A remembrance of remarkable proportions took place across Britain yesterday for George Best, the footballer and flawed celebrity who died on Friday.
Hundreds of thousands of people fell silent at football grounds throughout the British Isles as they paid their respects to a man whose artistry made him a legend.
In Belfast and at Old Trafford, the home ground of his main club Manchester United, flowers and spontaneous tributes built up in a fashion not seen since the death of the Princess of Wales. Friday's funeral in Best's home city of Belfast, where half a million people are expected to line the streets, is promising to rival the emotion generated by the passage of the Princess's cortege through London eight years ago. Like Diana, Best was an icon of physical grace and psychological vulnerability.
But yesterday it was the chance for the game that Best played with such devastating skill to honour him. In the day's first match, Wolverhampton Wanderers' Championship home game against Southampton, fans observed the continental-style tribute of a minute's spontaneous applause, rather than silence. Players of both teams wore black armbands, as did teams throughout the day. Best was also remembered with cheers and applause at Celtic for the match against Dunfermline.
Elsewhere, grounds throughout England, Scotland and Wales observed a minute's silence. The only exception was the matches involving Manchester City and Leeds, whose supporters have long since regarded pursuing a rivalry with Manchester United to be a more urgent necessity than good manners. Silence was, however, observed at all Irish league grounds. Howard Wells, chief executive of the Irish Football Association, said: "The like of his ability will not be seen again."
In Belfast, queues built up outside City Hall as young and old alike waited patiently to sign books of condolence opened by the Lord Mayor. In the east of the city, flags flew at half mast to mark his passing, and the local Castlereagh Borough Council ordered flags to be lowered for the local boy they honoured with the Freedom of the Borough in 2002. They will remain at half mast until Best is buried beside his mother Ann on Friday.
Floral tributes continued to pile up outside the Best family home in the Cregagh area of the city - where his father continues to live and from which Best set off to seek fame at Manchester United over 40 years ago. Tributes, too, in the form of flowers, football shirts, toys and handwritten notes, continued to be left in vast quantities outside Old Trafford and near the statue of Sir Matt Busby, the club's manager who signed Best as a 15-year-old in the 1960s.
Among those signing the Old Trafford books of condolence was Tony Gormley, 48. "It's just sad," he said. "He was ill for such a long time, you knew it was coming, but it's still a blow now that he's gone." He joined calls from other fans for a fixed memorial to their hero. "It would be nice if they named a stand after him, or built a statue."
It is hard to think of Best as a statue, although his speed left many a defender looking like one in his heyday. For millions of football followers, he will live on not as a home for executive boxes or as a piece of sculpted bronze but in the memory as a unique talent. Sentimental that may be, but then, for most fans, sentiment is as fundamental to the game as the ball.Reuse content