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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 December 2005, 12:35 GMT
A city mourns for the Belfast Boy
By Nuala McCann
BBC News website

His was a homecoming with a touch of that magic that lit up the glory days.

George Best, who kicked a ball on the working class streets of Belfast's Cregagh estate and grew up to become one of the world's greatest footballers, could not have dreamed his life.

Thousands lined the route to Stormont
Thousands lined the route to Stormont

Perhaps as a small child, he put his face up against the great iron gates at Stormont gazing at the white wedding cake of Parliament Buildings.

But could he have ever guessed that so many would come to say their goodbyes?

They braved driving rain and biting cold to stand first in the line at Stormont gates.

It was a long, freezing vigil for brothers Alan and Nicky Eccles and their friend Jason Wallace from Greyabbey in County Down.

The teenagers, who were not even born when the footballer was at his peak, wanted to be there.

They waited from 2300 GMT on Friday night.

"We just stuck it out", they said. "It was worth the wait. He was a sporting genius - a special talent."

A banner fluttered above them on Stormont gates. It read: "My dad told me you were the best footballer in the world - that's good enough for me."

The crowd threw flowers and scarves onto the hearse
The crowd threw flowers and scarves onto the hearse

For Anona Matchett from Portadown, it was a pilgrimage. Her husband Ernest was such a fan that he chose to go to university in Manchester because George was playing there at that time.

"My husband has died", she said, "but I know that wherever he might have been in the world, he'd have travelled home to say goodbye to George."

Loaded with deckchairs and coffee flasks, Anona and her sister Linda sat outside from dawn waiting to get in.

By 0800 GMT, sniffer dogs were finishing a final search of the grounds.

Huge screens flashed neon pictures of a young George telling the story of his legendary style on and off the pitch.

At 0830 GMT the gates opened and the crowds poured in.

Alex Best
Best's former wife Alex was among the mourners

Fathers brought young children. Fans in Northern Ireland colours walked in. People on crutches and in wheelchairs made their way in a sea of colour up towards Lord Carson's statue.

But politics was another world and Best was never one for taking sides.

It was the footballing hero the fans remembered. The screens flashed up the glory years. They recalled how he lit up old black and white screens with his sparkle and wild boy ways.

To locals, he was technicolor in the monochrome world of 1970s Belfast - a living legend with an E-type Jag who happened to be from up the road.

The steps of Stormont were a carpet of colour, as floral tributes were laid from all over the world.

Northern Ireland's leading goal scorer, David Healy, could not be present, but his family were and he kept in touch with his father, Clifford, by mobile phone as the family waited for the cortege.

Rain poured down

Inside mourners gathered. Sir Alex Ferguson, Sven Goran Eriksson, Sir Hugh Orde, politicians.

But there was also room for the human touch. Ten fans were plucked at random from the crowd outside. It was the Best family's wish that they should be invited in for the ceremony.

The football magic of George Best will live on forever
Olav Grinde, Bergen, Norway

As the rain poured down on Stormont, the grounds mushroomed umbrellas and as the cortege came round the corner into sight and police moved into place, the crowds broke into spontaneous applause.

Best's son Calum waved from the car. Flowers and scarves were showered on the hearse.

Fans waved banners - one read: "Maradona good; Pele better; George Best."

At Stormont's steps, a lone piper played as Best's old footballing friends carried him part of the way up to the entrance.

Small boys from Cregagh Rangers, George's first football club, lined the way.

Inside the singers, Peter Corry and Brian Kennedy were among those preparing for the ceremony.

Outside on the sidelines, the crowd waited and watched, whispering their final farewells.

In the Great Hall, Best's friends spoke about his goodness.

His team-mate Dennis Law said he hoped they would meet again - "but not too soon".

A young football fan at Stormont
A young football fan at Stormont watches the funeral unfold

Former player Bobby McAlinden recalled a friendship stretching back 46 years to when he was a skinny 15-year-old, playing for Manchester City and George was a skinny 15-year-old playing on the other side.

He said George showed him great generosity in every way.

"He made me his room-mate, team-mate, his partner in a desirable property - he was the greatest friend I ever had."

They shared a birthday and every year George rang Bobby in America on the day - it was inevitably the middle of the night.

"I'll not get that call next May - but I have my memories", added Mr McAlinden

After the ceremony, the cortege was brought out and borne back down the Prince of Wales Avenue to the main gate of the Stormont estate.

The crowd broke out once more into applause.

Afterwards it was quiet on the sidelines as people remembered what they called "the beautiful boy and his beautiful game".

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