Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, whom he had hero-worshipped as a kid.
At the age of 19, he didn't drink or smoke, so he told me, and I believed him. "Well, perhaps on rare occasions I might have a lager. Then it gets back to the boss, Mr Busby, that you're drunk. I would like to have a flat of my own, but the boss thinks there might be temptation. Perhaps, when I'm 21. I've no complaints. I like my landlady."
By 1968, when he was 22, it had all changed. Man Utd had won the European Cup and George had been made European Footballer of the Year and England's Footballer of the Year. He'd also become a household name, a household face. I went to interview him again that year, this time for Granada TV. George had agreed to see us, but having waited outside his house for hours, there was no sign of him. We went to the training ground, but he wasn't there. We went round some nightclubs, but couldn't find him. I rang the producer of the programme back in London, John Birt, with whom I used to play football, and said it's all a nonsense. I'm packing up. John said no, hang on, stay overnight.
We were kept hanging around Manchester for another day before George finally emerged from some drunken, sexual or similar exploit and agreed to see us. And he was good: fluent and amusing. One thing people forget about George is that he is clever - the only one in his class to pass the 11-plus and go on to grammar school.
It was strange, waiting to interview him again after a gap of more than 30 years. I knew he wouldn't know me from Adam, or Tony Adams, why should he? He's been interviewed a trillion times since then, but I have watched him from afar, seen his career end too early, his body collapse too fast.
He arrived just 15 minutes late, with his glamorous, blonde wife Alex. He seemed to stagger a bit at first, but was fine when he sat down, clutching a box of pills. The appointment was to talk about the World Cup for a Mail on Sunday piece, which we did, and when it was finished, I pulled out my faded 1965 cutting and gave him a copy. He read it slowly, as if reading about a total stranger, which in a way it was. Then Alex, his young wife who has only ever known him as a middle-aged man, often drunk, read it as well, in quiet amazement. Could he ever have been so shy, so naive, so non-drinking?
No need to feel sorry for him financially. They live in some style in Surrey and Chelsea. At 55, he is better off than he was ten, 20 years ago. The older he has grown, the more of an icon he has become. There is also far more money floating around in football today, from TV and publishing. His last biography, the fifth by my reckoning, sold 300,000 in hardback. I couldn't believe it. He said he, too, was amazed when his royalty cheque came in. Now he's working on another.
Today's middle classes follow football in large numbers and buy lots of footer books. Anoraks, who had not even been born when George played, know everything about him. They are even bringing out a George Best boot, 20 years after he last played (for Bournemouth in 1983).
In 1968, his best year as a player, his total income was £30,000 - from football, plus commercial stuff. This past year, he must have earned ten times that, if the sales of his book are correct. Who would begrudge him? In my lifetime, there has not been a British player more touched with footballing genius.
But he may not live long enough to reap the benefits. He's on a bleeper, waiting for the call to be rushed into hospital for a liver transplant. It will be a seven-hour operation, three weeks in hospital, then recuperation, if all goes well. Don't you regret it now, George, all those years of drink?
"Not at all. I regret nothing. I have a great lifestyle - and hope to continue to have one, after the operation . . ."