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George Best and Martin McGuinness

Posted on 27 April 2009 | 9:04am

Terrific play on BBC2 last night about George Best’s family. His mother was the main character, her descent into alcoholism a parallel to his rise to fame.

Mrs Best did not taste alcohol till the age of 44, and was dead ten years later. In an understated kind of way, the film captured the slow grip alcohol took on her, and the pain and confusion this caused her family.

Powerful too the theme of fame and the damage it can do to a family when one member of that family does something special. Best has close family still alive, and amid the pleasure I took at a well-made, well-acted Sunday night TV programme, part of me wondered whether the family were happy to see themselves portrayed so intimately in what was, no matter how much research was done, a fictionalised account.

There were a number of scenes where they were picked on because of their association with George, including one where his sister was phsycially set upon by a group of Catholics. ‘They only know you’re a Protestant because of me,’ says a sad-looking George.

The politics of Northern Ireland formed part of the backdrop, George calling home from Manchester as the family try to absorb the horrrors of Bloody Sunday on the TV news.

Which brings me to Martin McGuinness, who has been warned by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that his life is in danger from Republican terrorists.

No stranger to death threats, the former IRA commander turned peacemaker and now Deputy First Minister has struck a defiant note, and is determined to go about his business as normally as possible.

I record in my diaries Tony Blair once saying of McGuinness and his Sinn Fein colleague Gerry Adams that we had to understand they went about their business with a modicum of fear that someone might come along and blow their brains out. Most of their lives, the assumption would be that any attack would come from Unionists. Now the fear would be dissident Republicans opposed to the role they have played in reaching a political settlement short of Northern Ireland being part of the Irish Republic here and now.

McGuinness was a regular feature of my time with TB, and I always liked him, not least for a shared love of football. I bet he was watching last night. There was certainly a hardness there, he could be a nightmare in negotiations, and you knew he had done some pretty dreadful things in his time. But Northern Ireland is a much better place than it was, and he is among the people who can take a fair share of the credit for that.

It would be an even better place if George Best was still around. Somewhow an airport named in his honour does not quite compensate for what the demon drink did to him, and the genius on display in the real football clips they showed last night.

  • james

    Alastair,

    As a statement of the bleedin’ obvious – this is your blog and you can write about whatever you want.

    However on the evening after the Budget last week you said there would be “lots of time to debate the Budget, and lots of things to say in future blogs” – have you had a chance to formulate your thoughts yet, beyond feeling a bit down about it?

  • Sally Pearce

    According to The Guardian, you are right to be concerned the family was not happy about it – Best’s sister is quoted as saying so. She says it is one dimensional about the mother and not understanding enough of the damage done to families. I also agree with you it was a good programme though, and whatever else the Best family should still be very proud of their most famous member

  • Michael Mills

    Are you sure you should be saying you ‘like’ a man who ran the IRA?

  • Martin Greene

    Best was a wife-beater. McGuinness was a terrorist. But you don’t seem to mind

  • gary enefer

    V.nice to discover your official website through Twitter – which i have just joined. We all have ‘previous’ as in Martin McGuinness and I am a huge believer in never judging someone-even if you have walked in their shoes.-just took me to my mid 40s to realise this. I have just given up drinking – due to weight, it’s a bad habit and general lethargicness.

    Will follow you on this blog and twitter
    with thanks
    gary enefer,Sussex

  • Alan Quinn

    Regarding Besty, you can get his family’s side by reading Barbara Best’s book, “Our George” written by his sister.

    George was a genius, he faced real hatchet men like Ron Harris, Norman Hunter and Tommy Smith but still took them on because he was fearless. If you fart near a player today you get a yellow yard but George took all the knocks, gave some out himself and got on with it. He also played on mudbath pitches, not the bowling greens of today.
    He made his league debut aged 17 v WBA in 1963 and toremented their right back, Graham Williams so much that Matt Busby made him play on the left in the 2nd half because he thought Williams might lose it and try to injure George.
    Williams would later, off pitch ask Besty to “stand still”. When Best asked Williams “Why?” he replied “I’ve played against you several times but all I’ve ever seen of you is your arse going down the touch line when you roasted me…”

    Besty came on the scene by scoring two goals to destroy Benfica away 5-1 in 1966, they had never been beaten at home in the european cup. He would later win the european cup in 1968 with United and be named european footballer of the year.

    George was threatened several times by the IRA. He once played against City in the Manchester derby and was asked by his best mate, the city player, Mike Summerbee if the threat had been lifted? “No” said George, “Well I hope the bastard hasn’t got a machine gun because I’m marking you this afternoon….”

    If you want to see him at his best go on You Tube and find the clip using Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World”. The goal against Chelsea is magnificent, Chopper Harris nearly scythes him in two but George recovers when many would have gone down for a penalty to go around the ‘keeper to score.
    He finished the game 27 yrs old due to the bottle and his inability to handle fame. Managers like Alex Ferguson can prepare young players for living in a goldfish bowl because George was the first genuine superstar.

  • Jane A

    Whatever people’s views about how George Best (and his mother’s) life was damaged by alcoholism, it remains the case that alcoholism at that level is an addiction, and addictions fall into the realms of conditions treated by mental health services.

    Given that mental illness in some form affects one in four of us, that means over five people on the field in a football match. Multiply that by all the teams who play in all the leagues on a Saturday, and you get some idea of the numbers. Take a guess at the numbers affected standing in the stands (or sitting) on top of that.

    But that knowledge, the sensitivity, the awareness and the support weren’t in place in the 60s & I would guess, often by the time the need for support was identified, it may have been too late. George’s is a sad story.