Goodbye Georgie

OK Folks,

Another afternoon, another blog – more to pass the last couple of hours of my working week before Christmas - than to entertain all three of you out there that read this thing.

Although - that's not entirely true. I have been looking to write this one for a while and started it and finished on many occasions but the combination of being busy in work (imagine that?!) and getting up to mischief in the evenings has caused the delay.

As some of you may already know, a couple of weekends ago, the streets of my beloved Belfast saw sights the like of which it shall never see again.

Tens of thousands of people of all ages, from all walks of life and from all colour and creed, braved the terrible weather conditions to say goodbye to their hero, the Belfast Boy, Georgie Best.

Some of you may have seen it on TV; I went over there to be a part of it.

As the news of his inevitable death filtered out, I wrote my own fumbling attempt at a tribute to the man and put it on my blog.

I also went to the website of The Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland's biggest selling daily news paper and left a small tribute along with tributes from hundreds of others.

It was obvious that his death had touched a lot of people although just what happened in the days that followed probably took everyone by surprise - none more so than the Best family themselves.

Speaking for myself - I had never before mourned the death of somebody that I didn't personally know. I'm not some sort of sentimental, funeral groupie who gets all dramatic and starts using phrases like "isn't it such a tragedy?", "what a waste", etc. etc.

Princess Di, Freddie Mercury, Bobby Ewing - their untimely deaths, whilst perhaps leaving me with a certain feeling of sadness (apart from Bobby's) - didn't cause me to stop and think about what a loss to me personally, their deaths were.

Georgie's passing, however, really struck a nerve.

Now I know there are plenty of people out there who would say that he was a waste of space that drank himself to death, somebody - who through the kindness of a donor - got a second chance at life and fucked it up.

As far as I'm concerned, these people can go away and catch themselves on (to use Belfast parlance).

I had no time for the people that were so quick to kick him while he was down when he was alive. I am frankly disgusted by the people that crawled out of the woodwork and stuck the boot in before he was even put in the ground.

But still - even with all my love for the guy, I still did not feel compelled to go home for the funeral.

At least not yet.

On the Friday he died, I braved the blizzards and went out to the sticks to have a night out in Geel with some friends. We sat around a table getting all dewy eyed whilst sharing Our George Best Stories.

The manager of the bar, a fella named Colin and a friend of ours, had obtained the song "The Belfast Boy" - George's very own theme song (how many footballers can boast that?!) and on occasion, the bar was reverberating to it's beat long into the wee hours.

And then things started to get weird.

We sang our songs from the Emerald Isle, we drank our Guinness and we told our stories. Colin, a fella from the "Rebel County" of Cork and I, from Belfast, Northern Ireland united in our Irishness by the passing of one of the greatest people our island has ever produced.

Then, the conversation took a rather surreal and unexpected twist.

"I bet you I can grow a better George beard than you"
"No you can’t"
“Prove it”

And so – it came to pass that we decided that we would both try and grow a George Best beard.

(Look - it was 5 in the morning and it's just one of those bets that drunken boys make at that time, OK?)

I then ended up spending the rest of the weekend "on holiday" in this wee town with the strange name. ("Geel is the Flemish word for "Yellow") At least I think it's wee - I can’t really admit to stretching my wings much beyond the pub during those 36 hours.

On the Sunday evening, back in my snug apartment nursing a battered and bruised body from the excess of the weekend, I checked my emails and things got even weirder.

There was one from my family informing me that I had been published. My dream had finally been realized - my writing was in print!

Even better than that though, my tribute to George Best had been published in Saturday's Belfast Telegraph - a memorial edition dedicated to the loss of our hero.

But it got better.

An excited voicemail from my brother informed me that I was in the centre pages of the newspaper along with several other tributes from around the world.

And it got better still.

The sub heading in big, bold type across the bottom of the inside double pages was my quote!

Needless to say, I was chuffed to bits.

I then read some online newspapers and was amazed by what I was reading. Having effectively cut myself off from the real world for the best part of the weekend, I had no idea of the reaction to Georgie’s death. Suddenly they were talking about hundreds of thousands flocking to the streets of Belfast for the funeral.

Needless to say, I got caught up in the emotion of it all and the next morning I booked myself on a flight with Ryan-sometimes-in-the-fucking-air from Charleroi to Dublin. Leaving on the Friday afternoon, I was going to be home for a couple of short days to say hello to my family and goodbye to Georgie before returning to Belgium (is Boring) on the Sunday afternoon.

The inconvenience of arriving at Dublin was softened by the fact that my Da, who works in Dublin during the week, was able to pick me up. The somewhat long and mind-numbing drive up to our home-town was a special occasion for me that I shall treasure for years, the two of us talking animatedly and with great reverence about the wonderful George Best and catching up in what was going on in each other’s lives.

As far as we were both concerned, this was not a sombre occasion to mourn the death of one of us – instead this was going to be a celebration of the man, the legend - the working class hero from Belfast who’d “done good”

As he dropped me off at my mum’s I said my goodbyes and made arrangements for the morning. My brother and I were to meet at my dad’s house at 07:00.

I can’t get out of my bed on a workday at 07:00, never mind the morning after my first night back in the loving arms of my family - arms that are all too often laden with wine, beer, whiskey and Irish coffees.

The conversation continued long into the night with Georgie as the main topic of conversation. Even my other brother – not a great fan of the beautiful game (I know, I know Dear Reader – a helluva shame) got caught up in the whole occasion.

At 5 in the morning (there’s that time again), the youngest brother took himself off to bed. After all – he had to drive the 2 miles to our dad’s place at 07:00.

My other brother, supported ably by my mum and step-father battled bravely on through the night, deciding that we’d feel the worse for sleeping and indeed, the youngest brother’s demeanour as I woke him up 2 short hours later confirmed this.

And so it came to pass that my father, my brothers and I, met up at 07:30 on a cold, dark, damp Saturday morning to take the short journey to the austere location of the service, Stormont parliament buildings, Belfast.

After a little bit of illegal parking (which involved moving a few police cones out of our way), we made the short walk to the gates leading into Stormont and were amazed at the site that greeted us.

It seems we weren’t the only people who had woken early to take their place in the queue in the damp, dark Belfast winter morning air.

Thousands of people were queuing waiting on the gates of Stormont to open and as we followed the queue from its start to its seemingly infinite end, we realised that we were going to be a part of history.

For far too long, Belfast makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Here, the city was united by one common goal. To come out and pay their respects to a man whose life had touched us all.

We eventually found the end of the seemingly infinite queue and after standing around for the best part of an hour as a dull morning dawned over Belfast, the queue started to move - the organisers deciding to open the gates early due to the numbers of people that had already turned up for the funeral.

As we filed slowly towards the gates of Stormont, I noticed that bus shelters lining the funeral route had been transformed overnight to carry giant stylised portraits of Best pictured at his ragged, 1970s peak; more handsome pirate than professional sportsman.

As we neared the gates, we paused briefly to look at the hundreds of tributes that lay there in the form of flowers, cards, football scarves and shirts and flags from all backgrounds.

In this shrine to Best, I spied two things in particular, that caught my eye.

The first thing was two football shirts hung on the railings side by side - one from Glasgow Celtic and the other Glasgow Rangers – as indicative a symbol as any to show how the man crossed the religious divide in his homeland.

The second was a Northern Ireland flag. On the flag was the message:

“Maradona Good, Pele Better, George BEST”

I cursed myself, wishing I had thought that one up.

I was awoken from my thoughts when I heard a distinctive English voice:

“As you can see behind me, the thousands of people file somberly past the temporary shrine to George Best that has been set up here at Parliament Building gates.”

I did a double take before I realized what was happening.

The TV company Sky were broadcasting live and I had just walked past in the background, no doubt looking like somebody from another planet but at least looking the part in my green George Best No. 7 shirt. I was later to find out from friends that this clip was used by Sky News at the top of every hour for their news headlines.

It’s not often that I get published and on Sky News in the one week.

It’s only then that I realised the enormity of what was taking placed. I looked up into the skies and saw half a dozen helicopters flying overhead - some police, others TV crews.

At various vantage points, TV camera crews were setting up, trying to get a good view of proceedings.

On the roof of the Stormont Hotel across the street from the gates, we saw several members of staff struggling to unfurl one of the biggest flags I’ve ever seen. OK so it was Man United but it was no less impressive when displayed to its full extent from the roof to the ground of the 6 story building.

And then we reached the gates of Stormont and looked up the mile-long hill to Parliament Buildings.

Already there were several thousand people inside, lining the route but we decided to keep on walking to get as far as we could.

Three huge screens lined the route, to ensure that everyone got to see as events unfold. We made a bee-line for the one furthest away and closest to Stormont building and got into position around 09:30, almost two hours after arriving in Belfast.

We had arrived.

As we waited for George’s last trip, the organisers played marvellous footage of the man in his heyday – a truly awesome sight to behold.

Just then, I was approached by a woman in her 40’s to see if I would mind posing for a photograph.

A surprisingly less frequent occurrence than you may think.

It seemed that my efforts to grow the beard and the hair combine with the George Best shirt had actually paid off. I put my arm around the woman and posed for the photograph, taken by her rather pissed off looking husband.

“Er, no we don’t want that, it’s just the back of your shirt we’d like, with Best 7”


Shortly after that, the skies started to open and a very heavy rainstorm swept Belfast and soaked us to the skin. It seemed rather fitting for the occasion – the tears of Belfast skies mixing with the tears of its people.

At 10am, with the Stormont gates already shut to stop more people arriving, across the city at the family home in the Cregagh council estate the coffin was taken to the waiting hearse. Spontaneous applause erupted from the crowd, a fitting tribute to the man described by Pele as the greatest footballer the world has ever seen.
The giant screens erected along the driveway at Stormont beamed out live pictures of the cortege’s progress, and as the procession entered the gates, the gloom was momentarily lifted by the flash of hundreds of cameras and mobile phones, while applause rippled up the hill. Attendants had to clear away hundreds of scarves and flowers tossed on to the hearse. More flowers crowned the vehicle. Inside, Best’s coffin was draped in an Irish Football Association flag.

Inside Stormont, 300 mourners gathered in the Great Hall to pay tribute to the footballer, friend, husband, father and brother. Among them were both Best’s former wives, Angie and Alex, plus Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Best’s father Dickie.

Personal eulogies were read by Bobby McAlinden, a friend from his youth with whom he ran “Bestie’s” bar in California, and by Best’s friend and fellow Man Utd player Denis Law.

It was a nice service – a mixture of humour from Law, honesty from McAlinden, the medical from the Professor and then of course the sadness from his son Callum and his sister, Barbara.

Best, the beautiful boy of the beautiful game said he always wanted to be remembered for the football.

On this performance, it would seem he got his wish.

BTW - For the record - Colin's beard was better - although it has to be said that there was a distinct dodgy gingerness to it…