Belfast Telegraph

Alex Best: My return to part of Northern Ireland where George and I were happiest together

Alex Best is returning to Portaferry next month as ambassador for the town’s gala festival. As she recalls happy times there with her former husband George, she tells Leona O’Neill that the football legend is still very much alive in her heart

Nearly 13 years after George Best passed away, his former wife Alex will retrace the steps she and the footballing legend took on carefree summer days in Northern Ireland when she attends this year’s Portaferry Festival.

The 46-year-old model, author and property mogul — who these days enjoys rural living in Surrey — says that part of Northern Ireland still holds a very special place in her heart.

When she returns for the festival in July she says it will bring back precious memories of “happy days” in their marriage when they lived on the Ards Peninsula  and alcohol did not play a part in their daily lives.

“I would still have a really deep bond with Belfast and Northern Ireland,” she says.

“I have a lot of friends over there. It’s a home from home. I was there for two years so I got to know it so well. It’s always nice to go back. It’s just changing so much now. It’s buzzing, it’s better than London.

“I loved living in Portavogie, I loved being on the sea. Where we lived you could look out the bedroom window and you’d have the sea in front of you and you could see the Isle of Man and Scotland.

“I loved the countryside and walking the dogs, and horse riding. And the food is amazing. It’s all fresh and you are getting quality food. Whereas in London you are being charged extortionate amounts for something which is not as good. It was quite a shock coming from Chelsea in London to Portavogie.

“I am now an ambassador for the Portaferry Festival, which I am really proud of,” she says.

“It’s quite strange as George and I used to go there. We used to go to the Portaferry Hotel and get on the car ferry to Strangford and go to The Lobster Pot.

“There was a really lovely furniture shop and we bought quite a lot of stuff from there. That used to be one of our day trips.

“The festival holds a really special place in my heart because of the memories with George. It is always nice to be up that way.”

Alex says she is proud to have been the Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend’s wife.

At the height of his career he was the man every woman wanted — and every man wanted to be. But when Alex met him he was 26 years older than her, overweight and an alcoholic heading for a liver transplant.

She says George taught her a lot about life. “I was 21 when I met George,” she says. “I always had an old head on young shoulders. All my friends were older than I was. I think we just ran parallel. George was a very intelligent man and taught me lots of things worldly wise.

“But at the end of the day we were both on the same wavelength. He had such a young outlook to life and he was such good fun. He didn’t exactly act his age and I think we met in the middle somewhere.”

While Alex talks fondly of their ten-year marriage, it also had its distressing episodes. Shortly after they married at Chelsea Register Office in 1995, Alex woke up in the middle of the night to find a drunk George hacking off her hair with a pair of scissors and scribbling over her skin with a black marker pen. Two years later, on her 25th birthday, he physically assaulted her, leaving her with a black eye, cuts and bruises.

Yet, she says, there “were more bright days than dark ones”. She goes on: “Our marriage wasn’t turbulent all the time. It was only reported on when it was turbulent. We had a good marriage. We did lots of interesting things together and we travelled the world. We did get on well. But as far as alcohol and alcoholics are concerned, you do get those bad days. But you wouldn’t be with them if you didn’t have the good days too. When we moved to Northern Ireland he wasn’t drinking. That was amazing because we bought the house in Portavogie and we did that up together. And he had the input in that and he really enjoyed it.”

Alex says she likes to remember the good times she and George shared, of which there were many. “There were very, very dark days but there were also extremely bright days as well,” she says. “I loved George to bits. I would never have given up on him. It ended because I was in my early 30s thinking, ‘Can I do this any more?’ He had been so good and had a liver transplant ... but when he started drinking again after the transplant, I thought ‘This is going to be it forever’.

“I knew he wasn’t going to stop. And I had to make the decision, really, could I carry on like this? I looked after him in my 20s and in my 30s I was thinking about children and about having a bit more of a stable life.

“I don’t regret not having children with George. It was just one of those things that didn’t happen. And you can’t regret anything that life patterns out for you. What will be, will be.

“I was trying my best to help him. At the end of the day, with alcoholics it is down to them. I also found with George that the more I nagged at him, the worse he went. So it was just a case of being supportive and being there and sometimes turning a blind eye. It was hard, very hard. Then we also had some wonderful times too.”

George died in November 2005 due to complications brought on by the drugs he needed to take after his liver transplant. Alex remembers their last conversation and says she is glad she got to say her goodbyes before he died. “He phoned me when I was in Spain in October,” she says. “He told me he wasn’t feeling great and that they were going to take him into hospital to do a biopsy. And I told him that I was glad he was sorting it out. I told him that I was here if he wanted me, to just give me a call.

“I asked him if he wanted me to come and see him when I got back. And that is the last time I had a conversation with him. He never came out of hospital.

“I did see him on the night that he died. That was very hard. He was off the life support and they were just waiting for the time to come. I said my final ‘I love yous’ and goodbyes, which I am very grateful for, that I was able to do that. It was closure.”

Alex says she will forever be tied to George and carry the Best name, and that makes her proud. But she doesn’t rule out getting remarried. “I am very proud to be George’s former wife,” she says. “It is a really great honour. I believed that had I got remarried I would change my name. But I haven’t got remarried and I just don’t see any point really. I am single at the moment.

“Men get quite intimidated because of George. It’s like me going out with someone who has been married to Claudia Schiffer or some supermodel. I don’t measure men against George. Everyone is totally different. I was engaged for a while to a man I was with for seven years. We are still really good friends.

“I would love to remarry, if the right person came along, definitely. It would need to be someone that I connected with. I wouldn’t really mind what they did for a living, as long as there was a spark there.”

Alex — who buys, renovates and sells property — says she is living the “good life” in the Surrey countryside in an old haunted cottage. And although she doesn’t think George is haunting her home, she does still feel his presence and is reminded of him every day.

“The cottage is haunted, yes, but I don’t think it’s George,” she says. “It’s probably the old guy who used to live here, called Tom. He was meant to be a lovely guy. There are just little things that move and go missing. It is quite funny. It doesn’t spook me, it’s nice. In the first days after George passed away I did feel his presence around me. You can just tell. I do believe in all of that. I’m not a sceptic.

“I still talk to him. Sometimes I talk to myself, but I’d say ‘Oh George, what would you do?’ But I think that is natural and it keeps him alive in my memory and in my life still.

“I think about him a lot. I still have a lot of our old furniture in the house and little bits and pieces that he bought for me. And on my mantelpiece there is a little Lalique lovebirds perfume pot. I had it in a box for a long time.

“He sent it to me when we first met, along with a letter in a bin bag and an Easter Egg. It has been in the box for a long time, but I thought I would take it out and put it on show.

“There is always stuff around the house that reminds me of him. It keeps him alive in my heart.”

Portaferry Gala Week takes place from July 15-21. Headline artists include country favourite Derek Ryan, with Orlaith and Mollie as support, veteran Irish rockers Bagatelle with local singer/songwriter Michael Kerr as support, the UK’s leading Little Mix tribute band The Little Mix Experience, Johnny Cash tribute Cash Returns, Garth Brooks tribute and Hit The Diff star Ritchie Remo. Tickets for all concerts are available from info@explorisni.com or tel: 028 4272 8062

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