03 December 2005

A fitting Irish tribute to a national icon?

Daily Ireland

A flawed icon for this flawed Irish nation of ours, no matter what political tangle we wrap ourselves up in with our two states and two crappy soccer teams.


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George Best’s untimely death may yet be the cause of an unsightly, political and sectarian squabble that will ensure his passing is remembered in the same terms as his life – that of a flawed genius.
Things were progressing swimmingly until about yesterday, then the downhill career towards farce seemed to be in danger of going out of control.
Icons can’t just die, be waked and stuck in the ground as if they were any Joe Soap like you or me, but Georgie – fair does to him – was following a script written in Hollywood. Reminded me of Pope John Paul II, God rest him.
First there were the football genius years, peppered by the seeds of self-destruction. All up front – television, tabloid headlines… the lot. Then came the serious phase of self-destruction – wild drinking bouts, marital bust-ups, professional walk-outs, shambolic, drunken appearances on TV.
There were high profile court cases – mostly arising out of drink-driving – bankruptcy, of course, further marital problems… and a new liver that most people considered he didn’t deserve to get (but he was George Best, you know)… everything still in the full glare of publicity… until, finally, the rough and sorrowful, sickly, old man before his time appearances on TV earlier this year. The end.
Of course, following the inevitable, the world did the right thing and remembered Georgie the way he wanted – as a wild and whimsical soccer genius. Never mind that the self destruction phase of his life was twice as long as the soccer genius phase, we forgave and remembered. We held a death watch that stretched into its second week and, sticking to the script, ooohed and aaahed at every single clip of sixties and seventies genius we could sit through.
With tender, loving generosity we forgave Georgie everything and thanked him for the excitement, thanked him for the memories, thanked him for rekindling the twin fires of youth and innocence. And with over a week in the build up to the funeral there was plenty of time and opportunity to look back, recount tales, amass the anecdotal evidence needed to bring the whole process to its logical conclusion… the canonisation of George Best. St Georgie, the Belfast Boy Genius.
Geordie, as he was known in Belfast, was a genius, Geordie was non-sectarian, Geordie symbolised the spirit of Eternal Youth. There were GAA shirts, Linfield shirts and Celtic shirts, Man Utd, Man City, Norn Iron and Republic shirts hung on the railings of the City Hall… the spirit of Geordie would renew and regenerate… let’s call the Airport after him, or else the City Hall itself. What about the new ground out at Long Kesh, let’s call it the Best Stadium, even if it never gets built! But then…
Why is his funeral being held at Stormont? What is all this about Castlereagh Borough Council hijacking the proceedings? Why is there not more emphasis on sport, and soccer, with kids in their rigs all over the place. We have had letters to the papers, and comment on tv and the lines to the radio phone-in shows are getting blocked with callers. George Best’s funeral is on the verge of becoming a controversy. The controversial funeral of George Best we will call it in years to come.
Are we afraid of the memory of George Best? Is it a case of that – as the poet said – everyone wants a part of him, no one wants him all?
I won’t make it to the funeral, myself but, with a tearful eye, I’ll follow the proceedings on TV. Because it’s the end of an era called the ‘60s.
I was young in the ‘60s. In fact, I only left primary school in 1969. So maybe I am not thinking straight. But. What is it? All my remembered perfections were in the ‘60s.
JFK, for instance. Perfect. Young, energetic, good-looking, modern. And Catholic. The Beatles. New people for a new era. Young, energetic, good-looking, modern. And Catholic. Arkle. God, do you remember Arkle. Ireland’s finest. Beat the hell out of Millhouse. They stuck more weights into his saddle bag and he still won by a mile. And Down. Down won the All-Ireland three times in the ‘60s, and what about Mohammed Ali? Young, gifted and black, like Pele… and George Best. Geordie, the genius, the ‘60s Icon. Geordie was the Best.
The Divis Street riots, Martin Luther, Robert Kennedy, Caledon, Duke Street, man on the Moon and then… Bombay Street, and the ‘60s were over.
Yes, George Best is a national icon. From the ‘60s, with love, life and energy to burn. A flawed icon for this flawed Irish nation of ours, no matter what political tangle we wrap ourselves up in with our two states and two crappy soccer teams.
Castlereagh can’t have all of Geordie, probably don’t want all of him anyway because, after all, he supported an all-Ireland soccer team.
When he was young and beautiful he supported an all-Ireland soccer team, and just last March when he was wrecked by drink and on his last legs, he supported an all-Ireland soccer team.
Derek Dougan, Best’s colleague and captain of the Northern Ireland soccer team in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, put an all-Ireland soccer team together to play the then World Champions Brazil in Landsdowne Road in July 1973. Lost 4-3 but showed what could be done, what should be done. One soccer team for all of Ireland… but last June they gouged Dougan’s portrait off a mural depicting Protestant soccer players from East Belfast: NO ALL-IRELAND TEAM AROUND HERE.
Nor will the Apprentice Boys cancel a march in honour of Best’s memory – much more important to take every opportunity to cause nationalists grief.
And what about that Ulster Bible Belt evangelical, sign of the fish crowd? This Best lark is all very well, but he was a womaniser and a drinker of hard liquor. And he supported an all-Ireland team.
After the ‘60s were gone, there just wasn’t the same… I don’t know, innocence, I suppose, in life any more. Or maybe I just started to grow up into life myself. The years are long gone, and now Geordie’s gone, the ‘60s icon. And we really should be able to remember him in some, fitting way. What about renaming Windsor Park to call it Best Stadium? Or what about a statue outside the City Hall?
Or what about doing what he himself asked us to do, and set up an all-Ireland team that could make this country a contender for international soccer glory.
We know that’s what Geordie wanted because that’s what Geordie said.
And I wonder, if there had been an all-Ireland soccer team in the late ‘60s with Jennings in goal and Johnny Giles in midfield, Derek Dougan up front and Geordie Best number seven… and had that team been able to take on Brazil, Portugal, Italy and Germany and beat them… would the ragamuffin winger from east Belfast have found the fulfilment that he craved, found it on the football pitch instead of in the nightclub?

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