A George Best Christmas for Hibs in 1979

George Best is confronted by Rangers' Tommy McLean during Hibs' 2-1 win at Easter Road. Picture: SNS
George Best is confronted by Rangers' Tommy McLean during Hibs' 2-1 win at Easter Road. Picture: SNS
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Mike Aitken reports on the Irish genius’s role as Turnbull’s men defeat Rangers

Hibernian 2, Rangers 1

The Scotsman, 24 December, 1979

GEORGE Best’s vision on the football field is well known already. He sees things others miss. The Irishman’s other senses, however, are just as finely tuned to the nuances of the game and on Saturday he heard Hibs coming good at last.

Trailing by a goal at half-time, after having what looked a perfectly good Callachan goal chalked off early on, Hibs might have been forgiven at 3:45pm for feeling that life was generally against them and wondering if they could do any more except throw the towel in.

But when Best walked into the Easter Road dressing room he heard the sound that told him Hibs, far from being down and out, could go on and win the game: “There was a tremendous racket going on. It was the noisiest I’ve ever known it in the dressing room at half-time and to me that was a good sign of the things to come.

“When things aren’t going so well, people are afraid of saying anything in case it is taken the wrong way. At first when I came here the atmosphere at half-time was like a morgue. But in this game there was a real din going on and for me that showed the character in the team.

“Of course, we still face an uphill struggle, but I’ve been in football long enough to know that nothing is impossible. Look at Ipswich in the English Division 1 last season. They struggled terribly to begin with but came good in the end. I’m sure things will improve for us from now on.”

If one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one result in the Premier Division sure as heck doesn’t rule out the possibility of relegation, but for Hibs, Saturday’s victory perhaps had as much psychological significance as anything else. For long enough many have remarked that Hibs are better than their results. “That’s kind of them,” said Eddie Turnbull, “but the fact remains that we haven’t been getting results. On Saturday, we got one against Rangers and at last I think we showed that we ARE better than our results.

“It is up to ourselves now to prove whether or not this can be a turning point for us. If we can string a few results together, who knows? The players will take a bit of confidence, naturally, from beating Rangers for they know they won the game well. Now they’ve got to take it from here.”

The first flicker of light at the end of what is still a long, dark tunnel, came in the 74th minute of Saturday’s match when Tony Higgins scored a very fine equalising goal. Rangers, who had taken the lead in the 37th minute with a superbly struck Tommy McLean free kick, seemed to think they had done enough to win and were content to contain.

They were rocked on their heels, however, when Best – who else – sent a raking through ball into the path of Ally McLeod. The Hibs captain carried it and the cover to the 18-yard line before releasing a pass into the path of Higgins who came in from the left to blast a shot past Young.

The goal added a sense of self-belief to Hibs’ unflagging spirit and, playing football which at last genuinely made nonsense of their status as Premier Division back-markers, the Easter Road side grabbed the winner four minutes later.

Tony Higgins – “He has such great touch and control for a big man,” said Turnbull – was involved crucially on the bye-line, whipping over a cross when nothing seemed on, that young Colin Campbell managed to get his head to and squeeze under the body of Young.

Rangers manager John Greig was of the opinion afterwards that the second goal might not have happened on a different surface and declared that he felt his side were beaten more by the conditions than by the skill of Hibs.

Greig didn’t want to come across as sounding full of sour grapes in defeat and acknowledged that Hibs had worked harder in the second half than his own side. The Ibrox manager still felt that it was a “disgrace” the game had been played under such hard, frosty circumstances and was mainly relieved that the players on both sides had escaped serious injury.

In a gripping, controversial match that provided pretty good entertainment under the circumstances, referee Renton of Cowdenbeath had what might be most kindly described as an obscure afternoon. Certainly an awful lot of his decisions puzzled me, did little for the players and confused a crowd that was poorly behaved in parts.

Stevens, Johnstone (Rangers), MacLeod and Rae (Hibs) were all booked for offences that might have been passed over under such slippery circumstances.

Hibernian: McArthur, Brazil, Duncan, Rae, Paterson, McNamara. Callachan, MacLeod, Higgins, Campbell, Best.

Rangers: Young, Jardine, Dawson, Forsyth, Jackson, Stevens, McLean, A McDonald (Smith), Johnstone (Cooper), Watson, J McDonald.

Referee: J Renton.

Attendance: 19,740