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When Best went to Hibs

George Best will always be associated with Manchester United. It was there that he won the European Cup in 1968 and was awarded the Ballon d’Or as the continent’s outstanding footballer. Best achieved worldwide fame for his dazzling skills and dashing appearance.

But his last appearance for United came at the age of 27 and his later career became characterised by disappointment as he endured a slow decline in the grip of alcoholism.

Any potted history of his career might include a brief diversion to discuss his spell at Fulham and some reference to his time in the United States.

But there were two clubs in the United Kingdom for whom Best played top-flight football. One of those was Manchester United, the other was Hibernian.

His time at Easter Road has been largely forgotten but it lasted almost a year. Best was involved in a relegation and a promotion, endured several high-profile meltdowns, the familiar media frenzy, and still found time to produce magical moments against Celtic and Rangers.

This is the story of George Best’s time at Hibs…

Best was 33 when he turned up in Edinburgh and was, by own admission, at a low ebb. His mother had passed away the previous year and his playing career was now petering out.

Fulham had retained his registration following his stint in the States with Fort Lauderdale Strikers but had no desire for him to play for them again. Indeed, there was very little interest anywhere despite Best’s offer to appear for any top-flight team in England for free.

He was a man out of shape and out of options which might help to explain why Hibs, then bottom of the top division in Scotland, were considered an appealing proposition.

The club themselves were desperate for something – anything – to turn around their season. Defeat to Dundee that November left them with one win from the opening 12 games. Hibs chairman Tom Hart began hatching a plan. He pitched a pay-as-you-play deal to Best.

The money was good. Best would receive in excess of £2,000 per game at a time when his new team-mates would be earning closer to £100. He would be allowed to live in London, fly up on the Thursday, train on the Friday, play at the weekend, then fly back down south.

Given the No 11 shirt and a free role, there were even guarantees over playing time. It was all news to coach Eddie Turnbull.

“The deal was done behind my back,” he would later claim.

The subsequent media storm soon seemed to justify Hart’s bold move. The Scottish press in Glasgow that had mocked Hibs’ interest in this football icon were forced to backtrack. The Hibs players who had caught wind of the high wages were placated by increased bonuses.

The George Best circus was coming to town.

A starring performance in Bobby Robson’s testimonial game in Ipswich raised hopes that Best still had something to offer on the pitch too.

“I am much fitter than I thought I was but I am 33 now and the legs do not respond as they did when I began 18 years ago,” he declared afterwards. “Experience can compensate for that failing, especially if I have plenty of young fellows around me."

He added: “I want to show people I can still do it.”

Up at Easter Road, he was introduced to supporters during a game against Kilmarnock on November 10 and even did the half-time lottery – someone won, the team did not.

But many Hibs supporters felt like lottery winners that day.

Best’s debut away to St Mirren drew a crowd in excess of 13,000 and nobody was left in any doubt as to the significance of the ageing player lining up for the opposition – his face was emblazoned over the front cover of the opposition team's programme that afternoon.

Hibs lost the game 2-1 but Best marked his debut with a goal and came close to grabbing a late equaliser. Turnbull later stated that the player’s “legs were gone and anybody with any nous about football could see it” but the view at the time was that he had impressed.

Best’s home debut brought a vital victory – Hibs’ first in over three months – and a crowd of over 20,000 to Easter Road to witness it. The pace had long gone and his dribbling now lacked that zip but the close control was exquisite and the old feints were all there.

He had become a different sort of player to the one who had ripped through Benfica in a European Cup final in his pomp. It was his passing range that stood out now. The ability to spray the ball around the park with either foot. Even senior players were struck by his touch, vision and skill.

Unfortunately, it did not take long for problems to emerge.

Best would stay at the North British Hotel in Edinburgh and the lonely nights in the country’s capital were not ideal for a man with a disease and a low boredom threshold.

But the set up there could not explain the events of mid-December when Best did not even make it on his flight up north. He took the plane to Manchester instead of Edinburgh, met up with friends and arrived on the morning of the game against Morton worse for wear.

On that occasion, the club explained away his absence but it was a sign of things to come.

Before all that, Best produced arguably his best performance in a Hibs shirt in a shock victory over Rangers in front of 18,740 supporters at Easter Road.

He laid on the equaliser in a 2-1 win and while the freezing conditions just before Christmas were hardly conducive to quality football that seemed merely to play into his hands. Best was the only player on the pitch able to control the ball in such circumstances.

It was typical that he should save his best displays for the biggest occasions. Another fine effort against Celtic in January, rolled back the years once more for those willing to squint.

Best won a penalty that was missed by Ally MacLeod before taking matters into his own hands by opening the scoring against the reigning champions with a fierce shot.

Hibs team-mate Ralph Callachan noted that he “could make people look stupid just by the dip of a shoulder” while Turnbull was just as effusive in his praise after a 1-1 draw.

“He can do anything with the ball and it is a sheer joy to watch him at work. If only he had joined us a month earlier. The man is worth the admission money on his own.”

Allan Herron, the Sunday Mail journalist, perhaps summed up the mood that day.

“The best of George was a delight to the eye, rich in skills we had almost forgotten.”

Best was duly named man of the match.

That was as good as it got for him and Hibs on the pitch that season.

He was not helped by numerous cancelled matches because of the poor weather. Free time was his enemy and he missed another game against Morton in February, this time not even making it on the plane and instead being photographed falling out of a London nightclub.

Despite the apologies upon his arrival in Scotland, Best proceeded to embark on a week-long bender that saw him miss a cup tie against Ayr in favour of a night out on the town with the French rugby union player Jean-Pierre Rivas, in town for a Five Nations game.

“The next thing I knew it was Sunday,” Best would later remark.

Legend has it that the American popstar Debbie Harry, lead singer of Blondie, was on that particular pub crawl but there were always strange stories where Best was concerned.

John Lambie, part of the Hibs coaching staff, later recalled the unsuccessful attempts to raise Best for the pre-match meal that routinely took place in the North British Hotel itself.

“George was there, right enough. In bed with this dolly-bird, bottle of champagne,” Lambie told The Scotsman. “‘George,’ I said, ‘you need to get downstairs for your pre-match meal!’

“He just smiled. ‘I’m having it here!’”

It really should have been the end of the road for Best at Hibs. The club even made an announcement over the loudspeaker that day apologising for his absence.

Whether that was enough to satisfy Billy Bingham, the Northern Ireland manager, in town to check on Best ahead of the forthcoming World Cup qualifier against Israel, is unclear.

What is a matter of record is that Best did not make his 1982 World Cup squad.

Hart took a surprisingly sympathetic approach to his star man’s problems, speaking of “a chronic illness” that had engulfed his life. Rather than cutting him loose he put the onus on him and suggested that it was “entirely up to George Best” whether or not he played again.

In one sense, he did. In another, he did not.

A fortnight after the Ayr debacle, there was a game against Rangers at Ibrox in which he was hauled off early in the second half, apparently suffering the ill-effects of alcohol.

“It was quite evident,” said team-mate Jackie McNamara.

Best did not even make it past half-time the following week against Berwick Rangers.

Hibs did at least win the replay against Berwick and it offered the tantalising prospect of an unlikely happy ending to their season with a cup semi-final against Celtic to look forward to.

Best being Best, even his decline had its moments. The times when he raged against the dying of the light, when his talent was too great even for him to extinguish it completely.

There was the game against Dundee, played in front of a crowd of just 5,019, suggesting that even the fans had lost belief in his ability to conjure something up, when he produced a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win. Those who were there insist it was among his best performances.

“What a player,” said Turnbull at the time.

“Anyone who hasn’t seen this fellow play does not know what they have missed.”

Years later, writing in his autobiography, the axed manager would bemoan Best’s presence that season for costing him his job and ending his 25-year association with the club.

He described Best as “an alcoholic who disrupted our team and destroyed any chance I might have had of grinding out a survival plan” but how fair was that assessment?

The reality is that Hibs were in a desperate situation even before Best turned up. When the season was over, they had won as many matches in the 13 games that he played as they managed to win in the 23 matches that he didn’t. Put simply, Hibs were far worse without him.

In a surprise almost as great as him turning up in the first place, Best returned to Easter Road the following season with the club in the second tier.

After a summer with San Jose Earthquakes, he made another half a dozen appearances for Hibs the following autumn, albeit on a much lower salary. “I owe you a turn,” he explained.

Best’s Hibs were unbeaten in those six games and there were even a couple of assists before he was made captain for one final farewell in October 1980 – a 2-0 win over Falkirk.

That campaign would end in promotion back to the top division for Hibs. But as for Best, aside from a friendly appearance there for San Jose, and another run-out in McNamara’s testimonial game some years later, it was the last that was seen of him at Easter Road.

In his later years, he would be dismissive of his time at Hibs, referring only to “a poor side with no decent players” but perhaps that is only natural. There was an element of shame to the fact that his star had fallen so far that he found himself turning out for such a struggling outfit.

He would explain it away as “easy money” and compare his decision to that of a quality actor appearing in a second-rate movie. Perhaps that was time lending some perspective. But there was an element of revisionism to it too. He also had some fun.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed being with Hibs,” he said upon his departure. “Chairman Tom Hart has done a lot to help me and I’d like to think I have repaid his belief in my ability. But the climate in California is what we miss most and that is where we want to settle.”

Best left with the good wishes of his team-mates and supporters who were largely grateful that the show had ever stopped by at all.

Certainly, Hart never regretted buying a ticket.

“Fans throughout Scotland had the chance to watch a genius at work.”

Source: Sky Sports / Adam Bate

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