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George Best fans still flock to final resting place decade after Manchester United legend's death

By Ivan Little

Under a Manchester City sky of powder blue with a wisp or two of white clouds, George Best's old schoolmate Bobby Cosgrove stood by the Manchester United legend's grave yesterday and wondered what might have been.

At an icy Roselawn Cemetery just a few days before the 10th anniversary of George's untimely passing, Bobby pondered what the quiet youngster who starred in their chaotic 20-a-side school kickabouts with a tennis ball could have done if he hadn't pressed the self-destruct button to prematurely end his football career and, even more tragically, his life.

The Northern Ireland international died on November 25, 2005 from multiple organ failure at the age of 59 with his family by his side in the Cromwell Hospital in London after a long struggle against alcoholism.

And sadly the last 10 years have seen repeated disputes between his son Calum and George's sister Barbara, who has accused her nephew of betraying his father in interviews about him.

Bobby Cosgrove said he was convinced everything could have been very different if George had been handled more firmly in the heyday of his electrifying footballing career.

"If Bill Shankly had been his manager, the discipline would have been stricter and George wouldn't have been allowed to fall by the wayside," he said.

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Bobby used to organise guided tours around George's old haunts and landmarks, from Windsor Park to the Cregagh estate where he lived, and their old school at Nettlefield where they played together.

He added: "I did the tours for two years and we had people coming from Australia, New Zealand, South America, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and South Africa and I'll never forget the woman who insisted on leaving an expensive necklace with a 'G' on it on his grave. Someone pinched it, unfortunately."

Bobby said that interest in the Best trails gradually started to wane and tourism officials withdrew their support.

But even now, from time to time he still sets up independent tours - the last one was for a Man United supporters' club who were visiting Belfast from England.

As he surveyed George's simple grave, Bobby said he was sad that there's still no permanent memorial to Northern Ireland's most gifted footballing icon.

"It's a crying shame that all the great proposals came to nothing," he added.

There were plans for a statue but amid rumours of rifts and reports of wrangling, the appeal for the public to help fund the sculpture was eventually abandoned.

The George Best Foundation set up in his memory was also wound up.

At Roselawn, the security men who were on duty around the clock after George's funeral are long gone now and the ropes that marshalled the thousands of mourners queuing to pay their respects to George are but a distant memory.

At the grave yesterday there were a couple of tiny footballs with 'miss you' and 'thank you' messages and anonymous supporters had draped a 'C'Mon Norn Iron' scarf on the grass in front of the Best family headstone, along with two poppy crosses.

At the entrance to the cemetery, a map still points the way for the occasional visitor to find their way to George's final resting place in plot number S295.

He rests beside his mother Annie and his father Dickie, and just nine graves away from where the footballer's grandparents Mary and James 'Jock' Best are buried.

Yesterday, two Best fans braved the elements to pay homage to their hero.

Michelle McBride and Lyn Smyth, who are from the Cregagh Road, said they wanted to visit the grave in the week of his 10th anniversary to honour the late, great superstar.

"We never saw him playing, but everyone in Belfast knows he was a little bit special," said Michelle, a Manchester United supporter.

Lyn, whose family are Newcastle United supporters, added: "It really would be tremendous if there was something more permanent to remember George."

On Wednesday, as Manchester United play a Champions League game at Old Trafford against Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, a commemorative Best banner will be unfurled.

The inscription on the banner will read: "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," which is the title of a song by the Smiths.

Supporters will also turn on their mobile phone torches in the seventh minute - marking George's shirt number.

Back home, East Belfast PUP councillor Dr John Kyle reflected on how Best's memory lives on.

"He was an east Belfast man through and through and he was still one of us. The fact that people still talk about him all the time is testament to his astonishing skill and his standing in the game.

"He was more than a footballer - a likeable man who did so many great things, though unfortunately he made some unwise choices." Cllr Kyle said it seemed almost unbelievable that 10 years had passed since George's death and his memorable funeral, which forged a rare show of togetherness in a divided city that just for the day became Belfast United.

Never before had there been a funeral quite like it, as tens of thousands of people lined the streets and the Stormont estate in a formidable outpouring of grief.

Catholics from west Belfast - some of whom had rarely ventured across the River Lagan before - stood shoulder to shoulder in the rain with their Protestant counterparts to say farewell. In Stormont itself, Manchester United fan Eamonn Holmes led an emotional service for the footballer they said Belfast would never forget.

It wasn't described as a state funeral. But that's what it was, in everything but name.

In the days after his burial in Roselawn, Belfast City Council had to take unprecedented security measures, not only to control the crowds but also to protect the grave from the unwanted attention of fans wanting to take away more than memories.

It's thought that in the coming days before and after George's anniversary, there may well be an upsurge in the number of people returning to Roselawn for their own pilgrimages of remembrance.

But standing alone at Roselawn yesterday, Bobby Cosgrove permitted himself a rueful smile as he reflected on the pandemonium 10 years back and recalled just how many people claimed they were at Nettlefield with George all those years ago.

"If everyone who said they were there actually had been in the class, there must have been close to 3,000 people in our wee room. Easily," he added.

Bobby sat beside George's uncle Geordie Withers, who was two months younger than his nephew. He said it was obvious even then that Best was destined for greatness.

"In those 20-a-side matches in the playground at Nettlefield no one could get that tennis ball off him," he added.

"And later on when I played against him in his days with Cregagh Boys Club you couldn't even get near enough to him to empty him.

"On the rare occasions that we did get in a crunching tackle, George just got up and looked at us as if to say 'dead on', and off he went on his merry way."

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