George Best to Hibs: 40 years on, we recall the part played by News in signing
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Best joining Hibs - and this title had a huge part to play in arrival
“It’s a suggestion which may be scoffed,” predicted Evening News football writer Stewart Brown when he floated the idea that Hibs should make a move to sign former Manchester United star George Best.
And he was right, the west coast media in general branding the proposal a joke, Best at 33 and with a well-recorded battle with the bottle far from the genius who had thrilled the crowds at Old Trafford and torn Benfica to shreds as United won the European Cup.
However, on the evening of November 5, 1979, Hibs were in dire straits, a defeat by Dundee at Dens Park two days earlier leaving them rooted to the foot of the Premier League table with just four points from their opening 12 matches.
Brown, who had a close relationship with then Easter Road chairman Tom Hart and played a pivotal part in getting Best to Easter Road, had learned the Northern Irishman – who had recently been playing in America although Fulham still held his registration – was keen to prove “the old magic is still there”, and might be available, writing that Monday: “Can someone like George Best save Hibs in their present plight?
“Best is, or was, a footballer of the highest pedigree and he is a personality – the like of whom does not exist in Scottish football.
“Best does not need to rush around madly to display the skill that oozed from every kick in his great days with Manchester United. Somehow I think he might pull in the fans too.
“Hibs’ present predicament is perilous and it will take a feat of some magnitude if they avoid the drop.”
Fanciful it may have seemed, but by the end of that week Best was in Edinburgh, arriving unexpectedly with his wife Angie, ostensibly to make the draw for Hibs’ new Goldliner Lottery at half-time during that day’s match against Kilmarnock although the Capital club had been given permission to speak to him by Fulham boss Bobby Campbell.
Hart and Hibs manager Eddie Turnbull went to Ipswich to watch Best play in Bobby Robson’s testimonial match the following midweek, a 2-2 draw between the Tractor Boys and English XI in which the Irishman starred in front of a 24,000 crowd.
Afterwards he told Brown, the only Scottish reporter to have made the trip, his priority was to reach a level of fitness, prompting him to suggest: “That’s why it was orange juice all the time at Saturday’s pre-match lunch where his wife and others at the table were indulging in champagne.”
Best believed he still had two or three years left at the top, Hibs finally paying a fee of £50,000 on November 16, 1979, to Fulham with an agreement he’d play a minimum of 12 games – a deal struck with no more than a handshake between him and Hart.
With Hibs “more concerned with points than pounds”, Best was on a whopping £2000 a week when his new team-mates were on a basic of £110, Hart insisting: “The match fee he receives is being paid for by four Hibs fans – Tom Hart, his wife Sheila and sons Tom and Alan.”
A niggling ankle injury prevented Best making an immediate debut against Celtic but he did so against St Mirren the following a week, a packed Love Street testament to his pulling power.
Brown predicted Best’s first Easter Road appearance, against Partick Thistle, might attract a crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 at a time when Hibs were attracting gates of only 4000, and he was spot on, 20,622 witnessing a 2-1 win, the Edinburgh side’s first in 14 weeks.
Such was the demand to see Best in the flesh, that the crowd eclipsed that which had watched Aberdeen play Morton at Hampden in the semi-final of the League Cup the same day, no more than 12,000.