New books reveals details of George Best at Hibs

THEY were the words that would come back to haunt one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen.

As George Best sauntered through Turnhouse airport on a bleak November day in 1979, drafted to Easter Road to save Hibs' free fall into the relegation pit, he declared: "I don't intend to muck it up. I'm off the bevvy."

The rest is, of course, Scottish football history.

Today some may well wonder whether Hibs, now fifth from the basement position of the SPL with just 14 points from 13 games, could do worse than copy the bold tactics of 31 years ago, when, in an act of astonishing bravado and perhaps slight insanity, the Easter Road side gambled on snaring a fading player who was once one of the greatest.

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It might even have worked if it were not for that vital, ultimately fatal, component - booze.

Still, few would argue that events in the winter of 1979 when George Best joined Hibs were not among the most remarkable, bizarre and thrilling - often for all the wrong reasons - in all of Scottish football history.

Now the Irishman's brief but brilliant spell in Leith has been picked over in minute detail for a new book that charts everything from ill-fated boozy benders to his goals, his complex and often lonely lifestyle and his relationship woes.

It was a whirlwind spell, succinctly summed up by When George Came to Edinburgh author John Neil Munro as: "Played 25, won ten, drew five. Three goals, three benders, one suspension and a sacking."

And of course, tragically, one almost inevitable ending.

Best's time at Hibs is just a small chapter in a remarkable life. But, says John, it's a fascinating period that's been relatively forgotten.

"If you think of it in today's terms, it would be a bit like David Beckham signing a year contract to play for Hearts," says John, a Hibs fan for over 30 years. "Think of someone like Ronaldo or Zidane and throw in a drink problem and bring them to Edinburgh.

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"This was one of the most famous footballers in the world and he played for nearly a year for a Scottish club," he adds.

"If he'd signed for Rangers or Celtic, we'd never have heard the end of it. Instead, his story died a death."

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John meticulously researched Best's highs and lows at Easter Road, speaking with everyone from former players who shared the dressing room with the star, to fans - among contributors are writer Irvine Welsh and Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray - sport and news journalists who followed his every move and the person closest to him throughout it all, his wife, Angie.

According to John, she believed the couple would have made the Capital their home if only she hadn't had to share her husband with his other great love, the bottle.

"She has very fond memories of Edinburgh," he says. "She said that if things had worked out differently, she could have envisaged them staying in Edinburgh for a very long time. They loved the city, and the city gave them a warm welcome back. And George did work on his game here. He loved his football, he was an athlete. He used to go running for miles on Portobello beach.

"Her memories of Edinburgh are happy memories. But I got the sense from speaking to her that there was an inevitability that things would go wrong."

Best was, of course, a shadow of the player who caught the eye of a Manchester United scout years earlier, prompting him to telegram Sir Matt Busby with the words: "I think I've found you a genius."

By 1979 his career was already sunk by booze. Still officially a Fulham player, he was touting himself around English clubs and offering to play for free just to get a game when Hibs' chairman Tom Hart came calling.

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"If he was a Rolls-Royce in his heyday, George was more like a Vauxhall Cavalier by the time he arrived at Easter Road," agrees John. "Tom Hart was the only guy really willing to give him a go."

Hibs manager Eddie Turnbull knew little of the plan to sign the 33-year-old until the deal was almost done. Best's bumper 2500 a game pay deal swamped the 100 a week of his fellow team-mates, setting the scene for a potentially explosive dressing room atmosphere.

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However, Best's natural charm and charisma won over even his harshest critics. "I spoke to 40 people who drank with him and played f ootball with him and not one had a bad word to say against him," adds John.

Among those to recall Best's days at Hibs in the book, is former Hibs player Ralph Callachan, who remembers a "down-to-earth guy" who loved to talk about sport. "George seemed to feel comfortable doing normal things like having a game of darts with the boys," he says. "But afterwards everyone would go their own way and George would be stuck alone in the hotel on Princes Street. It wasn't a normal lifestyle.

"As a player, obviously the pace was no longer there, but you could see that his football brain was still sharp."

Derick Rodier, a Hibs starlet at the time who would later play for Dunfermline and eventually become general manager at East of Scotland Premier League club Spartans, recalls Best's impressive character. "I'd never been in 'superstar' company before and I was taken by the way he handled himself," he says. "He was friendly, modest and just oozed charisma.

"I only socialised with him once, at our Christmas day out in the Perservere Bar. He could have gone off with better things to do but he seemed to want to be part of it. There was a queue of people wanting to get his autograph, one lady asked him to sign a piece of paper seven times. He was patient and friendly with all of them."

Simply having him on board boosted the dwindling Easter Road gate to more than 20,000. But even George Best couldn't save Hibs from the drop.

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"Tom Hart wanted a flash, headline-grabbing solution to his problem," adds John. "And if Best had applied himself and stayed sober, he might well have saved Hibs. Who knows?"

Best was already gripped by a fatal addiction to booze. The fact he was wrestling with it in the microscopic world of Scottish football, didn't help.

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By October 1980, his days at Hibs were numbered. An all-night booze session with rugby players in town for the Scotland-France match meant he missed the next day's game. He was sacked and then reinstated but his time in Edinburgh was running out.

Yet according to John, Best's off-pitch antics overshadowed the true character of the man behind the headlines.

"I had expected to hear wild tales of 'George the Carouser', the wild man and, yes, there were a few of those. But most people said he was quiet and very intelligent. A well-spoken and well-read man who could quote poetry. He even spoke about writing books - detective novels.

"Most of the time in public he'd be sitting down reading or doing the cryptic crossword - a very different George Best from the one most people might remember.

"This was such an interesting time in his life and an exciting time in Scottish football.

"Okay, so it didn't work out at Hibs," he adds. "It was a fairly desperate gamble, but God bless all for trying."

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When George Came to Edinburgh by John Neil Munro is published by Birlinn, 9.99.