Belfast Telegraph

George Best’s shirt part of unique celebration of Manchester United icon's life

By Jim Gracey

An iconic football shirt, part of George Best and Northern Ireland folklore, will go on public display for the first time in 51 years this weekend.

The shirt is the one worn by superstar Best when, by critical acclaim, he 'beat Scotland on his own' in a mesmeric display at Windsor Park in 1967, to this day known as the George Best Match.

The following morning he famously visited the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to present the shirt to a young patient John Doherty, whose mum had written to the late Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie asking if it would be possible to secure George's autograph for John as he was too unwell to go to the game to see his idol in the flesh.

When asked, George said he would do better than that and turned up at the hospital in person to surprise a then wide-eyed 15-year-old John with the shirt.

In the intervening years John has taken his prized possession out of his Glengormley home only twice, for a UTV Kelly Show special where he was reunited with George, and for an episode of the BBC Antiques Roadshow, never broadcast, but which valued the shirt at £35,000.

Now John, who regards it as priceless and who says he would never sell, is allowing the shirt to go on open display for the first time at an exhibition of George Best memorabilia this weekend to raise money for the NI Children to Lapland Christmas appeal "because it is for such a good cause".

The exhibition is at the Windrose bar restaurant in Carrickfergus marina during a Man United themed day around Sunday's Manchester derby with George's former Northern Ireland and Old Trafford team-mate Sammy McIlroy in attendance.

It features many never before seen items like shirts, medals, fashion originals, handwritten letters and personal belongings like a cine camera and transistor radio, with accompanying photographs for authenticity.

But pride of place will go to that shirt, and as he posed for another Telegraph picture yesterday, 51 years on from he first featured on our pages, John, now 66 and a retired primary school teacher, recalled the 1967 Sunday morning when George arrived at the Royal at the height of his fame to the amazement of an adoring children's ward.

"It was a total surprise to me," John said.

"I was being treated for asthma and couldn't go to the game.

"My mum knew I idolised George and wrote to the Telegraph asking Malcolm Brodie if he could get me an autograph."

John learned later that when Malcolm mentioned the request to George, the star asked to be collected at his parents' Cregagh estate home the following morning so he could visit the hospital in person.

"He came in carrying a brown paper parcel which he said contained sweets. I was in awe, like the whole of the children's ward who gathered around. He chatted to us and then, as he was leaving, handed me the parcel, telling me not to open it until he was gone.

"Unbeknownst to me, he was hiding behind a screen, waiting to see my reaction. I was amazed and overjoyed when I saw it was the shirt he had worn against Scotland the previous day and then George came back in to pose for a Telegraph photograph I treasure to this day.

"It was a fantastic experience for a football and Man United mad boy and an incredible gesture by George, which I was later to discover was typical of him."

John has kept the shirt securely under wraps at his Glengormley home for the last five decades, bringing it out only briefly for those TV appearances.

Now he has finally been persuaded to loan the shirt for a first public viewing by George's fans since that 1967 game.

Windrose owner Gary Callaghan, a United season ticket holder and Best devotee, believes interest in the collection reflects the still massive fascination with the football hero who died in 2005, aged just 59.

Gary said: "We are indebted to John for allowing us to display such an iconic shirt, not seen in public since that historic game.

"We know how much it means to him. Likewise the personal items loaned to us by George's sister Barbara McNarry and her husband Norman, the renowned collector of United memorabilia Ray Adler, and the authors of the book, George Best: A Celebration, Bernie Smith and Maureen Hunt.

"Oscar winning producer Stephen Evans is also flying in from London. He is making a film about George, similar to his acclaimed one on Seve Ballesteros.

"This is an exhibition with a difference in that it personalises George and tells his story. Exhibits will include handwritten letters home to his family when he was a Man United apprentice, his school reports and driving licence.

"Some never seen before trophies, medals, photographs, match-worn football shirts and fashion items will also be on display, including a shirt made by the famous designer Paul Smith when he was just starting out."

Barbara McNarry, who has endorsed the exhibition of her legend brother's personal belongings, said: "We are so excited. There have been many exhibitions about George the footballer but this one will allow his fans to learn about George the man."

The event includes a themed lunch based on 'The Best family sausages' as famously advertised by George on TV for Cookstown in the Seventies, viewing of the Manchester derby, and a question and answer session by Sammy McIlroy with UTV's Ruth Gorman.

Tickets, £5 & £12, are available from the Windrose (tel 028 93 3351164)

Belfast Telegraph

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