George Best: The passing of a legend

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As the light begins to die outside the great stadium, as the temperature drops notch by notch, the more it seems many different types of people came not to mourn the sadness of George Best's death but to celebrate the excitement and the beauty that he brought to their lives.

There was solemnity, certainly, but not the kind you find in a church. There were flowers, too, but not the elaborate wrappings you see in a funeral parlour or a cemetery. There was a single rose bundled with daisies. But mostly it was scarves and pictures and shirts on which people had written their names and simply messages of thanks.

There were scarves from such bitter rivals of Manchester United as Manchester City and Liverpool, and from a host of other clubs, and they all echoed that thanks for a life which however distracted from its first glory, however painful in the full course of it, was still seen here not as a tragedy but a glory.

What was certain was that Best was receiving what he craved most in those days when the fire and the brilliance of his game had dwindled along with the cheers. What he was receiving now, when the game had been played and the sometimes-disordered race was over, was an acknowledgement that he always treasured in the worst of his days.

It was that he had given as much as he had taken and that the gifts he bestowed would never be forgotten in the lives of those who were there to receive them. Once, in the early days of his descent from glory, when he crashed a white Rolls-Royce in a London street, it was said that he frittered away extraordinary gifts and that he was disgraced. When somebody raised an opposing voice, he received a brief note in perfectly rounded handwriting. It said: "Thank you for remembering that I did a few things on the field."

Well, in the cold Manchester dusk, in the place he made his own, for as long as football is played in the stadium that was once bombed to near destruction by the Luftwaffe, that remembrance brought its own warmth.

It is true one old lady, dressed in a green woollen overcoat and carrying a black patent bag more suitable for a meeting of the Women's Institute than the environs of a football ground, wept openly but her companion explained that she had recently lost a daughter, a middle-aged woman who could never put away the pictures of the football hero she had collected as a girl. "Her mother wanted to come down here today because she felt George was part of her family, part of her life and her most precious memories," it was said.

As soon as Best was pronounced dead at the Cromwell Hospital in west London they began to gather outside the stadium that has grown so spectacularly since he played his first game there 42 years ago.

Michael Coughlan, a sales manager from the West Midlands, left his desk and got into his car the moment he heard the news. "It was something I didn't need to think about," he said. "I just had to be here. I saw George when I was a boy and though I still support the team faithfully I know there will never be another like him, there will never be anyone to quite give you that feeling that you are privileged to be in the ground watching him play. Wayne Rooney is a fantastic young player, but he will never have what George had.

"What was it? I'm not sure I can explain it all that rationally. It's just that when I saw him play it touched me so deeply. He did such impossible things, he made football beautiful."

As Coughlan spoke the flowers and the pictures and the scarves accumulated. Peter Jones, a financial adviser, who like so many had driven to Old Trafford out of pure instinct, was recalling the first time he saw Best play. "I felt like the luckiest six-year-old in the world. "My father took me to see the European Cup final in 1968 and of course George has always been my hero. He had everything as a player and when I see the game today I wonder if there will ever be another one. Somehow I doubt it."

There were many attempts at poetry, hastily written and pinned to the railings. There were no poet laureates in Old Trafford but there was a great welling of thanks and respect.

One tribute said: "He could run at the speed of a greyhound ... Turn on a sixpence and shoot ... Dribble his way through a minefield ... whilst still only wearing one boot." He could do all of that of course and the memory of it has so clearly survived the lost years of drink and pain.

For Best the final tribute was this outpouring of devotion so long after he had last worn the red shirt. People kept coming in the night. They all had a special memory and they wanted to talk about it. Caroline Byrne, a student at Manchester University, was from the South but her family were fervent United supporters. Her mother had called her with the news of Best's death and she had rushed from the lecture room with a bunch of flowers and a scribbled note: "RIP George - and thanks for everything you gave us."

As they all stood by those railings that were becoming a monument before their eyes, a majority stood lost in their own thoughts. Yes, it was easy enough to guess them, and confirmation came swiftly. They were thinking of all those times he'd turned the sky over Old Trafford a bright burst of red. They were thinking of his outrageous belief in his own ability and all the splendour of his achievements.

It was the tributes of grateful people with no mind to pass judgement on the wayward life of the fallen hero. Whatever he had done with that life, he had enhanced their own, and now they stood in the cold, granting him his last wish. He has said so many times: "I hope they remember the football."

They did. There was no hint of doubt here last night.