Do you know the way to San Jose?

George Best touched down at Edinburgh Turnhouse airport with glamorous leggy blond wife Angie Best by his side.  In his broad Northern Irish brogue he was met by Hibernian club representatives who hailed a taxi outside.  The group then sped along the western approach to central Edinburgh before arriving at Easter Road.  The wooden doors to the main stand swung open and the fans who had read about his impending arrival reached for autographs outside.

It was 1979 and one of the Manchester United holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton had come to sign for Hibernian in Edinburgh – the one time home of the ‘famous five’ of Reilly, Turnbull, Ormond, Smith and Johnstone.  For those who said George Best’s career was on the slide at least he had come to play in the right surroundings – Easter Road had long been known for its sloping pitch.

Of course the legend of the Man United ‘holy trinity’ had disappeared by the time George Best came to Edinburgh.  Law and Charlton has long since retired from the game whilst Best had meandered around a number of clubs from Fulham to Los Angeles Aztecs.  Unlike his time at Manchester United – where he won the title, European Cup and European Player of the year – there were few prizes for Best at any of his clubs post Man United at least on the pitch. Off the pitch however, he continued to score – marrying former playboy model Angie Best in 1978.

Awaiting Best at Hibernian was a famous green Bukta shirt – a 1970’s classic.  And how the club needed him for Hibs in 1979 were experiencing one of the worst seasons ever with the club in free-fall and nearing relegation from the Scottish Premier League. Whilst the performances on the pitch were instantly forgettable off the pitch things were as lively as ever.

With his glamorous wife back in London or over in California, Best was a regular visitor to the numerous drinking establishments Edinburgh had to offer as his notorious demon drink cravings set in.   After less than 25 matches and only a handful of goals he was eventually sacked after a drinking session with the French international rugby team.

If truth be told the best of times were over for George Best by the time he arrived at Hibernian and everyone knew it – even Hibs. Now sporting a beard and not far off 35 years of age, any thoughts and memories of that classical final goal at Wembley in 1968 against Benfica were long gone.   George Best was at Hibs as nobody else wanted him; its said even the samaritans would hang up on him.

Best during his time in San Jose

Managed then by a Hibs legend in Eddie Turnbull, Best had been brought to Easter Road by the Hibs Chairman Tom Hart. Hart had looked upon the Irishman as the cash generator the club needed to push forward to Premier league survival. Looking back it was a marketing masterstroke by Hart long before the concept of Beckham mania had even arrived.

If the internet had been around in 1979 online hits of the Hibernian website would have counted in the thousands globally when the move was announced.

There were brief moments at Hibernian for Best in his number 11 shirt.  After a debut goal in a defeat at Love Street his home debut against Partick Thistle in November 1979 saw over 20,662 turn up to see a succession of tricks but the onfield body language of Best told a telling story.  Despite facing up to a young Alan Hansen Best was clearly past his peak.  Aside from a spartan performance against Rangers when a beer can was thrown at him and a goal against Celtic, every game was played like a testimonial as his football became simply a case of ‘play and pay’.

When he did play such was the lack of talent amongst his teammates that many players failed to read his passes and body swerves. By the end of most 90 minutes the body language suggested all he could think of was the flight back to London post match and the weekend bright lights of the capital.

For a man who clearly could not be bothered to be a professional anymore the deal at Hibernian was perfect for Best. In an age before live television, and 5.30 kick off’s Best could fly in on a Thursday, train with the team on a Friday then play the game on a Saturday at 3pm.    By 7pm on a Saturday Best had checked out of his hotel and was on his way back to a glass of champagne in London.

But whilst the crowds increased Best’s time at Hibs did not, sadly, coincide with a time when mass merchandising was the reason for bringing in a superstar.  If this is the age of Gareth Bale where 100,000 shirts can be sold in an hour instead it was the pubs of Edinburgh which made money out of Best’s drinking as local barman flung out the red carpet for a legend.

In his autobiography Blessed Best acknowledged he never took his time at Hibernian seriously.  Off the field and alone in the grand if soulless Balmoral hotel Best found a friend once again in alcohol and would not leave a bar for ‘anyone or anything’.

With a generous and welcoming club eager to pacify Best at every turn Best became carefree and inconsiderate. His training regime at Hibs suffered as did the relationships with his teammates whom he failed to bond with due to the lack of time he spent at Easter Road.

Very soon into the spell he was piling on weight and couldn’t be bothered.

By the time of his final game for Hibernian against Falkirk in the first division the Bukta shirt was clearly a lot tighter than it had been on his debut. A paunch had started to poke through his shirt and instead of two goals there was only a double chin masked by the now distinctive dark stubble beard.   Made team captain on his final appearance the 20,000 crowds had gone and only 7,000 bothered to turn up.

A young Best before a game against Arsenal

In between wearing that Hibs armband Best had his famous encounter with the French Rugby team, who were in Edinburgh for a six nations clash with Scotland at Murrayfield on a Saturday in February 1980.  So whilst a night long drinking session as guest of Jean Pierre Rives and the French team was a welcome addition to the weekend of Best it was not the ideal preparation for an Scottish FA Cup clash against Ayr United

For a Saturday night drinker like Best, Sunday football was fatal.

Best was sacked by the man who brought him to the club Tom Hart after the French rugby incident but just as with Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United he was brought back into the club a week later seemingly forgiven.

By the end of the 1979-1980 season Hibernian were relegated on only 18 points.  As Aberdeen celebrated winning the league title at Easter Road with a 5-0 win, Best had already left for San Jose Earthquakes in the NASL where his wife Angie Best and married life awaited.

But if marital bliss was never truly discovered at Hibernian the divorce was never truly an embittered one.  Even after his departure there was one final visit to Edinburgh for a testimonial along with his San Jose Earthquakes team.

The story of George Best is one of tragedy and glory but sadly for Hibs the glory came largely only during his time at Manchester United.  The words of the then Hibs manager Eddie Turnbull that Best during his time at Hibs was ‘someone on the slide’ indicated that the Hibs chapter of the George Best story was destined to be another less than successful chapter.

image (8)
Best at Easter Road with the old away terracing and roofed East Stand in the background

For Best however, by then a fading lost icon as the eighties approached – Edinburgh had been an ideal living space at least off the pitch.  The training regime he had encountered at Hibs proved to be never fully taxing on his dodgy  knees and the playing money for the time was spectacular.  With its imposing Edwardian buildings and numerous welcoming pubs Edinburgh proved to be a far better living space than San Jose; home to the Earthquakes.

San Jose was a place George Best is said to have hated and despite numerous goals in both indoor and outdoor leagues for the side owned by Milan Mandaric, he called San Jose the ‘worst place ever’ and he lost his way again off the pitch.

Even with fatherhood on the horizon his drinking exploits increased and his marriage began to crumble.

With the cold of a Scottish winter gone and the slope of the Easter Road pitch a distant memory, George Best had once again lost his way in San Jose.  The downward slide to the end of a once great if brilliant career, was now in full flight.