THE grief-stricken partner of Southampton football legend Alan Ball said last night "I have lost the most wonderful man I have known."

Valerie Beech spoke of her love for the former Saints player and manager whom she described as a "wonderful human being".

Tributes poured in from around the world after World cup winner Alan, 61, suffered a heart attack as he tackled a fire in the garden of his home in Hook, Warsash, on Tuesday night.

Valerie travelled to be with Alan's family after his son Jimmy called her at 4am to break the news of his father's death.

The couple had spent last weekend together in Hampshire, visiting Newbury races on Friday and attending the Southampton v Leeds match on Saturday.

Divorced Valerie, 59, from Bolton, said: "I cannot believe this has happened.

"When I left his home on Sunday morning to come back to Bolton, he kissed me and said he didn't want me to leave."

She and Alan first met when they were both at school.

She attended George Tomlinson School, Kearsley, in Bolton, and was the best friend of Alan's late wife and childhood sweetheart, Lesley, who died of ovarian cancer in 2004.

Alan and Valerie struck-up a relationship after seeking comfort in one another following Lesley's death.

She said Alan had looked "the picture of health" when she said goodbye to him at the weekend.

Valerie said: "He said If I can have ten years with you I'll be happy'.

"We had spent the winter together holidaying in Australia and Barbados.

"He was the most incredible, kind, generous and loving person. I found the perfect man in Alan. His death has come as a terrible shock."

Valerie wears a commitment ring which was given to her by Alan eight-months into their relationship.

She said: "He told me Lesley didn't want me to spend the rest of my life looking for someone. I am so lucky to have found what I need in you'.

"He was a perfect husband to Lesley and that's how I knew he was a wonderful man.

"He did a lot for charity and loved his family and his life. Despite his fame, he was humble and we trusted each other. He was a wonderful, wonderful human being."

Hours before his death, Alan had watched Manchester United beat AC Milan 3-2 on television and talked enthusiastically with his son, Jimmy, about the game.

Alan had been due to attend a Wessex Heartbeat charity golf day with former Saints manager and close friend Laurie McMenemy, who led the tributes in the Daily Echo.

Alan, who was born and grew up in Lancashire, had trials with Bolton Wanderers as a teenager, before starting his career with Blackpool.

He went on to play for Everton, Arsenal and Southampton among other clubs.

Alan won 72 caps for his country in a 10-year England career.

He is the second member of the 1966 side to die, following the death of captain Bobby Moore in 1993.

He leaves behind three children, Miranda, Keeley and Jimmy.

Hampshire police confirmed on Thursday that a post mortem examination found that Alan died as a result of natural causes.

His funeral will take place on Thursday, May 3 at Winchester Cathedral.

A one-minute applause will take place this weekend at football grounds across the country.

The Ball family has received many enquiries from friends and well-wishers asking how to make a donation in his memory.

Alan requested in his will donations be made at his funeral, in aid of the Fund, instead of flowers.