Best's time at Hibs a heady cocktail of scandal and skill

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times as the most aptly named of footballer of his or any other generation arrived at Easter Road in 1979 and briefly illuminated not just the twilight of the Turnbull era as Hibs tumbled towards relegation that season, but also Scottish football for a brief shining moment.

It is 26 years ago this week on 24 November 1979 that the Scottish Premier Division was graced with the presence of George Best as he emerged, as if from a dream, out of the gloom of the Love Street tunnel in a snug-fit Hibs strip. Eleven months later he would depart, his Bukta strip stretching even tighter, as he was captain for the day against Falkirk in a First Division fixture. He came in on the ground floor and left via the basement.

But Best's time at Easter Road mattered not just for Hibs supporters but the folklore of our national game. As ever with Best it was an alcohol-fuelled roller coaster of a ride laced with scandal and the occasional sublime moment.

Best was only 33 at the time - 'the same age as Jesus' as one wag at Easter Road put it - when Tom Hart, the Hibs chairman pulled off a stunning publicity coup by signing him. Hibs had been floundering with only one win and three draws after 14 games when the chairman acted on a tip off from Stewart Brown of the Edinburgh Evening News. Stewart was from the old school of journalism and a generation where some reporters filled the role that agents do today. Stewart had Jock Stein's ear and established a similar relationship with Hart and then Hibs manager Eddie Turnbull. He was aware Best had returned from America after a spell with the Los Angeles Aztecs, although Fulham still held his league registration. Hart was a big thinker as far as Hibs were concerned and did a deal that was front page news throughout Britain, guaranteeing Best 2,000 per game. It was a huge sum then, but proved well worth it when 20,662 turned out to witness Irishman's home debut against Partick Thistle.

However it was soon apparent, although many were reluctant to admit it, that Best was already debilitated by alcohol. Yet it was only five years since Tommy Docherty had cast him out from Old Trafford. As Best came out of the tunnel at Easter Road, what was most striking was the paunch poking through his shirt and a double chin masked by dark stubble.

George had already sneaked a goal in the 89th minute in his debut against St Mirren but a Doug Somner double had ensured another Hibs defeat.

Back at Easter Road the following week, a penalty from Ally McLeod and an own goal by Brian Whittaker saw Hibs take the points against a Partick defence marshalled by a young Alan Hansen.

Best's finest performance came against Rangers on 22 December on a frozen pitch where he teased not only the Rangers defence but their fans when one threw a beer can at him as he went to take the first corner at the Dunbar Road end. As it skidded past his feet, Best bent down, picked it up, raised it to his lips and then toasted the crowd. Suitably refreshed, Best took over the midfield as Hibs went on to win 2-1.

The week after New Year it was Celtic's turn to come to Easter Road and Hibs earned a draw when Best blasted the ball, and with it Celtic goalkeeper Peter Latchford, into the back of the net.

But just when there was a glimmer of hope that Best would save Hibs' season and maybe even himself, he self- destructed in spectacular fashion.

Hibs' cup tie against Ayr United had been switched to a Sunday so as not to clash with the Scotland v France rugby international at Murrayfield, and when team captain George Stewart turned up at the North British Hotel, now the Balmoral, he was greeted by the sight of coaches John Fraser and John Lambie, each with an arm around a comatose Best, trying to get him up the stairs. Turnbull barked at Stewart to keep his mouth shut as the club doctor tried to revive Best upstairs in his room. As another team-mate would comment: "They gave him enough shots that would have brought Shergar back from the grave but still George didn't flinch."

The night before, French captain Jean Pierre Rives had heard Best was staying in the hotel he insisted he join the party. Best did so with a vengeance and was the last man standing, albeit with difficulty, at the bar the next morning. Best was sacked by Hibs but Hart relented within a week and Best would remember the chairman fondly. "Tom was just like Sir Matt ... always giving me another chance."

His team-mates were also charmed by him. Jackie McNamara and Gordon Rae remember him as immensely popular. He never pulled rank and was a good trainer when he actually turned up although he could get frustrated, sighing to Stewart one day: "Does that boy Benny (Brazil) think a lay-off is a week in bed?"

The cosmopolitan Best was also always prepared to share his French lotions and deodorants (100 a bottle) with teammates more used to carbolic soap.

Rae recalls: "The whole team would queue up to splash it all over and we'd all go around smelling like George hoping some of his magic would rub off -

with women at least if not on the park."

Best was very much one of the boys and when caught by a photographer in the Jinglin' Geordie public house in Fleshmarket Close, bleary eyed and at a table laden with empty glasses, they gathered round to convince Eddie Turnbull it was a set-up as the pictures went worldwide. Somehow, the normally hardline Turnbull chose to believe them.

However, Best's drinking was spiralling out of control and his absences increased. He managed only 13 league appearances, although Hibs did get to the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. They were thrashed 5-0 by Celtic and at one stage Bobby Lennox could be seen consoling a frustrated Best as once again team-mates failed to read his passes.

Hibs were relegated, and Best was not expected to resurface the following season, his skills deemed worthy of a better stage than the Scottish First Division. Yet remarkably, Best did return, albeit for only four league appearances. We knew it was all over when Tom Hart strode into a post-match press conference and with one swipe of his hand sent all the bottles crashing from the bar. "The marriage between George Best and Hibernian football club is over," confirmed Hart.

We had known it would never last, and the assembled press were thankful that it had happened at all. George's final contribution to brightening up our lives was a brief visit with his new American club San Jose Earthquakes for a friendly match, and then for Jackie McNamara's testimonial. At least it was an amicable divorce.