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ESPN FC’s Nicol recalls fellow soccer great Best, subject of 30 for 30 debuting tonight

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the video above, Steve Nicol joins ESPN FC colleagues Sebastian Salazar, Stewart Robson and Kasey Keller in discussing soccer legend George Best.

Growing up in Scotland, Steve Nicol was enamored with George Best, arguably the United Kingdom’s greatest footballer. But, by the time Nicol played in a match against his soccer idol during the 1979-1980 Scottish Football season, their careers were headed in opposite directions.

Then 18, Nicol was beginning his professional football career with Scottish First Division side Ayr United FC. Best, in the twilight of his career, was in his only season with Hibernian FC in the Scottish Premier League.

Nicol moved on to become a Liverpool FC legend – winning five league titles, three FA Cup winners medals and the 1984 European Cup in 14 years at the club. Playing against Best remains one of Nicol’s best memories in football.

Tonight at 8:30 ET on ESPN, ESPN Films will debut the 30 for 30 documentary, “George Best: All by Himself”. Nicol, now an ESPN FC analyst, discussed his memories of Best with Front Row.

How would you describe George Best?
I wanted to be him. I guess that says it all. As a kid when you play football, you always want to score goals. In Scotland at that time, people like to dribble. There was nobody better at that in that time than George Best.

How did you model your game to emulate George Best?
I tried to copy everything that he did. I don’t think there was anybody better dribbling past three or four defenders, making the goalkeeper look like a morgue, and just rolling it into an empty net.

What stood out in your only match against him?
He never gave the ball away. It’s one of the things that I would say is the difference between your proper professional and your “also ran.” You don’t give the ball to the opposition. That’s the starting point. Georgie was, I believe [in his 30s] at the time. Obviously, his legs weren’t there. He made up for that with what was between his ears.

Best was not at his best for possible rematch

George Best was ruled unavailable to play in a second match that 1979-80 season between Hibernian FC and Nicol’s Ayr United. Nicol recalls the circumstances that led to Best’s no-show.

“We didn’t know why – at the time – he was ruled unavailable to play. You want to play against great players and the reputation George Best had was he was a great player,” Nicol said. “[The public address announcer] put a message out while we were warming up before the game – there were a lot of extra fans there who wouldn’t normally have been to the game because they thought he was playing. The message announced George ‘failed a fitness test’and wasn’t available to play.

“The truth of the matter was he was blind drunk at the hotel he was staying the night before. A couple of rugby teams were staying there for a game. A couple of other celebrities were there. Of course, George likes to party. Once he got one too many, he forgot about the game. The hierarchy at the Hibernian [Scottish Premier League football club], which was the team he played for, went to pick him up at the hotel on Sunday morning and George was still sitting at the bar from the day before.”

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