Belfast Telegraph

George Best statue unveiling is the Best day for ill fan

Campaigner for tribute to legend takes centre stage

Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

With the deftness of touch for which George Best was renowned, the family of the mercurial Belfast footballer sprang an emotional surprise on a cancer sufferer, who saw his dreams come true yesterday with the unveiling of a statue of his hero in the shadow of Windsor Park.

Robert Kennedy, who had campaigned for years for the life-size bronze tribute to his ex-Manchester United and Northern Ireland idol, was close to tears as he shared the unveiling duties with George's sister Barbara McNarry and goalkeeping icon Pat Jennings.

Online critics were quick yesterday to give the statue (right) the red card, claiming it did not do George justice.

But the Cregagh man's family and friends rejected the barbs, and Robert said he was overjoyed with how the statue looked.

Northern Ireland World Cup legend Gerry Armstrong, who yesterday discovered he was a distant cousin of the sculptor Tony Currie, said the statue captured George in action displaying all his trademark poise and balance.

Bert Lewis, secretary of a Man United supporters' club in Muckamore, said: "I think it really is a fitting tribute to a wonderful player."

Just like so many bewildered defenders who were left in George's wake on the nearby Windsor pitch, Robert didn't see the Best move on the unveiling coming.

"I didn't know a thing about it until the night before," explained Robert, who was a guest at a pre-unveiling party in Eddie Spence's east Belfast fish and chip shop that George used to love.

"George's brother-in-law Norman McNarry took me aside and told me Barbara wanted to thank me for my crusade by asking me to help her and big Pat take the wraps off the statue.

"I was really nervous and I didn't sleep all night, but I was really delighted to take part in the ceremony, especially as it came on what would have been George's 73rd birthday.

Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong at George Best statue unveiling. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong at George Best statue unveiling. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled by Pat Jennings and Barbara McNarry, George Best's sister.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pictured at the unveiling Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong former Northern Irish footballers. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pictured at the unveiling Pat Jennings former Northern Irish footballer. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
At the unveiling of the statue are Pat Jennings, Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Peter McReynolds, Georges sister, Barbara McNarry and artist Tony Currie from Lecale Bronze.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pat Jennings former Northern Irish footballer unveils the statue. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pictured at the unveiling Pat Jennings former Northern Irish footballer, Barbara McNarry George Best's sister and football fan Robert Kennedy unveil the statue. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pictured at the unveiling Pat Jennings former Northern Irish footballer, Barbara McNarry George Best's sister and football fan Robert Kennedy unveil the statue. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pictured at the unveiling Pat Jennings former Northern Irish footballer, Barbara McNarry George Best's sister and football fan Robert Kennedy unveil the statue. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pictured at the unveiling Pat Jennings former Northern Irish footballer, Barbara McNarry George Best's sister and football fan Robert Kennedy unveil the statue. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Pictured at the unveiling Pat Jennings former Northern Irish footballer, Barbara McNarry George Best's sister and football fan Robert Kennedy unveil the statue. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 22/05/2019: George Best statue unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A bronze statue of football legend George Best has been unveiled. Funded by the public, the statue was created by Belfast sculptor Tony Currie of the Lecale Bronze art group. The life sized statue sits outside the Olympia Leisure Centre - just yards away from Windsor Park where Best played many games for Northern Ireland. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
George Best (PA)

"This has been the best day of my life. And I will cherish it for the rest of my days."

And what made it all even more special for Robert was that there were times as he battled his cancer that he didn't think he would live long enough to see the statue get its rightful place outside the ground where George had thrilled thousands of fans with his wizardry in a green shirt.

Robert's only regrets were that George's late father Dickie and his partner's late dad Arthur Blackledge weren't present to see the fruits of the not inconsiderable labours of Mr Currie and his Lecale Bronze team.

He said: "I promised Dickie I would work hard to get him the statue he wanted of his son, and Arthur, who used to play for Linfield, always encouraged me not to give up on my quest."

Barbara, who recently revealed that she is suffering from Parkinson's disease, thanked the Lecale team for their dedication in immortalising her brother, who had journeyed between "dizzying heights and lonely and troubled lows".

She recalled how she had told mourners at George's funeral at Stormont in December 2005 not to look on him as having gone, but rather on him having "left the pitch".

She added: "Today the road has brought our Belfast boy back to the city, the people and the family who loved him most of all."

Jennings, who made his international debut on the same night in 1964 as George, said the statue was "beautiful" and he thought it would go down well with fans.

Pat laughed that he was "fed up" seeing TV footage of George - the "Lionel Messi of his day" - scoring goals against him.

Barbara reacts at the unveiling of her brother’s statue
Barbara reacts at the unveiling of her brother’s statue
Pat Jennings, Brian Kennedy, Gerry Armstrong and artist Tony Currie from Lecale Bronze
A view from behind the statue

But he added that he had always wished that Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham had selected George for the panels for the World Cup Finals in 1982 and 1986.

"Even if Billy had played him for half-an-hour, we would have loved to have seen him there," Pat added.

The sculptor explained that the statue was symbolically erected at ground level because organisers didn't want to place George on a pedestal to be looked up to, but he said he tried instead to show that he was "a normal guy, an exceptional footballer, a flawed genius".

Tony thanked the fans who donated several thousand pounds to a crowd-funding appeal to finance the statue.

One donor, Haydn Milligan, from Bangor, said: "I think this tribute is long overdue.

"Everywhere you go in England there are statues for the greats like Bobby Moore and Bill Shankly and then there's one of Bestie, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton at Old Trafford, and now we have one of own for George."

Brian Kennedy, who sang at George's funeral, read a poem before the unveiling.

George Cherry, who grew up in Burren Way near the Best family home, was at Windsor yesterday to share his memories of his illustrious neighbour, but not just as a footballer.

He said: "I remember the time he brought his fiancee Eva Haraldsted home to meet his parents.

"They sat on my wall and he sent me up to the shop to buy three lollipops for him, Eva and me. That was just George."

After having a cup of tea in Windsor's George Best suite, the footballer's relatives went to Roselawn Cemetery to lay flowers at his grave to mark his birthday in private.

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