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

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.

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.

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.

Belfast Telegraph

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