George Best: He shone against Old Firm but five-day benders and champagne at 5am did not help
Icon just could not stay away from party lifestyle
“Let me down once and I will clobber you” was Hibs chairman Tom Hart’s warning as he pulled off the stunning signing of George Best.
Like everyone else, Hart was well aware of the former Manchester United legend’s drink problem but he was convinced the flamboyant Northern Irishman could be the man to salvage the Easter Road club’s season, one which, at that point, saw them firmly rooted to the foot of the Premier Division with just four points from their opening 12 games.
At 33, and after years of hard drinking, Best was far from the figure which had terrified Benfica as he guided Manchester United to European Cup glory but, he insisted, he was a reformed character, declaring: “I do not intend to muck it up this time.
“I am off the bevvy. I have had it as far as that is concerned. I am not going around the nightclub scene, all that supposed glamour does not appeal to me any longer.”
And early in his stay in Edinburgh he appeared true to his word, restricting himself to a quiet pint of shandy or lemonade. Unfortunately Best was, as alcoholics tend to be, a figure in denial and it didn’t take long for his old demons to re-emerge.
Barely a month after agreeing his £2000 a week deal, Best disappeared after being dropped off by his wife Angie to catch a flight to Edinburgh. For some reason known only to himself he flew to Manchester, arriving in Glasgow three days later by car with friends from that city on the morning of Hibs’ match against Morton at Cappielow.
Although the official line was that he’d been given permission to go to Manchester and that his absence was down to knee and ankle injuries, Best was “tired and emotional”.
But for all his off-field problems Best’s arrival in Scotland had gripped the imagination of the public, Hibs’ matches attracting huge crowds who caught glimpses of the player he once was.
A Best-inspired Hibs defeated Rangers – the player defusing a volatile atmosphere, at least temporarily, by appearing to take a swig from a can of lager which had landed at his feet. Best repeated that performance a couple of weeks later, scoring the second of his three goals for the club with an outrageous piece of skill recalled by team-mate Gordon Rae.
He said: “It was a wonderful goal, he dummied a Celtic player at the edge of the box, dropped the shoulder and then ‘boom.’ These were the days before there were dozens of cameras inside grounds, I think there was only one – and the cameraman also bought the dummy.”
Defender Craig Paterson remembers: “George seemed to save his best for the Old Firm games, against Rangers he ran the show. It was icy, difficult for the players, but his pose and balance shone out.”
He appeared to have made his peace with Hibs but in early February the Evening News carried the shock headline “Best Suspended” after he failed to catch a Friday afternoon flight to Edinburgh only to eventually emerge in a London nightclub at 3.00am on the morning of the match.
Hart accepted his apology as a personal act of contrition but, again, was badly let down as Best embarked on a five-day bender ahead of a Scottish Cup tie against Ayr, one which had been switched to the Sunday to avoid clashing with Scotland’s Five Nations match against France.
Rae said: “That’s the one everyone talks about, that night at the North British as it was then. The players and wives of both the Scottish and French rugby sides had stayed there following the previous day’s game at Murrayfield and I remember one of the wives asking if George was playing for us that day.
“We said ‘yes’, but she told us George had last been seen slipping under a table at five in the morning having been up drinking champagne with the French flanker Jean-Pierre Rive.”
Paterson takes up the tale saying: “There were 16,000 at Eater Road, but no George. We could hear the boos from the dressing room after the team had been read out. His name wasn’t on it and he was the one the one to come to see.
“I feel sorry to this day for Willie Murray who took his place. Willie was a good player with quick feet and a good delivery. But, plain and simple, he wasn’t George Best and Willie got booed throughout just for not being George.”
Hart declared afterwards that the “marriage” between Hibs and Best was over, that the divorce papers had been filed that morning but again, in a display of benevolence, later revealed he was willing to offer him one last chance, one which the wayward star described as “wonderful and generous.”
Best appeared to buckle down, was seen jogging on Portobello beach, produced a masterclass against Dundee which had everyone who saw it raving. Unfortunately, there were only 5019 fans to witness that performance, a reflection both of Hibs’ continued slide towards inevitable relegation and the evaporating interest in him. Best did return to Easter Road after the summer but for him matches in the First Division against the likes of Hamilton and Clyde didn’t appeal in the same way as those with Rangers and Celtic.
And so, 36 days short of a year with Hibs and after only 22 games in a green and white shirt Best was sold to American side San Jose Earthquakes, returning to Edinburgh to face his old team in a challenge match which was part of that deal although Hibs had previously crossed the Atlantic to face his new club, winning 4-2 with Rae scoring a hat-trick. Even there his appeal endured, Paterson recalling: “There was a queue halfway round the stadium with fans wanting his autograph.”