Poignant night as United pay tribute to Best

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The Independent Football

George Best has travelled so far and so deeply back into the heart and the mythology of football these last few days, he has made time travellers of us all. But there was no more poignant stage of the story that will have its last act in burial in Belfast on Saturday, than this beautifully measured penultimate stride.

We can only speculate, hugely, on the weight of emotion that will grip a native city that knows so well the pain that comes with the fall of heroes and lives lost before their time. But we know now that he will have a permanent place here in the football grounds where he has made a memorial to all that is most thrilling in football.

For those who were here at the start of his journey in football, who came along on a September afternoon 42 years ago, inevitably found last night an experience provoking the deepest reflection. We were provoked into this by the words of the hero himself a few years ago when he was appraised of all the disasters that had befallen him since he stopped playing football with his most serious intent.

He said: "I recall moments which most fans wouldn't remember but which meant a lot to me, like scoring twice against West Brom in the dying minutes to win a game we were losing 2-1. West Brom will always have a special place in my memory because it was against them that I walked out on to the Old Trafford field for the first time and I experienced that feeling of the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. They will stand up whenever my mind reels back to that day and other days like it. And the bad days cannot wipe away those memories."

That linking with the famous old club from the Midlands is for eternity now. You knew that when Sir Alex Ferguson and former United captain Bryan Robson, now manager of Albion, walked out on to the field carrying wreaths and the old guard of 1968, men like Nobby Stiles and David Saddler, Sir Bobby Charlton and Paddy Crerand stood solemnly to salute their fallen comrade.

United versus West Bromwich Albion might have been one of the low-key moments of the season, a Carling Cup tie destined to be lost in the race for more significant honours. But we will not forget it now. No more than that day in 1963 when Best wore the red shirt for the first time.

There have been more spectacular debuts, heaven knows. But Best did a few things that day which illuminated the sky; he showed poise and courage and a remarkable maturity on the ball. United, reigning FA Cup holders but some way from being a major force in the League, won 1-0 before 51,000 fans.

However, there were stirrings of greatness that some could see easily enough. One such witness was Charlton, playing out on the wing. Last night he said to the great crowd: "I would just like to pay my respects, like everyone here, to George Best who was a great man in the game. I would like to say thank you - and say you'll never be forgotten."

On the field, the young Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo made a statement about the skills of today and he coolly converted a penalty in the early going. United were coolly in control of the game and, perhaps more significantly this night, of their emotions.

At the bidding of David Meek, a man who had recorded the glory of Best at home and abroad, and most unforgettably in the Estadio Da Luz when the boy achieved his greatest triumph in the victory over Benfica, the fans raised the posters of George which will, you imagine, be transferred soon enough to the walls of memory all over the land.

Earlier, George's son, Calum, had mixed with those fans in the extraordinary monument to his father's memory which continues to grow beneath the statue of Sir Matt Busby, the man who both gloried and despaired in the wild spirit of his genius.

Last night, the force of history was overwhelming. Next week, in Lisbon, United, desperate to stay in the Champions' League, will hope for the kind of inspiration that was supplied by Best back in 1966. The fact of history once again intruded into the mourning of a great player, an icon now, with not the least uncanny aspect of this prolonged parting being the whimsy of the fixture list.

West Bromwich Albion and Benfica were the signposts of George Best's glory. And now they are part of an extraordinary celebration of a life that has been brought into its sharpest and most favourable focus when it is over.

Among the old players, Nobby Stiles was able to remember most clearly the strength of this enduring impact. He remembered when he played for England and Best represented Northern Ireland at Wembley at a time when his career was beginning to unravel. Stiles recalled that when Best's name was announced on the public address system, the crowd, mindful of the latest controversies, booed him. But Stiles also remembered that Best scored an astonishing goal that night, a summoning of talent and will that stunned the crowd and provoked their cheers.

Nobby had been knocked off his feet by the sheer balance and power of his club-mate and as he sprawled on the turf and watched the ball flash into the net beyond Gordon Banks, he thought "what a player, what a spirit".

That was the thrust of every thought here by those most lost in the time travel.

The tribute staged by Best's old club was thoughtful and filled with respect. But the deepest tribute came deep in the private thoughts that accompanied a minute of silence in which you thought you could hear only a collective heartbeat.

It was the last stride before they took Best home. To his second home, that is.