/ 4 December 2005

Farewell to flawed genius

George Best’s son Calum thanked the ”amazing” people of Northern Ireland, returning the warmth shown to his football legend father during an emotionally-charged funeral for the province’s sporting idol.

The 24-year-old said he had been greatly moved and strengthened by the tens of thousands of mourners who packed the rain-soaked streets of Belfast to bid farewell to Best with applause and flowers as the cortege passed.

Northern Ireland’s most famous son was given what amounted to a state funeral on Saturday at the province’s Parliament with the flowers, football shirts and scarves thrown onto the hearse adding to the tributes that have carpeted the family home’s garden.

”It was a great day, it really meant a lot,” Calum Best said.

”Northern Ireland has been absolutely amazing, but it was just something else, it was unbelievable. I was actually completely touched.

”It’s been great. It really kept me personally and my family, it kept us all going. The thoughts, the letters and the prayers, when I’m down it really brings me up,” he told BBC television.

After a moving procession and an emotional service in the cream-marbled Great Hall at the Stormont Parliament Buildings, Best was buried next to his mother, Ann, in the hills overlooking his native east Belfast.

The Manchester United and Northern Ireland star was remembered in a poignant ceremony, touching both on his dizzy heights of international idolatry and the equally extreme lows of wanton — and public — alcoholism.

Topping off the day, United thrashed Portsmouth 3-0 at their Old Trafford home, preceded by a deafening minute’s applause as Red Devils fans roared their appreciation one more time for the Belfast Boy.

Friends, ex-wives, old teammates and dignitaries filled Stormont’s Great Hall, with up to 30 000 watching on giant screens outside.

The funeral’s compere said Best would pass into Northern Irish folklore and underlined the football wizard’s Achilles heel — alcohol.

”George would always recognise that however much a genius he may have been, he was also flawed. Maybe that imperfection made us love him more,” Eamonn Holmes said.

”We want to show the world how delighted we are that he came from a country of just 1,5-million people and became the best footballer the world has ever seen.

”In a country that often cannot rise above religion or politics, George Best did more than most to bring us together as a people.”

Listening leaders from paramilitary-linked loyalist and republican parties sat side by side, united in admiration and respect for Best.

Best’s funeral cortege left from his father’s modest family home on the working-class Protestant Cregagh estate with neighbours applauding ”Geordie” on his final journey.

The family carried the coffin into the Great Hall, where Calum Best choked back tears to read Mary Frye’s poem ”Do not stand at my grave and weep”, chosen by the family.

He then read another poem which had been e-mailed to his mother and he had read the night before.

In the funeral’s most moving moment, he recited ”Farewell our friend”, his voice shaking with grief.

He said afterwards: ”It just struck a chord, it really summed up my old man in my eyes.

”This one was more from me, it had a lot more significance to me.

”It’s something my old man would want, the fact that some lady from Belfast has written a poem about it, it just meant a lot.

”It put a smile on everyone else’s face. It was a great poem.”

Best died in a London hospital on November 25 from multiple organ failure, after suffering a series of health problems linked to his alcoholism. He was 59.

The winger is regarded as being among football’s greatest ever players.

A pioneering ”pop-star” footballer, Best was idolised by men and women alike and was as much a part of swinging sixties in Britain as The Beatles and flower power.

Best made his professional debut for Manchester United in 1963, aged 17, and helped the club lift the European Cup in 1968. In the same year he was voted European Player of the Year.

But the playboy lifestyle took its toll and he quit United for good aged 28.

Loved across the globe for his elegant skill, notorious also for his alcoholism, quips and womanising, in Cregagh, Best will still be Geordie: a fondly-remembered, charming local boy who went on to dazzle the world. – Sapa-AFP