Portadown man recalls meeting with soccer legend Gerorge Best
It has intensified Gerald’s joy to be alive. He had the same experience as Best – a liver transplant - literally months after the Northern Ireland and Manchester star succumbed to liver disease.
“I have nothing but sympathy for Best,” Gerald of Bannview Bed and Breakfast recalled. “His condition was the illness of alcoholism. Even though he had a transplant in 2002 – three years before his death – he simply couldn’t control his craving for alcohol.
“In my case, my liver was subjected to a medical condition. I was diagnosed about a year before George passed away – and it was all very painful for us, as we had met him three times when he was in Portadown.”
One was a visit to a junior football club when Gerald arranged for Best to conduct a chat show at the then Bannview Squash Club, hosted by Times sports man Niall Crozier. The chat show was event number two, and the third was the night that George turned out for Portadown at Shamrock Park against the aul’ enemy Glenavon.
“I’m proud to have been the main organiser of that one,” Gerald recalled. “Best and his wife Angie stayed overnight at Bannview – he was the most modest, pleasant and talented man you could hope to meet.”
Rather than having a liver transplant in common with Best, Gerald would love to have had a fraction of his football talent. “I played the game as striker – centre-forward then – for Tandragee Rovers, Mahon Rovers, Rugby Rovers and Markethill Swifts,” he recalled. “As they say, as long as you enjoy the game…”
Gerald’s transplant was just over nine years ago, and his grateful thanks to all concerned is still palpable today and gives him a lump in his throat.
“I waited two years before the liver became available – I haven’t a clue where it came from but I’ll be forever grateful to the unknown donor’s family and to all the medical talent concerned.”
It took place at King’s Hospital in London – he was whisked to Aldergrove that fateful Friday night and rushed by private plane to Heathrow, with an ambulance awaiting and blaring through the capital to King’s – “two police cars in front for the 20-minute journey.”
The operation started at 6.30am and the next thing he remembered was waking up to look into the eyes of wife Joan at his bedside. “It was such a relief,” he recalled. After that, he raised over £5,000 for liver charities through friends and family in Portadown.
Since then he has “gone against character and have done everything I’m told – I’m teetotal and just have a glass of wine at Christmas with the family” - Joan, son Michael, daughters Karen and Gillian and extended family.
Many years ago, Gerald transformed Spence Bryson’s old bicycle shed (built 1896) into the Bannview, opening when squash was popular and world champions like Jahangir Khan (who opened the premises), Jonah Barrington and Geoff Hunt graced the Bannview courts.
There were five courts and 10 bedrooms – now there are no courts, with the demise of the game, and 25 bedrooms, with Gerald and Joan (“the backbone of the place”) changing and adapting with times. Nowadays it houses a hairdresser’s, a church, a state-of-the-art indoor bowling complex and those bedrooms which are 76 per cent occupied and have accommodated guests from all over the world.
“Fishing in the Bann was once a tourism catch,” he said. “But now we have what we feel is a unique reputation which has put Portadown on the map.”
The name ‘George Best’ rules overall in the Blacks’ psyche. They’ve welcomed had guests like Henry Cooper, Stanley Matthews, Terry Griffiths, James Hunt, Jack Charlton, Mary Peters and Bruce Grobbelaar – “all wonderful people, but Best had that extra bit of magic, an undefinable quality that registered with people –and we have that liver transplant in common.”