Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Remembering George Best as both a deeply flawed man and a fabulous football genius

Ahead of an exhibition of memorabilia for charity, Fionola Meredith says we must be honest about who he was

George Best was a man of great talent but had a darker side
George Best was a man of great talent but had a darker side

The best, the bravest and the most beautiful footballer that ever lived. Football's Van Gogh. A fallen hero. You know who I'm talking about. These were some of the many adulatory words used to describe him when he passed away, but 13 years later he still barely needs an introduction.

Perhaps that's because George Best never really died. His physical body left us - ravaged beyond repair by alcoholism - and was given what amounted almost to a state funeral at Stormont.

But George Best the hero lives on, freed from the misdeeds and fatal excesses of his life to become a kind of cultural totem: a myth, a legend, the source of endless pride, glory and even worship.

Like a 20th century Cuchulainn, but with mass appeal and better foot-work.

This weekend, there will be a special exhibition of George Best memorabilia held in Carrickfergus to raise funds for a very deserving charity: the NI Children to Lapland appeal, which takes seriously ill youngsters on dream trips to meet Santa.

Among the items on display is a valuable signed shirt, which was worn by Best at a historic match in Windsor Park in 1967. The day after the match, Best surprised a young fan at the Royal hospital, John Doherty, who was devastated at being too ill to miss the game, by turning up on the ward and presenting him with the shirt.

As he recounted in this paper earlier in the week, it was a gesture of kindness that Doherty, now 66, will never forget. Understandably, he regards the shirt as priceless.

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Leaving Best's prodigious talent aside for a moment, there is no doubt that he had many personally engaging, endearing qualities. I expect he could have charmed the birds out of the trees, in all sincerity.

Even as he lay gaunt and jaundiced, life ebbing away, his doctor, Professor Roger Williams, paid tribute to "a wonderful patient who has never complained even during the most difficult circumstances".

But of course George Best was far from a saint. He had another side to his personality, and we are lying to ourselves if we don't acknowledge it, and include it in our understanding of the man.

Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
Books:GEORGE BEST: The Legend - In Pictures, Ivan Martin, Appletree Press
George Best and his dad, Dickie
George Best advertising Cookstown Sausages
Manchester United footballer George Best with manager Tommy Docherty.
George Best with Gerald Black
George Best leading the teams out with mascot
George Best relaxes with a cup of coffee as he waits for the action in Bulgaria to begin
John Chaffetz, an official of the Los Angeles Aztecs, points the way for soccer star George Best. Best was attending a press conference after joing the Aztecs in 1976
George Best in action
George Best
George Best with the Portadown football team and mascot before they played Glenavon in 1981
Football legend George Best pictured in January 1964
George Best: Manchester United and Northern Ireland Legend
Memories: George Best trudges off the pitch after being sent off against Scotland
George Best larks around in his kitchen with Angie in 1976
George Best footballer in Manchester United kit
Alex with George Best in 1995
The birth certificate
George Best has a drink in a Belfast bar
GEORGE BEST:FOOTLALL/NORTHERN IRELAND AND MANCHESTER UNITED LEGEND.
Belfast boy: George Best is the most heralded Northern Ireland sports star... but Rory McIlroy can close in
George Best is regarded by everyone as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and by many, including Brazilian icon Pele, as THE best of the lot. The Belfast boy, who lived a rock and roll life, had staggering skill and balance, which he used to score for Man United in their 1968 European Cup final victory, one of 179 goals for the club. A breathtaking talent.
George Best in a Glentoran shirt with another ex Northern Ireland international Norman Whiteside - and a young Stephen Chick
George Best, during the Northern Ireland v England match in October 1966
Manchester United legend George Best
George Best. Football. Manchester United and Northern Ireland. Ireland v England Oct. 1966. Best and Parke outwitted by a headless Charlton as Englend mount an attack.
HEALTH Best 11...Library filer dated 08/03/1969 of legendary footballer George Best who is "coming to the end of the long road of his ill-health", his doctor Professor Roger Williams said Thursday November 24, 2005. See PA story HEALTH Best. PRESS ASSOCIATION photo. Photo Credit should read: PA...A
Benfica's Goalkeeper Jose Henrique (left) races back to his goal in a vain attempt to stop George Best (right) of Manchester United from scoring his team's second goal in the the European Cup final at Wembley, 29th May 1968. United eventually won 4-3 after extra time.
George Best pictured with Pat Jennings
Football legend George Best pictured at Windsor Park
Best man: George Best (c) shows off the 1968 European Footballer of the Year award, which journalist Max Urbini (l) presented to him before the match, as team-mates Bobby Charlton (second l, 1966 winner) and Denis Law (r, 1964 winner), and manager Matt Busby (second r) look on
Simply the Best: George Best shows off some of his wide range of skills during his time at Manchester United, where he became a worldwide star
George Best playing at the stadium
George Best in training for Manchester United
Football legend George Best
George shakes hands with the Glenavon captain Alan Frazer and referee Malcolm Moffatt
George Best's wife Angie hands out balls during the game
Angie Best with the referees
Excited young fans mob George at the game
Angie is greeted by fans
The Bests having fun on the pitch during the game
On the ball: George’s wife Angie on the pitch
Fond memories: mascot Stuart McKinley aged six
Style icon George Best outside his Manchester Boutique in the 1970s
George Best in action for Manchester United
George Best puts pressure on Gordon Banks as he prepares to clear the ball from the England penalty area in the 1971 international at Windsor Park.
George Best with Lawrie Sanchez
George Best
George Best and his mother Annie
Molly meets soccer star George Best
Football legend George Best, pictured with Pat Jennings (left) and Billy Bingham (right).
Lining up: George Best joins the rest of the Tobermore United squad for a team photo before the Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United in 1984
The late George Best with then wife Alex Best is pictured with family and friends outside his boyhood Burren Way home after he received Castlereagh's Freedom of the Borough
Close friends George Best and Mike Summerbee at 1966 World Cup Final
George Best in April 2002 at the house in Burren Way, where he unveiled a plaque after being awarded the freedom of Castlereagh
George Best with son Calum
George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum
George Best with his former wife Angie and son Calum
George Best and Calum Best
Football legend George Best pictured in 1990
Football legend George Best with his wife Angie, brother Ian, father Dickie and baby son Calum
George Best with his sister Barbara McNarry
George Best at home in Belfast with his father Dicki
George Best, ex-Manchester United footballer, smiling with bruised eye
H&H auctioneer James Wheeler polishes up the Jaguar once owned by George Best
George Best
Manchester United and Northern Ireland football legend George Best
A bus stop on the Cregagh Road on the morning of George Best's funeral.
Flags at George Best funeral at Stormont. Saturday 3rd December 2005
The garden of the Best family home in Burren Way, Cregagh, on the day of George's funeral.
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
New stamp depicting George Best
Calum Best in the funeral cortege.
Calum Best shakes hands with well-wishers as George Best's funeral cortege leaves the Best family home
The George Best funeral cortege on the Ballygowan Road.
Calum and Dickie Best at George Best's funeral
The crowd on the Cregagh Road waiting for George Best's funeral cortege.
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
A view from the balcony of Parliament Buildings in Stormont
Crowds gather at Stormont for the funeral of George Best
George Best's coffin is carried up the steps to the Stormont buildings
George Best's coffin is draped with the Northern Ireland flag
George Best's agent Phil Hughes (centre) with Eamonn Holmes next to George Best's coffin in the Parliament buildings in Stormont, Belfast, Saturday December 3, 2005. The world of football was today paying its last respects as George Best, one of the greatest ever players, was laid to rest. Best, 59, died last Friday in London's Cromwell Hospital.
The Best family at the George Best funeral at Stormont
Billy Bingham at George Best's funeral
Robert Dunlop at George Best's funeral
Dickie and Calum Best at the funeral of George Best funeral at Stormont.
Terry Neill at George Best's funeral
Paddy Kielty and Gerry Armstrong at George Best's funeral
Frank McLintock at George Best's funeral
Mike England at George Best's funeral
Derek Dougan at George Best's funeral
Milan Manderic at George Best's funeral
Pat Jennings at George Best's funeral
Phil Taylor, George Best's agent and Jackie Fullerton at George Best's funeral
Alex Higgans at George Best's funeral
Bobby Jameson at George Best's funeral
Barry McGuigan and his wife at George Best's funeral
Rodney Marsh at George Best's funeral
Dennis Law (centre) at George Best's funeral
Martin O'Neill at George Best's funeral
Callum Best and mum Angie at George Best's funeral
George Best's grave
George Best Belfast City Airport handled more than 2.5 million passengers last year
A mural of George Best and David Healy on the wall of the Times Bar, York Road. Brian Little/ Presseye
The Best family plot at Roselawn on the day before George's funeral.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. Pictured a silver Benfica letter opener, dated 1966, given to George which marks Man Utd's 5-1 European Cup defeat of Benfica in Lisbon. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years
Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon holding a replica European Champions Manchester United Trophy presented to Dickie Best when George Best died. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Best Fans - Mark McIlwaine (13, left) and David McCracken (13), both from Lurgan Junior High admiring some of the Best memorabilia up for grabs at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Best Fan - 7 year old Luke McMullan from Dungannon (dressed in his school rugby kit) holding a cast from George Best's original match worn boots, pictured amongst Best memorabilia at Wilsons Auction house today. There are 110 lots of George Best memorabilia available, collected by Dickie Best over a period of 40 years.
Items on sale of the Dickie Best collection which will go on public auction on the 19th march at the Wilsons premises in Mallusk with 110 lots of George Best memorabillia available which was collected by Dickie over a 40 year period.
Family Portrait (left to right): Carol Best - Lisa Hogg; Julie Best (Twin) - Catherine Quinn; Ann Best - Michelle Fairley; George Best - Tom Payne; Dickie Best - Lorcan Cranitch; Grace Best (Twin) - Amy Quinn; Barbara Best - Laura Donnelly
George Best played by Tom Payne
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
George Best played by Tom Payne
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
Ann Best played by Michelle Fairley
George Best played by Tom Payne
George Best played by Tom Payne
Richard (Dickie) Best with a picture of his son, footballer George Best pictured at his home in Belfast. October 2005
Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday were Michelle McBride with Lyn Smyth
Visiting George Best’s grave yesterday was Ivan Little
Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes
Fans of the late football superstar regularly visit the grave to leave mementoes

When drunk, he could be foul, paranoid, and violent. He repeatedly beat up his wife, Alex. Not long after they married at Chelsea Register Office in 1995, Alex woke up in the middle of the night to find her inebriated husband hacking off her hair with a pair of scissors and scribbling on her skin with a black marker pen.

I don't know about you, but that's an image I find hard to forget.

These brutal facts about our hero cannot be dismissed. Especially when domestic abuse incidents in Northern Ireland have reached a new, shameful peak.

In June of this year, it emerged that there were 29,913 incidents recorded between April 2017 and March 2018, which is the highest level since 2004/2005. That amounts to more than 80 episodes every single day. And the actual numbers are likely to be still higher, given that such abuse is known to be significantly under-reported.

What message does it send to the bruised and bloodied survivors of domestic violence that Belfast city airport is named after a wife-beater?

What message does it send to the men who kick and punch them?

This is not to discount Best's phenomenal abilities on the pitch, or the sunnier side of his personality. Neither is it to deny the delight and pride he has given, and his memory still continues to give, to his many fans in Northern Ireland and beyond.

But we can't look the other way and pretend the abuse didn't happen, or that it didn't matter, or that his extraordinary abilities as a footballer somehow outweighed it, made it count for less.

It's difficult. I remember my dismay when I discovered that John Lennon had admitted to assaulting his first wife, Cynthia. In a Playboy interview recorded in 1980, he said, "I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women." Later, Cynthia herself described how Lennon once smacked her across the face, causing her to hit her head on a pipe.

Does this stop me listening to his music? No. But it's part of the picture of Lennon that I can't deny either, despite his subsequent contrition.

To do justice to George Best, let's remember him as he really was: a man of great talent and deep flaws.

Don't treat him like a religion.

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