Lone piper greets Best on final return to Belfast

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Elaborate arrangements are in place for the funeral of George Best, which is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people in his home city of Belfast today.

The footballer's body was flown back to Northern Ireland yesterday on a special flight which landed outside the city at RAF Aldergrove, where it was greeted by a lone piper playing a lament. The coffin was accompanied by Best's son, Calum, and by his agent, Phil Hughes. It was then driven to the Best family home at Cregagh in east Belfast.

Today, the cortège will travel from the modest home, where his 86-year-old father, Dickie, still lives, for a major public ceremony at Stormont, in the grounds of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Thirty thousand people will be allowed into the extensive grounds, while tens of thousands more are expected to line the three-mile route. The funeral will then take place at Roselawn, on the outskirts of east Belfast.

Large-scale traffic diversions are to be put in place, with parking restrictions in force for a two-mile radius. Spectators will be bused to Stormont from pick-up points several miles away. The choice of Stormont for the public part of the proceedings means that all the day's activities will be confined to Protestant east Belfast, with the rest of the city largely uninvolved.

The Best family is being especially protective towards Dickie Best, making appeals for the public and the media to treat as strictly private the removal of the coffin and the actual funeral. George's sister, Barbara McNarry, speaking on behalf of the family said they had been deeply touched and comforted by the "massive" outpouring of public sympathy. "We are so very, very grateful to everyone," she said. "We have had cards, letters and e-mails from all over the world. We are overwhelmed by all the support we have received and we appreciate it very, very much.

"We know that there will be many thousands of people attending George's funeral tomorrow. They will be there for the funeral of their hero. But to our family, it is the funeral of a son and a brother.

"Our father is 86 years old. I know people will accept that for him especially, this will be a very, very hard day. He is burying his son. We are appealing to people to give us some space to grieve in private."

The Best home has been inundated with tributes including flowers, football jerseys and mascots, and a stream of visitors arriving to pay their last respects. Airlines and ferry services from Britain have been busier than usual as thousands travel to Northern Ireland for the occasion.

Denis Law, one of Best's closest footballing friends, and other players will help carry the coffin, along with Dr Akeel Alisa, who was part of the medical team that treated best at the Cromwell Hospital in London. Figures such as Bobby Charlton and the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, will also be attending.

The ceremony will involve religious elements and entertainers such as Eamonn Holmes and Brian Kennedy, who is to sing Best's favourite song, "Vincent". About 300 mourners will be allowed into Stormont's Great Hall for the televised service, while giant screens will broadcast the proceedings to the thousands outside. They have been warned to come dressed for freezing conditions.

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