I can still remember the photograph of footballer George Best dying in hospital - he was a yellow olive Thai curry colour. He’d allowed the photograph to be used as a terrifying warning shot : “Don’t drink!” The tea-time news reported that his organs were closing down and he died shortly after. As he was an Irish legend the funeral was held at Stormont and I can remember seeing his son Callum walking behind the cortege with tears running down his cheeks. Here I am at the hospital where George died from the affects of alcoholism. This hospital is known around the world for treating liver and kidney infections. It couldn’t help the football legend though as he’d continued drinking after having a new liver.
When I was a boy I can remember him being on television. I was so naive I thought he was called Best as he was the best footballer in the country. When he’s shown on television playing football he’s usually dribbling passed defenders and scoring but he was a brilliant all-rounder - brill with both feet, good at feints, a fast sprinter with the ball and crafty at finding space when heavily marked. He’d often played after a night out clubbing and boozing and getting just three hours sleep.
I remember him more as a writer though. After his football career he wrote in a magazine that supplemented a Sunday newspaper. Suddenly things stopped and the paper had dumped him, fed up having to baby him into meeting writing deadlines. This coincided with a messy private life which was anything but private. He’d allegedly hit his wife in the face a couple of times when drunk. His chronic boozing had paid the wages of many a newspaper reporter as he was regularly featured in the red-tops for assaulting police, drink-driving, stints in prison, stealing and brawling. He’d been an alcoholic for most of his adulthood (his mum had turned into an alcoholic in her forties.)
Aged 54 he was diagnosed with severe liver damage and told it was functioning at only 20% efficiency. A year later he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia and a year later he received a successful liver transplant (nearly bleeding to death in the operation.) He couldn’t stop drinking though and soon seen drunk and banned again from driving.
Aged 59 he was brought to this hospital to receive intensive care for a kidney infection. The media reported that he was dying and men with cameras assembled on the pavement when I’m stood. Old chums from the past visited to say farewell - Rodney Marsh, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. Knowing the end was near he requested the News of the World newspaper published a picture of this jaundiced wreck with yellow eyes. On 25th November 2005 treatment was stopped and George died the same day. He was buried with his mum Annie in Roselawn Cemetery that looks across onto East Belfast.
The hospital is on a busy road and you can only hope the windows are double-glazed and kept shut. BUPA bought this place and even today it’s marketed at wealthy Middle Eastern people (accounting for 40% of its patients.) The actress Margaret Lockwood died here in 1990 of cirrhosis of the liver after many years living as a recluse. I did a salute and left.