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Cowgate stinks, as do all the streets in Edinburgh’s old town centre. It stinks of malt, hops and yeast. In 1875, in what was then a small alley of the Scottish capital, Catholic Irish immigrants founded Hibernian Football Club, hoping to build a community that would welcome those arriving to the Protestant city with little money but plenty of nostalgia. Six posts and four lines on a field: the Meadows - which to this day dominate south east Edinburgh - provided the stage during the early years of the Irish-born team, followed by Newington, then Easter Road and finally Leith, from 1890 until the end of time.
It’s the part of town closest to the sea, which is perhaps the reason why the Irishmen decided to move their team to this faraway suburb that would become symbolic of the Scottish working class and that would halt the 1980’s Thatcher revolution at the border. Furthermore, there was a road in Leith that had such an evangelical name that it seemed perfectly tailored to the Irish: Easter Road was always meant to be home to Hibs. They used to pray that God may spare them from suffering in the name of football; but today the rivalry with Heart of Midlothian – the Protestant club from Edinburgh – is the main cause for Hibernian tears.
The Scottish Championship of 2014/15 was the toughest campaign ever. The return of Hibs in the division immediately reinvoked a word that has a magical meaning in the vocabulary of a football fan: derby. 116 years had passed since the day when fate (more than sporting merits) brought the two Ediburghian teams head to head in an unprecedented Scottish Cup Final clash. That 3-1 defeat had been so terrible that, for over a century, Hibs fans have been anticipating the opportunity to right the wrongs of 1896. The opportunity to restore territorial supremacy over their rivals. An opportunity that would finally arise many generations later at Hampden Park. From the streets around the University and down towards the seafront, the colours of the streets of Edinburgh gradually faded from maroon to green and white. By the end of the clash, only one flag would be left waving in jubilation.
“Ah’d rather see ma sister in a brothel than ma brother in a Hearts scarf n that’s fucking true”. Word of Sick Boy, the bleach blond character from Trainspotting. The writer Irvine Welsh is born and bred in Leith, just around the corner from Easter Road, and has become known for translating his passion for Hibernian into literature. As a boy he used to watch every single training session of his Sunday heroes. He’s a true son of the Irish culture of Edinburgh; to him green and white represent good values, and he really means it when he writes that he’d rather see his sister in a brothel than his brother in Hearts colours. Not one of his protagonists would ever wear those colours (unless of course they were a villain). He jumps at any opportunity to manifest his passion for Hibs and its colours, think Mark Rentons t-shirt in the famous closing scene of Trainspotting: Hibernian.
Welsh was the kind of lad who would run down to The Albion Bar with half a quid in his pocket for a well-pulled pint of ale. He’d then drink it while staring at the shirts of the Famous Five hanging on the walls, or gazing out the open window to the gates of Easter Road. The old hooligans would recite stories of Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond, of how – between 1948 and 1953 – they won three titles and fell short twice, due to rotten luck obviously: both times just behind Rangers, once in 1950 by one point and the other time in 1953 by a few goals.
The same old hooligans remained totally unphased at the arrival of George Best in the winter of 1979. It’s the low point of Best’s career, and also one of the low points of Hibernians history, stranded at the bottom of the table. Twenty year old Welsh is ecstatic, but the old hooligans aren’t: they know Best won’t score like the Famous Five. His debut came against away at St. Mirren, and attracted over twice the average travelling support. Georgie did score, but Hibernian lost the game 2-1 and at the final whistle the St. Mirren manager had that look on his face, as if to say: “I don’t care about their start player, so long as my boys score more goals than them…”.
Georgies face was swollen and he struggled to get around the pitch; at the age of 33 he was already feeling the effect of the vice that would kill him 25 years on. He waved Edinburgh goodbye on the 22nd of October 1980, just 325 days after signing his contract with Hibernian. Welsh was 21 years old. Hibs had been relegated, the Belfast Boy had played 22 games and scored just 3 goals. One of the goals however came at Celtic Park, against the most followed team in Nothern Ireland: “Beautiful goal by Best” were the right words to describe it, and the best words during his stay in Leith.