Belfast united in sadness at fate of a hero

GEORGE BEST’S home city was united in grief last night.

The working class Protestant housing estate in east Belfast where he first kicked a football before emerging to become one of the game’s all-time greats fell silent.

And among the hundreds of fans in Catholic west Belfast, his lingering death left many close to tears.

There were deep emotions as well around the side streets at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland’s home ground. One pensioner who used to act as a turnstile steward at international matches at the height of his spectacular career said: “George has been a tortured soul for most of his life and maybe now he’ll find the peace he always yearned for.”

Best left Belfast as a teenager to join Manchester United, but never lost his love for the city, even in the worst of the violence and civil unrest, and at a time when he was struggling against alcoholism he once lived with his second wife Alex in a luxury bungalow close to the Co Down coastline.

They later sold up and returned to live in Chelsea.

As late night shoppers shielded themselves against howling winds and driving rain which forced the closure of the outdoor Christmas continental market at the front of City Hall, the mood below the twinkling street lights was grim.

Frankie McNeill, a restaurateur from Glengormley, said: “He was the greatest and he’ll play for the best football team in heaven. There will be no bidding for him up there.”

Gerry Davidson, 21, said: “I just hope I have as much fun in my life as he did. I never saw him play, but my dad who saw him score a goal at Old Trafford said he was something else.”

Francis Mark, 43, said: “I just hope he’ll be remembered for his football, and not all the rest.”

In the Cregagh estate in east Belfast, built just after the war and where his father Dickie’s mid-terrace home in Burren Way has already become a virtual shrine, there was deep despair among neighbours and friends who still recalled the skinny lad who amazed them with his magical footwork all those years ago.

On the far side of the city at the Red Devils pub on the Falls Road which has a plaque dedicated to Best behind the counter, Man Utd fans spoke of their despair at the tragic end of their idol.

Dickie Forte, 63, said: “The man was magic. The only thing he never achieved was playing in the World Cup. He could have won it on his own if he had been with Northern Ireland in the final stages. He was the best player Europe ever produced.”

Jim Boyce, president of the Irish Football Association, a lifelong friend and part of a team which organised a testimonial dinner for Best in 1988, said he was shattered.

Four years ago as he waited for his liver transplant, the seriously ill ex-international left his sickbed to attend a game against Spain, and to go onto the pitch with youngsters to promote peace and harmony.

All around him predicted he would never turn up, and Boyce said he would never forget the gesture.

He said: “He was one of the most likeable and decent people I’ve ever met. He is held in great affection throughout Europe. This is a terribly sad day for me and for football throughout the world.”

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