Belfast Telegraph

Cancer sufferer tells of joy as statue of NI football hero Best to be unveiled

Sculptor Tony Currie (left) and Robert Kennedy
Sculptor Tony Currie (left) and Robert Kennedy
The statue
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A Belfast cancer sufferer who has campaigned for years for a statue of football legend George Best in his home city has revealed he feared he might not live long enough to see its unveiling at Windsor Park later this month.

Robert Kennedy, who promised Best's father Dickie that he would never give up the drive for the memorial to his gifted son, said: "It's a dream come true. I never thought I would live to see the day."

Best's sister Barbara McNarry described the statue of her brother as "beautiful".

It is hoped that former team-mates of the Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend will join members of Best's family for the unveiling outside Windsor Park on Wednesday, May 22, which would have been the footballer's 73rd birthday.

Robert, who visits Best's grave at Roselawn cemetery every Sunday, said the unveiling would be a hugely moving moment.

"I was a huge admirer of George and knew Dickie from the days when I played in a band at a club he frequented," he said.

"After I visited him nine months after George's death, he told me that he would love to see a statue to him somewhere in Belfast.

"I decided to start the ball rolling and wrote to everyone I could think of, looking for their support. I contacted people in the council and also those involved in sport and the arts.

"The response from all quarters was that it was a great idea, but everybody wanted to know where the money was coming from."

A number of earlier appeals for support from the public for George Best projects after his death in a London hospital fell far short of the targets.

Eventually, however, Robert found out that Tony Currie, a sculptor in Downpatrick, and his partner Jeremy Flanagan, in the Lecale Bronze sculpture team, were keen to produce a tribute of their own.

"I got in touch with them and offered to help in any way that I could," said Robert.

He also set up meetings with politicians including former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson, who suggested that a statue be placed in a George Best memorial garden that could be developed at Stormont.

However, the feeling among the Lecale team was that its natural home would be Windsor Park - in a nod to Best's plea just before he lost his long battle with illnesses linked to his alcoholism that he wanted to be remembered for his football.

It was on the 10th anniversary of Best's death in November 2015 that Robert first appealed in the Belfast Telegraph for assistance from the public in completing the statue to the man he called "Northern Ireland's finest ever player".

Back then, Robert, from east Belfast, said the initial preparations for the statue had been completed, but money was needed to cast a life-size clay model in bronze.

A crowdfunding initiative was launched on Best's 72nd birthday last year to raise £40,000 for the casting.

Robert - whose home is a shrine to Best with paintings, photographs and statuettes - also organised a blues concert in Belfast last October, with Elvis impersonator Jim Brown topping the bill.

An auction of George Best memorabilia also swelled the coffers.

The fans who donated to the crowdfunding appeal recently received a message from sculptor Tony Currie, who said his team had been able to complete the statue and thanked them for their generosity.

He also told them the unveiling would be open to the general public.

Members of Best's family have seen the completed statue.

In a note on her Facebook page, the footballer's sister Barbara McNarry, who recently revealed that she was suffering from Parkinson's disease, applauded the Lecale team, including Tony, Jeremy and artist James G Miles.

She also disclosed that a famous statue of Best alongside Denis Law and Bobby Charlton at the Old Trafford home of Manchester United had a flaw.

Barbara said that when she first saw the statue, known as the Trinity, she asked the sculptor Peter Jackson about a scar that Best had beside his right eye that did not appear on his completed work.

She added: "He looked horrified and off he went to get the photos.

"Sure enough, there was the scar. Peter had seen it, but he thought it was a flaw in the photograph."

Barbara said there were no such problems with Tony Currie's statue.

"The scar is definitely there," she added.

Manchester United fanatic Robert, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer six years ago, has also seen the finished article, and he admitted it was an emotional experience.

"It is magnificent," he said. "I have to admit that there was a wee tear in my eye when I looked at it. I knew it would be good, but I didn't think it would be as brilliant as it is.

"I'm going over to Manchester to see United's last game of the season against Cardiff (on Sunday), but I am counting the days to the unveiling of the statue. I am really excited.

"I hope a lot of fans will be there to see the statue for themselves."

Robert will soon go to London for treatment for his cancer.

"I am very tired most of the time and I can't walk for any distance at all," he said.

"The pain is still there, but I am still fighting on - there is nothing else for it.

"I am thrilled that all the hard work by so many people has paid off and that George Best will get his rightful place at the home of Irish football."

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