Date: 3rd December 2005 at 11:37am
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Report from Sporting Life: Tens of thousands of people gathered at Stormont on Saturday as Belfast prepared to pay its last respects to its most famous footballing son, George Best.

Even before daybreak, buses, taxis and cars carrying fans of the Manchester United superstar flocked to Parliament Buildings to take part in the biggest outpouring of grief ever seen in Northern Ireland for a sporting icon.

Admirers came from all parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland to pay tribute to a player regarded by many of his contemporaries as one of the finest of all time.

At 8.30am as the gates of the estate opened, it was estimated 12,000 people had gathered to witness George Best’s send-off which has united fans of all football clubs in mourning as well as both communities in Northern Ireland.

For security reasons, only 32,000 people will be allowed into the grounds around Parliament Buildings, while 300 guests inside will join Best’s son Calum, father Dickie, his brothers and sisters and two former wives, Angie and Alex for a ceremony akin to a state funeral.

Team-mates from his playing days at Manchester United and Northern Ireland were also gathering in the city for the ceremony, including his close friend Denis Law – who was due to give a reading – Sir Bobby Charlton, Paddy Crerand and Harry Gregg.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Northern Ireland counterpart Lawrie Sanchez, former international boss Billy Bingham and England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson were all expected to attend.

On his arrival Sanchez said: ‘He was Northern Ireland’s boy. It is is a sad day on one part but hopefully people will remember what a great player he was.

‘I’m just old enough to remember the end of his career. He was a great person. We have got to remember what a great player he was.’

He added on Sky News: ‘He was a Belfast boy and it is right they come out today.’

Some fans began their pilgrimage in Belfast city centre, gathering outside the City Hall which has hosted a shrine over the past week to the 59-year-old football genius.

Scarves were tied to the gates of City Hall and candles lit among the rain drenched football shirts and flags. There were also personal messages to the Northern Ireland international.

Bus shelters in east Belfast also paid tribute to the footballer who honed his skills on the Cregagh estate, with special posters in the red of Manchester United emblazoned with the number seven and the green of Northern Ireland with the number 11, declaring ‘The Best from Belfast’.

As crowds streamed up the mile-long Prince of Wales Avenue in the Stormont estate, huge floral tributes and wreaths were placed at the spot where the coffin will emerge from the hearse once it has made its way from the Best family home in Cregagh.

Wreaths were placed at the foot of Parliament Buildings from leading figures in the worlds of politics, sport and entertainment, and from the Royal family.

Among them were tributes from the Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Government, Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain.

Among white roses from the Duke of York was this tribute: ‘An inspirational footballer from Northern Ireland whose skills captured the imagination of fans from around the world.’

A football-shaped wreath was sent from Old Trafford and there were also tributes from the Edinburgh club Hibernian where he played between 1979 and 1980, Peterborough and the Jersey branch of the Manchester United supporters club.

Hollywood actor Mickey Rourke also sent a wreath and there was a floral tribute from one of east Belfast’s other famous sons, the singer-songwriter Van Morrison.

By 9.50am the Stormont Estate was filled to its 32,000 capacity.

Some of Belfast’s most famous sporting sons, snooker players Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor and footballing greats Martin O’Neill and Gerry Armstrong joined the mourners.

‘What a sad day for Northern Ireland, but what an ambassador he was,’ Dennis Taylor.

Martin O’Neill added: ‘Despite the fact he’d been ill for some time it’s still a shock for everyone when the time comes.’

Asked if Best had squandered his talent, he said: ‘I wouldn’t mind having nine or 10 years like George had and then people telling me I’d wasted my talent.’

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at Stormont at 9.30am with striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Boxer Dave McCauley, former Northern Ireland football captain Derek Dougan, and Pat Jennings also crammed into the Stormont Estate.

Inside the Great Hall John Delaney, chief executive of the Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland sat beside his Belfast-based counterpart, Howard Wells, and Lawrie Sanchez in a show of cross-border solidarity in mourning.

As the coffin was carried out of the Best family home in Burren Way there was a standing ovation from friends and neighbours and umbrellas were lowered as a mark of respect as cameras flashed.

Crowds lining the funeral route continued to applaud, throwing roses and Northern Ireland scarves, as the hearse wound its way out of the Cregagh estate with a police motorcycle escort.