04 December 2005
Tears and rain mingle as Belfast's beloved son makes his final journey
Sean O'Hagan joins a nation in mourning at a sombre, respectful and heartfelt tribute
Sunday December 4, 2005
George Best - 1946-2005
It rained. And then, it rained some more. Belfast rain, drizzly and relentless, falling down over the city and its countless steeples, and the hills beyond. And yet they came in their tens of thousands, lining the streets of Cregagh in east Belfast, the Knockbreda dual carriageway, the rainswept roads around Stormont Castle, and the long sweep that is Prince of Wales' Avenue from the ornate gates to the steps of the parliament building.
They came from Belfast, and Northern Ireland, and from over the border, and across the sea. And though they applauded as the cortege passed, and threw flowers, and turned several sites in the city into impromptu shrines, the event that many had thought would teeter into showbiz artifice, and a collective outpouring of grief, somehow not quite real, was, in fact, the opposite: sombre, respectful, heartfelt. Even in death, then, George Best surprised us.
At times, as the cortege moved slowly up the long hill to Stormont Castle, or during the minute's silence broken only by the familiar whirr of helicopters, or as the coffin was carried slowly up the steps, past the young boys from the Cregagh team in their pristine, all-white strips, it seemed as if they were burying not a sportsman but a statesman. Which, in a way, against all the odds, and in the face of his cavalier life, he was. Or, in death, has become.
'He was one of us,' said a young lad in a Northern Ireland shirt, who had somehow found a way past security and onto the lawn just below the steps. Not yet into his teens, the boy had picked up on the mood that had prevailed throughout the week since Best's passing. Whoever you talked to, from the young who celebrated his passing in alcohol-fuelled homage in the city centre bars, to those old enough to have seen him shine in the green shirt of his homeland, from the Manchester United faithful in the Red Devils' bar on the Falls to the Northern Ireland Supporters' club on the Shankhill, they all said more or less the same thing. 'He was one of us.' In a place where heroes remain thin on the ground, George Best, the tarnished genius who never quite fulfilled his destiny on or off the pitch, seems, in death, to have passed in Northern Irish lore from the merely legendary into the near-mythical.
Despite the attendance of the great and the good from the world of sport, entertainment and politics, this, though, was truly 'a people's funeral', not least because the Best family wished - and willed - it so. They insisted that it take place on Saturday so that people would not have to take a day off work. They insisted that 10 people at random were selected from the crowd to attend the service in the great hall. And, in return, their wish for a time to grieve in private was respected, too. After it was all over, the pomp and circumstance, the mass celebration, they buried their son, their brother, their father in peace.
The great homecoming came at midday on Friday, when a private plane paid for by two anonymous local businessmen brought George Best back to Belfast for the final time. In the soft morning rain a Scottish piper played a lament as the coffin, draped in a Manchester United flag, was carried the short distance from the runway of RAF Aldergrove to the waiting hearse. Best's son, Calum held his grandfather, Dickie, in a tight embrace. From that moment, the tone was set, the sense of a private occasion that was never quite overwhelmed by the grandeur of the public event.
As the hearse moved slowly out of the airport grounds, workers who had gathered nearby, lining the grass verges, broke into applause. On the main road, small crowds were gathered in the rain on every fly-over, silent and respectful. Bestie, the Belfast boy, was beginning the final leg of his long journey home.
On Friday evening, around six, I walked through the streets of the Cregagh estate in east Belfast, the same streets George played on as a child when the Troubles had not yet begun, and Belfast was a more innocent, and yet still tribally divided, town. The area somehow retains some of that innocence, the surrounding houses mostly owned by middle-class Catholics now, the streets still tidy and clean.
The playing fields of the Cregagh estate, where Best first learnt his trade, discovered his God-given talent, were almost waterlogged. The drizzle settled on our heads, and on the heads of the small gaggle of pilgrims who had gathered at a makeshift shrine beneath two grey high rises. On the perimeter fence of the playing field, a blood red, rain-sodden banner proclaimed a simple and direct message, 'Cregagh loves George Best', enclosed in a golden heart. Nearby, a Red Hand of Ulster flag had been customised to read: 'Maradona Good, Pele better, George...Best'. A laminated photograph of Best in his prime, heading goalwards in a red shirt, flapped in the wind. On it was stencilled the words: 'Where it All Began'. On Burren Way, policemen in yellow rainproofs patrolled the barrier-lined pavement, an echo of another time, not that long ago, when a Belfast funeral could easily become a flashpoint. Now there is only silence and peace.
A policeman waved me down the street to 16 Burren Way, the small, redbrick house in a row of similar houses, a maze of similar streets, where George grew up, where his body was now resting. The neatly trimmed hedge and well-tended lawn, Dickie's pride and joy, were strewn with football shirts and scarves, makeshift flags, banners, posters, and shrink-wrapped flowers that rustled softly in the rain. A garden of memories.
John from Ligoneil, on the other side of the city, had taken two buses, and a long walk, to get here, his hooded top hanging heavy with rain over his pale, spotty adolescent face. 'I never knew him, like,' he said, lest there be any misunderstanding, 'I just knew of him. Like everyone here, I grew up with George Best stories. I just got it into my head that I had to come and do something personal for George. It's sad, like, because he's the only hero we had. There's nobody else in that league, is there?'
As we talked, George's father, Dickie, well-respected around here as a quiet and private man, appeared briefly at the door to chat with the policeman who had just taken over guard duty. A cup of tea was proffered and politely refused. Hospitality, east Belfast style, as unchanging as the well-tended streets, the neatly trimmed hedges.
It is easy to forget that, amid all the violence and sectarianism of this troubled town, that this kind of quiet Northern Irish grace was a constant too, and remains so. Dickie Best and his family stayed here, though all the dark times, until George got the message and stopped trying to install them in grander houses in warmer climes. This was, is, and now always will be, the Best family home, as familiar and settled as George's nomadic life was exotic and wayward. Now, finally, it is his home once again.
The pilgrims arrived in a steady, silent trickle, carrying yet more flowers, scarves, jerseys. They stopped in silence to peruse the white wreath that spelt the words LEGEND, the United shirt in red carnations, the snatches of street poetry: 'The greatest Number Seven joins football's first eleven'. In a weekend of grand drama, and not a little artifice, the mourners who came to Burren Way, to stand, silent and respectful, in the falling rain, must surely have felt like I felt, if only for a few moments: humbled, grateful, sad.
This really was where it all began. This remnant of an older Belfast, untouched by bomb or bullet, touched only by the genius of its most famous son. It would have taken a tougher man than me not to shed a tear, standing outside that small redbrick house where Bestie now lay in repose, safe again finally in the arms of his family.
Later still on Friday, in the opulent Victorian decor of Belfast's most famous bar, the Crown, the locals are almost outnumbered by outsiders, Southerners mainly, lads from Dundalk, Cork, Kildare, Mayo, and beyond. Frank 'Dusty' Flanagan from Drogheda actually saw Best play, albeit in decline, when the legend turned out for Cork Celtic against Drogheda United back in the mid-Seventies. 'Just a few touches, really', he says, smiling now at the memory, 'That's all that was left of the genius, but the place was packed to the rafters. He was a pop star, really, he had the charisma'. Dusty's mate, Michael Murphy, from Dundalk, finally asks the question that has been nagging at them all day, 'Will we be safe enough up in east Belfast?' Someone else says: 'Maybe we should change our accents, eh?'.
I'm thinking the same thing as I head off to meet Winston 'Winky' Churchill Rea, the treasurer and self-appointed 'head honcho' of the 'First Shankill Northern Ireland Supporters Club'. This is one of the social hubs of the Protestant heartlands, where martial murals to the fallen heroes of the UVF adorn every gable wall. There is a steel door and security intercom at the entrance to the bar. Old familiars from another time. The clientele are working class loyalist, true and true, old faces and young faces looking equally hard-bitten. Winky makes us welcome, shows us the hundreds of red roses he has ordered for the local children to throw on the funeral route on the big day. 'Around the death of George Best, what has gripped me most is the sense of unity', says Winky over a pint of Guinness in a corner of the bar, beneath a framed photo of George and the great Northern Irish goalkeeper, Pat Jennings, 'It's over 10 years since the ceasefire and the progress has been painfully slow, but, since last Friday when the news broke, it's like the two communities have united in his memory. Who else could do that? You have to cling to moments like this, you have to build on them.'
On the nearby Falls Road, where the flags are green, the murals mainly provo, the sentiment was the same. Three Manchester United obsessives from Cork compare tattoos with two locals, all a bit the worse for wear from drink. 'It's a wake, isn't it', says one, 'a wake for Georgie. We'll show the world tomorrow what Ireland can do when it honours one of its own.' One of the Belfast lads claims it will be 'the biggest funeral since Bobby Sands'. How do they feel about going up to Stormont to pay their respects. 'It's our place too, now,' says one. 'It's Georgie's place now,' says another.
Earlier that evening, the photographer and myself had walked around the grounds of Stormont, and found a rehearsal for the next day's event underway. In eerie silence, people were filing up and down the steps and disappearing into the great hall. At the entrance, we spot Billy Bingham, manager of Northern Ireland when Best was in his prime, alongside Derek 'The Doog' Dougan, the great centre forward who had to wait in vain for one of Best's pinpoint crosses. 'We're the old contemptibles', quips Billy. 'We're here to do our bit for George'.
People begin queuing outside the gates of Stormont in the early hours of Saturday morning, many the worse for wear. Many are sporting strips beneath their umbrellas, not just in the colours of Manchester United and Northern Ireland, but in those of local teams like Glentoran and Glenavon. Later, in the grounds, while we waited for the cortege, I spot two lads sporting Cork City tops beneath their hoodies. Dermot and Joe had travelled the eight hours from Cork, and had blown most of their spending money on a shared room in the Hilton. 'We wanted to pay our respects in person, ' said Dermot, shivering in the wet wind. 'They can say what they like about his drinking and all the rest, but the man was a genius. An Irish genius.'
In the great hall, the next morning, the service moved between the stately and the anecdotal. Denis Law, Best's old team mate, and Professor Roger Williams, Best's physician in the final years, raised smiles with their tales of the man's legendary waywardness. 'Doctors are always warned never to get too close to their patients', said the man Best referred to simply as the Prof, 'but that was not so easy when the patient was George Best.' Best's son, Calum, recited two poems, the latter of which reduced him, and the audience, inside and out, to tears. Among the select three hundred, were two wives, Angie and Alex, several teammates, including Harry Gregg, a veteran from the original Busby Babes team, and Munich plane crash survivor, as well as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who appeared to be the only player present from the current team. Fergie was there, of course, and Sven-Goran Eriksson, as well as Martin McGuinness and Peter Hain. No sign of Van the Man, though, nor Bobby Charlton.
Outside, the rain stopped, and, as if on cue, the piper played another lament, and the vast crowd began applauding their fallen hero, tentatively at first, then wholeheartedly, the sound echoing around the vast grounds of the castle. Then, they placed George Best's body into the hearse for the final time, and he commenced his final journey home to east Belfast.
The crowds applauded him all the way, one last time. Then, they fell away as if on a silent signal, and left his family alone to bury their beloved in quiet dignity beside his mother, Ann, in Roselawn Cemetery. United once more. Safe at last. God love you, Bestie, may you rest in peace.