Cancer sufferer campaigning for George Best statue in star's Belfast home
A Belfast cancer sufferer who visits George Best's grave every week and has a tattoo of the footballing superstar on his back has used today's 10th anniversary of the Manchester United legend's death to appeal for help in completing a statue in honour of Northern Ireland's greatest player.
Robert Kennedy from east Belfast revealed that the initial preparations for the statue have been finished, but said that pleas for funding from the Irish Football Association and other organisations to cast it in bronze have been unsuccessful.
However, the Red Devils fanatic has vowed to push ahead with his campaign to honour a promise to George's father Dickie, who once told him he wanted a lasting memorial to his genius son.
Robert (61), who was diagnosed with cancer two years ago this week, added: "I got to know Dickie well after playing music in a club which he used to frequent and he confided in me that he would love to see a statue of George somewhere like Windsor Park where he had his finest moments in a green jersey. I said I would do whatever I could."
Robert, who tends to George's grave at Roselawn Cemetery every Sunday and who left a number of tributes to his idol this week, has linked up with west Belfast stonemason Tony Currie and Co Down foundry owner Jeremy Flanagan in his quest to have a statue erected.
Tony said: "I thought it was a shame that nothing ever went up in honour of George, who was my hero too. I've spent many late nights working on the clay model, which is a life-size statue of George in action.
"What we have to get now is the money to complete the work, which is a lengthy, complicated and costly process."
Tony (53), who has sunk several thousand pounds of his own savings to pay for the raw materials, reckoned that another £60,000 would be needed to finish the statue and cast it in bronze at the foundry. "We have been disappointed and disheartened with the response from the football people. George was an icon and I thought that someone would want to have a statue of him here in Northern Ireland," he said.
"There's one of George with Denis Law and Bobby Charlton at Old Trafford, so why not here? And our statue shows him in action, whereas the one in Manchester has him standing there with his arm around Denis."
Tony, who never saw George playing, said he believed a Belfast statue of the city's most famous sporting son would be a major tourist attraction.
After George's death in the Cromwell Hospital in London on November 25, 2005, an appeal fund was set up in Belfast to raise £80,000 for a statue, but it was abandoned after only £2,000 was donated.
The George Best Foundation was also wound up last year after four of the charity's six trustees resigned and after the footballer's sister Barbara said she was suffering from ill-health and wanted to have more time in retirement.
Robert Kennedy, whose home is a virtual shrine to George with paintings, statuettes and photographs and who was perilously close to death before he underwent surgery for duodenal cancer, said he was still in pain every day but was determined to see his - and Dickie Best's - dream of a statue realised.
"Dickie's words still ring in my head and I am convinced he would have been as moved as I was when I first saw the clay model of his beloved son," said Robert, who has also been in touch with George's former Manchester United colleague and mentor Paddy Crerand to seek his support for the statue.
"He said he was right behind us and would do anything he could to help us," said Robert, who has also had a meeting with outgoing First Minister Peter Robinson, and has made overtures to individual politicians, all to no avail.
But Robert will not throw in the towel despite his illness."I am going to keep plugging away," he said. "I have a brass neck and I will write letters or phone anyone to press them for backing for the statue. We are talking about the greatest footballer we have ever known, and while there's an airport named after him there's very little else.
"Everyone says George deserves to be honoured but they won't do anything about it."
Robert said he had approached the Arts Council and Sports Council as well as Belfast City Council and the IFA, but he laughed: "I might give Rory McIlroy a shout to see if he has a few bob spare to come to our assistance. He's a big United fan."
On his weekly trips to Roselawn, Robert not only makes sure that George's grave, where he is buried with his mother Annie and Dickie, is tidy, but also stands for a few minutes in silent reflection.
"It's my way of remembering just how magnificent a footballer George was in his prime," he added.