Ten years ago today Northern Ireland lost its greatest ever footballer George Best at the age of 59.
Recognised around the globe, the Manchester United legend was one of the most gifted players ever to grace the game. His dazzling skill lit up the terraces at Old Trafford and he became one of the first football celebrities, and was dubbed the ‘fifth Beatle’ at the height of the 1960s.
But, according to local politician Fraser Agnew, a former Irish League footballer who became friends with Best, the George he knew was unassuming and kept his feet on the ground.
In an interview given to the Newtownabbey Times following Best’s passing from an alcohol-related illness in 2005, Agnew recalled what an ‘an honour and privilege’ it had been to have known the man Pele dubbed as ‘the greatest footballer in the world’.
He also reflects on the times Best wowed the crowds at Ballyclare Comrades’ home ground, Dixon Park.
“I played in several charity matches with George, and through that association got to know him very well,” said Mr Agnew.
“I used to drive George, his father Dickie and his manager Bill McMurdo around to matches throughout the province and we’d always have a bit of banter and a laugh.”
Among the most memorable local games that Best lent his inimitable talent to was a charity Ballyclare Comrades match against Glentoran in 1983.
At the same venue a year later a Special Challenge Charity Match took place between the George Best XI - a Newtownabbey Borough Council team, and the Billy Neill XI.
Local councillors on the George Best XI included Clifford Forsythe, the MP for South Antrim, Leslie Caul, then Mayor of the Newtownabbey, and former Brantwood player Agnew.
“We had our tea in Ballyclare Town Hall before that match,” said Agnew.
“And I remember it as clear as day that George tucked into some of May McRoberts’ toast, digestive biscuits and tea – that was his preparation for the game, and afterwards his tipple was orange cordial with lemonade.
“He was not drinking at the time because he had already had an operation when special pellets were implanted in his body which if subjected to alcohol, would cause him great pain.
“During that period of his life he was totally sober and as we drove round all over Northern Ireland playing matches, there were several things that struck me about George.
“Chief of these was he was a lovely person, and I realise this might sound strange about a man who was a world superstar, but he was also quite shy and modest, and very, very patient.
“More often than not people used to make an absolute nuisance of themselves trying to get to him, but he still had time for them and never refused anyone an autograph even if they were butting in when he was busy doing something else.”
At the same time George Best was ‘extremely competitive’, said Mr Agnew.
“He was the complete, consummate footballer. ‘Simply the Best’ without a doubt. Not only could he use both feet, and head the ball, and tackle beautifully, he could also look after himself on the field.
“He had great humility for all his talent and world acclaim, and what I found particularly poignant and admirable about him was how he never, ever forgot his roots.
“After we played our matches he was often keen just to get back to the family home in a Cregagh housing estate and to spend time with his Dad.
“There were times we would go back there with him, and it was George who would disappear into the kitchen to make tea and toast for us all.
“He was a great ambassador for this country and will be sadly missed.”