George Best’s grave is being kept under 24-hour guard, it was revealed today.
The guard will remain at Roselawn Cemetery for the next few weeks, amid concerns a grieving or deranged fan could interfere with it or the mass of floral tributes.
The sun had hardly risen today when the first devoted fan arrived at the grave to pay their last respects.
Just 18 hours after he was laid to rest beside his mother Ann in the cemetery in the Castlereagh Hills above the east Belfast streets where the footballing legend grew up, it was opened to the public.
Staff had worked hard overnight to ready the cemetery for what is expected to be legions of adoring fans in the weeks ahead. Marshals were on hand to ensure everyone behaved.
Areas have been roped off to stop people walking on either the Best grave or those surrounding it, but those who visit are not prevented from getting up close.
A steady trickle of people did and stood, heads bowed, before the grave.
On a chilly misty morning they were drawn to the poignant message on the card from Calum Best spelling out DAD in white flowers.
“Dear Bestie. I miss and love you so much. I know you will always be watching over me. Rest in peace Dad, I love you. Yours proudly, Calum.” it said.
Beside it red carnations spelling out George had the more restrained message “Fond Memories. Dad” from his 87-year-old father Dickie.
A few more floral tributes from close family and friends lay on the freshly dug soil.
Best’s agent and long term friend Phil Hughes, left the message “Dear George, You made me feel special. You changed my life. Nothing will ever give me so much pride. Your best pal, Phil”.
Just over 100 yards away cemetery staff had created a fresh shrine to the footballing legend. Around bare trees wreaths and floral tributes from the great, the good and the fans have been laid out on display.
The football shirts, flags and scarves thrown onto the hearse during its journey through Belfast from the modest Best family home in Cregagh to the splendour of Stormont and on to the cemetery, were neatly tied to fencing.
Beneath them bobble hats, anonymous bunches of flowers and single blooms were laid out.
The first to visit were two brothers from Essex who flew over to Belfast on Saturday especially for the funeral and got their taxi driver to take them to the cemetery before going back to the airport.
Malcolm and Ray Weidner, from near Chelmsford, spent Saturday standing in the pouring rain amid thousands of others outside Stormont as the funeral service took place.
“We couldn’t come over for the funeral and not see his grave,” said Ray.
Malcolm added: “We both used to watch him play as young lads. My brother is a Manchester United fan. I support West Ham, but George was a draw if he was playing anywhere in London we would go to the match – he had a special talent.”
He said they had been amazed to find people from all around the world in the crowds at the Stormont funeral service.
“I don’t think there is another footballer who could do that.”
Mandy and Thomas Newell got their three young children Reuben, Thomas Jnr and Amber – up early to drive 30 miles from Banbridge, Co Down to visit the grave.
Football fan Mandy, whose father used to play for Newry Town, said she had sat through every minute of the funeral watching on television.
“I cried all day,” she said her voice breaking again as tears welled up once more in her eyes.
The floral tributes at the shrine amid the trees ranged from the ornate to the simple.
A large display of white roses bore the message: “Thanks for the memories. You were the Mozart of Football. Elton.”
A bouquet from actress Susan George who was Best’s girlfriend the early 1970’s said: “I will remember you with a smile. God Bless”.
Actor Mickey Rourke’s message was a simple “Cheers George”. There was one from another Belfast sporting hero, Alex Higgins. The former snooker world champion said: “To George, with love”.
Football clubs and supporters clubs the length and breadth of the UK, from the premiership to the lowest divisions sent flowers and messages – all laid out for fans to see.
Manchester United sent a wreath of a red and white flowers in the form of a football on pitch of green fir. Its former players another and numerous supporters associations even more.
Prime Minister Tony Blair sent a wreath on behalf of the Government; Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, another which said “For a football genius and one of Northern Ireland’s favourite sons. Irish Premier Bertie Ahern sent another.
But many came from ordinary people, just simple messages and Christian names.
In expectation of many, many more tributes being delivered a large grassy bank has been readied for their display by cemetery staff.
There are concerns that the Best grave could become as big a permanent draw for local and international visitors as that of Elvis Presley at his former Gracelands Mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.
But the grave where Best has been lain to rest beside his mother is not on a huge plot. It stands in a row of closely placed headstones amid other rows of headstones.
While marshals are on duty to see graves are not trampled or disturbed in the weeks ahead, in the longer term a permanent solution will have to be found.
Alliance Party councillor Naomi Long said the huge numbers of people want to pay their respects with flowers and other tributes in the months and years ahead could create difficulties.
“One option being considered is a permanent shrine to ensure that those people who want to see tributes and leave them will have somewhere they can go without interfering with other people’s graves,” she said.
One option could be the grounds of Belfast City Hall. Numerous luminaries are already recognised there.
But Best fans may want to get much closer to his grave, so a shrine in the cemetery may be the only solution.