It’s not difficult to choose the highlight of my early years in journalism. Cub reporters on weekly newspapers in my day were ambulance-chasers and hopefully still are. They cribbed, from village notice-boards, breathless intimations of bring-and-buy sales and the names of the soon-to-be-married. If your shorthand was up to it you might be trusted with the district court’s litany of scuffles and kerfuffles which had “disturbed the lieges”. So, yes: most memorable day? The opening of that tyre and exhaust centre in Restalrig, Edinburgh – no question about it.
Why? Because George Best was doing the honours. “Georgie, Georgie – they call him the Belfast boy,” as the song from his TV show used to go. Not a skelf of a lad anymore and no longer the fifth Beatle, heavier round the hips, appearing to play all his football from a standing position like one of those kids’ toys operated via a wobbly button underneath a plinth, but still Gorgeous George, still the greatest of his generation, and incredibly, cutting the ribbon at a garage.
Previously, he’d cut the ribbon at the grooviest of boutiques and discotheques. Where did it all go wrong, George? No matter. This was big news for the Leith Gazette and I was more than happy to work an (unpaid) Saturday shift on 12 January, 1980 for the chance to meet the legend, having just and no more managed to persuade my mother, who fancied him rotten, to let me go alone.
I’d seen his Hibernian debut a few weeks before when he banged a goal into the bottom corner of St Mirren’s net at Love Street. I’d seen his first game at Easter Road when he’d tripled the gate. I never did get a pair of Stylo Matchmakers, the white-streaked boots he advertised in his delirious-dribbling pomp for Manchester United, but this was better: George in green and white, playing for my team, not anyone else’s: Bestie the Hibby. I have the programmes from all his 22 games. “George Best needs no introduction,” averred Meadowbank Thistle. You’ll have had your Bovril, then. Kilmarnock decided merely naming him would be sufficient and Aberdeen were similarly grudgeful. Rangers sniffed: “Hibs efforts to stir the Scottish scene by importing Best have been well recorded.” The wee Rangers of Berwick nearly rivalled the Titanic parochialism of “North-east man drowns at sea” with: “He is of course a former team-mate of our boss Dave Smith at the LA Aztecs.” Ach, they were all probably jealous.
That afternoon, less than three hours after the official opening, Best was due to play against Celtic but, on being introduced to him in the tailpipe tycoon’s office, I couldn’t see that happening. He still seemed hammered from the night before. His beautiful eyes were glazed and the pong of the booze wafting from his pores was almost overpowering.
But it was his genius which left me dumbstruck. What would Hugh McIlvanney ask him? Michael Parkinson? Eventually – and the memory makes me cringe – inspiration came from our surroundings: when was the last time he’d had a puncture?
That topped the Berwick programme for fatuousness. I don’t think even the garage boss would have come up with a remark that clunky. George, bless him, laughed. The idea of him inconveniencing a beauty queen in this manner while she rode in his E-Type Jag was plainly ludicrous. To help me out, he took over the interview. Was I going to the game? “Great,” he said, “see you there.”
Then, after leaving his spotty inquisitor with twisted blood, he did the same to Celtic’s Roy Aitken to score an amazing goal. Hopefully I’ve got better at asking questions. But, regarding calibre of subjects, the career’s been downhill ever since.