Saturday, November 7, 2015

George Best And Northern Ireland


During the Ulster Troubles, and outside the remit of political actors and those caught up in the violence of the times, only the Northern Ireland comedian James Young would appear to have pro-actively used a significant public profile to plead for reconciliation through the remit of political satire and a folk celebration of working class life.

Conversely, and as discussed in an earlier post, it would mainly be sporting figures from Northern Ireland that appeared capable of winning unqualified allegiance and broad-based support across the sectarian divide. And indeed across the generation gap too if one were to qualify similar claims now associated with the Seventies punk music scene in Belfast and Derry.

Ten years on this month from the death of George Best and the affection towards his person remains undimmed across Britain alongside the pride he brought to all the Ulster people during days of anarchy, mass murder and bedlam.

Best the working class Protestant born in a city whose Loyalist gable end walls would often be inscribed during the Seventies with the acronym KAI for “Kill All Irish” and yet would be mourned from Dublin to Galway and from Donegal to Cork alike.

Between April 1964 and October 1977 George Best would play 37 times for Northern Ireland and score nine goals in a series of matches which would consist of 13 victories, 16 defeats and eight draws. 16 of these appearances would be against British opposition. These 37 matches in turn were made up of 16 Home Internationals, 14 World Cup qualifiers, 5 European Championship qualifiers and two friendlies. By the deep worldly wisdom of 2015 it surely remains a matter of conjecture as to whether George Best's career was qualified by his lack of appearances at World Cup final tournaments or whether the World Cup finals themselves were qualified by his absence in the Sixties and Seventies.

If mid-1966 can widely be accepted as the start of political unrest with three murders carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force then it can be seen that the majority of Best’s international appearances took place during the Troubles themselves. The international football team even had to play home matches on mainland Britain between 1972 and 1974 because of the scale of violence - Best himself played in the 16th February 1972 match against Spain in Hull for this reason.

The background of civil conflict in Northern Ireland that ran in parallel to Best’s domestic and international career injected a significant undertone to much of the public response to his death in the country of his birth. Best’s passing uniting the men and women of Ulster in the realisation that the ghost to be mourned was not only that of an acclaimed individual but of an often maniacal time shared together which had nevertheless uniquely defined them as one people.

For all the naysaying of older generations of Northern Irish people - about a talent cut short and wasted alike a well-recalled raft of fellow Celts - for the children and teenagers of the Sixties and Seventies he was indeed nothing more than a defining cultural cornerstone of our lives and has left behind a million memories of genius, skill, intelligence and so much laughter and fondness.

Perhaps in other circumstances another Northern Ireland player could have performed such an act of brazen cheek against hapless England goalkeeper Gordon Banks in 1971 by flicking the ball away during a goal kick and heading into the net – but only Georgie Best could have done it in front of a Cinzano advertising hoarding in the world’s then bleakest grief hole. Likewise perhaps no other celebrity in the history of television marketing could have managed to advertise Cookstown family sausages and Fore aftershave while keeping both professional and personal reputation intact.

To no small degree the former Junior Orangeman and Belfast Telegraph delivery boy from the Cregagh estate would indeed be the sole public figure to supersede Irish political rancour in life and death – the many commentaries he made himself upon religious division on the island of Ireland having unfailingly reflected genuine sadness and humility.

For when Ulster almost ripped its physical being apart with butchery for three decades perhaps no other individual contributed so much to help rebalance how others saw us in our time of war - showing the world the kind of people we were and, more importantly, were not.

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