Fans pay respects to their greatest hero of all

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The Independent Online

Upton Park invokes awkward memories to those Manchester United supporters not old enough to have witnessed a George Best-inspired side demolish West Ham to win the League in 1967.

United squandered the title in East London in 1992 and 1995 - to the natives' delight. The former Irons midfielder Paul Ince suffered gratuitous abuse whenever he returned in red and David Beckham hoped for a more forgiving arena for his first away game following his sending-off in the 1998 World Cup. His wife, Victoria, was right to give that game a miss.

But West Ham fans know how to honour icons. They showed that by applauding throughout a minute's appreciation for Best with vigour and genuine warmth. Several made "Best RIP'' flags, too.

The 3,000 visitors in the centenary stand sang "We all live in a Georgie Best world'' and a 12-verse Best adulation. An image of the Belfast boy in his prime, all classic United '60s shirt and Beatles haircut, filled two giant video screens and banners were unfurled, one reading: "you were the best, and all the rest''.

The energy was resounding and the applause heartening. Manchester United players are usually admonished with pernicious bile on their travels, but Hammers fans sang Rio Ferdinand's name and clapped Sir Bobby Charlton when he said: "On behalf of everyone at Manchester United and everyone who has ever played with or watched George Best, I'd like to thank West Ham for their effort today. What George has given football will continue to improve the game as we know it.''

They stopped short of warming their hands at Wayne Rooney's Best-like endeavours in the game.

The United fans sang Teddy Sheringham's name and applauded Sir Trevor Brooking when he said: "I think we can all remember him breaking into the first team with those magical skills. West Ham fans greatly admire players with great skill and George had that in abundance.''

Best was seldom far from the thoughts of the United fans on a coach which departed from the Bishop Blaze pub in Old Trafford yesterday morning, pausing briefly outside his growing shrine in the shadow of Sir Matt Busby's statue. On board were those who had watched their team play in Rome or Mandalay. Fans like John Brindley, who has supported United since Best joined the club over four decades ago.

"There's great sadness about George, especially amongst older lads like myself who saw him play," said Brindley, 50, of Gorton, Manchester.

"Denis Law was my idol but Best was the greatest-ever United player. My most vivid memory of him was stood in the boys' pen of the Anfield Kop in 1967. I'd gone in the wrong section and kept quiet but I gave my identity away when I saw George out-jump Ron Yates to head a goal."

Stephen Armstrong sat at the back. "My greatest regret was that I'm not old enough to have seen him play," said the 34-year-old, of Middleton, Manchester. "But I once saw him in a bar at Old Trafford. George was alone. He turned and said, 'are you OK, kid?' I was star-struck, but asked if he wanted a drink. He had a pint of what looked like water which was half-empty. George said 'I'll have the same again'. I was charged £16 for a bitter and a pint of water so I questioned it. The barman laughed out loud, and said 'George Best doesn't drink water'.''

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