The Carling Cup will fulfil its regular purpose for Manchester United tonight when Sir Alex Ferguson fields his next generation of talent against West Bromwich Albion, but for once the occasion will be dominated by the past as Old Trafford stages its own emotional tribute to George Best.
Sir Matt Busby Way has been turned into a makeshift shrine of flowers, shirts and photographs by United supporters and those with no allegiance to either the club or football, in the six days since Best passed into legend, but tonight the memorial takes the small but significant journey into the stadium where the icon secured their lasting affection.
The surviving members of United's 1968 European Cup-winning team will line the Old Trafford pitch in honour of their fallen team-mate before kick-off, while the senior players not involved in the fourth-round tie, Best's son Calum and Graham Williams, the former Albion defender handed the task of marking the 17-year-old Ulsterman on his debut on 14 September 1963, will also be in attendance. Best would not be disappointed.
"The ironies of football are amazing," said Ferguson, the United manager. "He made his debut against West Brom, who we play in the first game at Old Trafford since his death, and he made his reputation against Benfica, where we play next week. It will be a very emotional night. During the minute's silence I'm sure the older fans will see Best skipping over the defender, Ron Harris trying to kick him into row 10, dancing by the keeper, rolling the ball into the net and dropping to his knees.
"People have their own memories and I'm sure they'll all come back at Old Trafford. I think it's right that the fans should have their say on a permanent tribute to him."
Further tributes are planned for Saturday's Premiership game with Portsmouth, including the minute's applause that Best, even in death, has brought into fashion in this country, and Ferguson admits that the preparations have distracted him from the task of preparing a team for tonight's cup tie.
"I've not got a definite team in my mind with all that is happening here at the moment," he said, but Gary Neville, Louis Saha, Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi, Kieran Richardson, Park Ji-Sung, Phil Bardsley and Tim Howard are all expected to start.
Neville will take the captain's armband from the rested Ruud van Nistelrooy, though Ferguson admits that he is yet to make a final decision on the permanent successor to Roy Keane.
He added: "Seniority is important at this club and there will be great consideration given to Gary. Paul Scholes has told me he doesn't enjoy being captain but there's also Ryan Giggs, who has been captain on many occasions as the deputy to Roy."
Ferguson has revealed that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still struggling to overcome a career-threatening knee injury despite the player's claims that he hoped to return to first-team training next month. The Norwegian striker is to be offered a testimonial at the end of the season by United whether he completes his comeback or not.
* All matches in Northern Ireland on Saturday have been postponed to mark the funeral of George Best. An Irish Football Association statement said: "There will be no football played in the country on Saturday as the eyes of the sporting community throughout the world focus on the funeral of George Best, taking place in Belfast."Reuse content