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London - It is one of the most famous and cherished of all football stories: how the 15 year-old George Best left Manchester United and Matt Busby after just one day at Old Trafford, got back on the boat to Belfast and turned up at 16 Burren Way on the Cregagh estate to tell his parents that Manchester and professional football were not for him.
It was July 1961 and the Sixties were not yet swinging to the rhythm of the fifth Beatle.
“I remember that morning, for I was on holiday”, Best’s father, Dickie, recalled one morning many moons ago.
“I heard George’s voice outside and thought, ‘It can’t be him, he’s only been away a day’. When he walked through the door I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said he was homesick.
“I said, ‘That’s all right, son, grown men get homesick.’”
Dickie Best said this when the photograph on the right was being taken. It was almost 20 years ago and Dickie was standing in the front room of 16 Burren Way, the small council house in east Belfast which the Bests had called home from 1947.
As of this week, that home has a new function, albeit with a familiar theme - it is a George Best B&B. Now anyone can stand in that front room.
Best died on a snowy November day in 2005 and, as his near-state funeral departed from No 16, the footage beamed around the world was evidence of the impact the once reluctant 15 year-old had upon it.
Three years later, Dickie died too and the family were confronted with the question of what to do with a house that continued to have visitors stopping outside to read the silver plaque beside the front door revealing the talent that had been nourished within.
Eventually the house went on the market. When the East Belfast Partnership found out about this, they bought it.
Next they had to decide what to do with a property that was known and saluted locally but which remains a council house on a council estate in a part of Belfast quite a distance from Ireland’s Blarney Stone tourism.
“We had the museum idea like John Lennon’s house in Liverpool,” explained Sarah Douglas of the Partnership, sitting in that front room. “But this street is so narrow, you couldn’t have tour buses coming along. We also had to make it financially sustainable.”
They settled on a B&B that would honour Best and his roots. Profits will go back into the community.
Upstairs in Best’s box of a bedroom you can sleep in his single bed - an option many females chose down the years (though not too many in this house).
There are a few United programmes around, a 1950s Wolves kit (Best supported them pre-United) and a Kirk Douglas poster from Spartacus, a favourite Best film. Downstairs you can read Best’s school reports from the late 1950s - ‘must do better’ being a common theme, though he was good at geometry.
There are also copies of letters home from early days in digs in Chorlton, south Manchester: “I went to see the first team play Arsenal on Mon night ...We were robbed ... Denis got another two.”
And there are pictures from playing days and family days in a house that became a place of pilgrimage when George was at his peak - and when he wasn’t.
Best’s room is vintage in look but the rest of the house is not, although that may change. Bookings are being taken; the first guests have described the experience as surreal.
Another description might be “real”. This is real Belfast - from the bottom of Burren Way the cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard can be seen; it’s where Dickie continued to work even as George became European Footballer of the Year and as famous as John and Yoko.
And while the Troubles are said to be over, the divisions in the city are not. The flags and Rangers shirts around Cregagh let the visitor know they stand on Ulster loyalist territory and B&B enquiries from south of the Irish border have included concerns about the safety of Dublin number plates.
Douglas has offered reassurance and she has been stressing other “real” aspects of what might also be called council-house tourism. “I don’t want anyone thinking there’s a Jacuzzi,” she said. Apparently you can stay at Frank Sinatra’s former house in Palm Springs: this is not that.
The streets are a reminder, in the post-Olympics debate, that footballers rarely have lottery-funded public school backgrounds.
George Best being George Best, he has done it all before, of course. At the height of his fame and fortune, at the end of the decade that began with him running away from Old Trafford, Best commissioned an architect to construct an avant-garde house for him in Bramhall, Cheshire.
Britain gasped at the £40,000 price tag. Fans thronged Blossoms Lane to see it, some tried to get into it, gradually Best became a prisoner inside “George Best’s house”.
Unfortunately, he was unable to run home to 16 Burren Way, as by then the IRA had let it be known Best was a target, presumably because of the Protestant streets from which he came. Hugh McIlvanney discussed this with Best in the house in Cheshire in October 1971. Best described how after a death threat before a game at St James’ Park he had played, but with the thought “that maybe this time the whole thing was real”.
“I never stopped moving on the field. Even when there was someone on the floor injured I kept running around,” he said.
Best joked that no team-mate had congratulated him on scoring that day. McIlvanney looked out on Blossoms Lane, thought of the turmoil of Belfast and wrote: “It was like finding a piece of shrapnel in your cornflakes.”
No wonder it felt like George Best was always on the run. His was some life.
Now anyone can witness where all the running began, cornflakes and all. - Daily Mail