It’s season 1979/1980, and with just one win from their opening 14 league fixtures, Hibernian are rooted to the foot of the Scottish Premier Division. In just a few short years they have descended from being a domestic and continental force during the ‘Turnbull’s Tornadoes’ era to firm candidates for relegation. Club legend Eddie Turnbull is still manager, but the stars he had assembled from the early part of the decade have all but vanished from Easter Road. With one or two exceptions Hibernian’s crop of ’79 are the equivalent of a gentle breeze in comparison to the trophy-lifting Tornadoes of ’72.
George Best, one of the greatest ever players to kick a football, is also down on his luck after a rather sad and nomadic period in his career since his acrimonious departure from Manchester United in 1974.
Troubled Best had spent the last few seasons plying his trade in the lower tiers of English football before heading off to play in America for Los Angeles Aztecs while still registered at Fulham. Best’s career had taken a major nosedive but his celebrity was as potent as ever.
Best joins Hibernian
Hibs owner Tom Hart was desperate to turn his club’s fortunes around, and wasn’t afraid to splash the cash to do it. Acting on a tip-off from Edinburgh Evening News reporter Stewart Brown that George Best might be available for signing talks, Hart got on the phone to London. The deal was negotiated against the wishes of manager Eddie Turnbull, who described Best as ‘a drunkard’, but Hart refused to pay any notice.
Within days the eyes of the British media were fixed on Easter Road as the legendary ex-Man Utd winger joined from Division Two side Fulham for a reported transfer fee in excess of £50,000. 33-year-old Best agreed a lucrative £2,000 pay-as-you-play deal - at a time when the top players at Hibernian such as Arthur Duncan and Jackie McNamara were earning in the region of £120 per week.
Best’s Hibs debut
Best’s debut for Hibs arrived a week later on 24 November 1979, an away fixture at St Mirren’s Love Street. A crowd of 13,670, more than double than what would usually have been expected, turned up to see George Best score a late left foot finish as Hibs went down 2-1. After the match, St Mirren manager Jim Clunie summed up the result in terrifically dry fashion: “I don’t mind them having the star man if my boys get the points.”
The following week, Best’s handsome wage packet proved to be a sound investment as over 20,000 fans crammed into Easter Road for the Northern Irishman’s home debut. The day was a resounding success as Hibs claimed a valuable 2-1 win over Partick Thistle. Best’s noticeably more portly frame and stubble-covered double chin were of no immediate concern to the Easter Road faithful who were simply over the moon to see such a globally-revered superstar don the famous green and white.
Best would go on to play some wonderful football over the course of the season, displaying fleeting touches of finesse and the odd moment of brilliance which made him a household name in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In a home match against Rangers in December, Best played a blinder. The former European Cup winner put in arguably his finest performance in a green and white jersey as he led his side to a 2-1 victory. During the match the travelling support had taunted Best by throwing cans of lager towards him as he went to take a corner kick. George calmly defused a potentially ugly situation by picking one of the cans up and pretending to take a sip from it. It earned him a round of applause from the Rangers fans and the endearment of the home support.
Later in the season, a sublime net-bursting effort during a 1-1 draw with Celtic and a magnificent solo goal against Dundee would go on to live long in the memory for those who witnessed them.
In the end though, the occasional brilliance of their Northern Irish talisman wasn’t enough. Despite boasting a former European Golden Boot winner in their ranks, Hibernian were relegated for only the second time in their history. Eddie Turnbull would later remark that the often troublesome antics of the player he had never wanted to sign, let alone play, had lost him his job. The ex-Hibs manager was not impressed in the slightest by Best’s performances: “He was overweight, unfit and frankly not ready to play professional football at a high level.”
Best’s drinking binges
George Best’s well-documented battles with alcoholism saw him hit the headlines on a number of occasions during his time in the capital.
In February 1980, George entered into an all-night drinking session at the North British Hotel with Debbie Harry of Blondie and the French international rugby team who had just played at Murrayfield. French captain Jean Pierre Rives had insisted Best join the soirée. The celebration continued until 11am on the Sunday, just hours before Hibs were due to kick-off against Ayr Utd in the Scottish Cup. Best was nursing the mother of all hangovers and was in no fit state to be playing a game of football. A furious Tom Hart ordered the player to pack his bags for London. It was an event which threatened to end Best’s career at Easter Road there and then, but he eventually returned a week later.
George’s self-destruct switch was flipped on a frequent basis, though the player was man enough to admit it: “To be honest, I couldn’t take it (playing for Hibs) seriously and the alcoholism had kicked in to the point where, if I were in a bar and enjoying myself, I wouldn’t leave for anyone or anything.”
George Best departs
George’s career at Hibs came to an end in October 1980 after just four First Division appearances. “The marriage between George Best and Hibernian is over,” announced Tom Hart, who emphasised the point by sweeping his hand across a table of glasses to send them crashing to the ground. Best had spent a mere 325 days in Edinburgh, playing 22 times and scoring 3 goals; his lack of sobriety unquestionably the main cause of his downfall.
George would later return to Easter Road for a friendly with his new club San Jose Earthquakes, and one final time in 1984 for Jackie McNamara’s testimonial.
Best’s struggles with alcohol would go on to plague him for years to come, ultimately resulting in his death at the age of 59 in 2005.
Did Edinburgh witness the best of George, or was George well past his best? A few inspiring flashes of greatness aside, it was mostly the latter. Mind you, the Easter Road faithful surely won’t care one bit. George Best, Britain’s answer to Pelé and Maradona, played for Hibernian, and that can never be taken away from them.