By Gerry Desmond
|George Best leading Cork Celtic out on to the field at Turners Cross versus Bohemians (11/01/1976).
Image source: A Century of Cork Soccer Memories by Plunkett Carter
The narrow confines of Creasy Park, home of Southern League side Dunstable Town, had never witnessed anything like it. With normal attendances of less than 100 staunch supporters, the quiet Bedfordshire club was struggling to accommodate the nearly 4,000 wildly enthusiastic fans that were crammed into the venue on this warm August evening in 1974. Manchester United were in the visitors’ dressing room, or at least the Old Trafford club’s reserve side was, but the reason Creasy Park was overflowing was because the legendary George Best was set to play on English soil for the first time since he had sensationally quit the professional game the previous January. He was still only 26, but Best would not be wearing a red United shirt – those days were over. Instead, the player many still consider the most gifted the world had seen to that point was set to line out for humble Dunstable Town. There can be little doubt that the crowd got their money’s worth: inspired by the Belfast Boy, the home side turned a two-goal deficit into a fairy tale victory with three late strikes. Newspapers wildly speculated that he picked up £1,000 – a phenomenal amount at the time – for his appearance.
One week later, Dunstable, with both Best and former England striker Jeff Astle on board, hosted League of Ireland champions Cork Celtic (Click here to download the match programme). The Turner’s Cross outfit had travelled to England on a three-game mini-tour hastily arranged by Bobby Tambling following his appointment as manager. Celtic had already shared 1-1 draws with Crawley Town and Stevenage on successive days following an arduous sailing to Fishguard and an exhaustive drive across Britain. Now came the highlight of the journey – a tiring third game in four days, perhaps, but George Best would be on the opposition’s team sheet. As it turned out Celtic clocked up a third draw, holding Best, Astle and Dunstable scoreless, and they were unlucky not to claim a win on the night. Afterwards, the Cork players and management found Best to be very approachable and he mixed freely among them…
George Best: to this day he is an enigma. Although comparable to any player the world has produced on a skill level, there remains the unanswered question of whether he had ever actually reached his full potential. The first superstar of the game, the first British player to have the mass appeal that is commonplace for today’s over-hyped mega-celebrities, he was also the first to have to cope with the trials and tribulations of being a cultural icon, a media obsession. The price was heavy and Best paid it in full and then some. From being crowned European Footballer of the Year in 1969, when he was just 22, to playing for the Jewish Guild in South Africa less than five years later following his rapid fall from grace, Best’s lifestyle inspired one booze-related headline after another. He had announced his premature retirement twice previously but had attempted – and failed – to recapture the good times with United on both occasions. However, those good times were gone and the demons were taking over. It all finally unravelled after a New Year’s Day 1974 hammering for United at Queen’s Park Rangers. Then Best, disillusioned and the victim of his own success, hit the road that took him out of Old Trafford to South Africa, to Dunstable…to anywhere he could just get a game.
By November 1975 his life was in crisis. Still a young man, he drifted around the edges of the game, living off his legend, appearing in a series of testimonial matches wherever he got an invitation, running out again for Dunstable though a FIFA worldwide ban prevented him playing competitively at any level. Finally Manchester United, having given up all hope of Best mending his ways and returning to the fold, released him from his registration with the club and the ban was lifted. He was free once again to make a living from football, though clearly his long absence from the professional game had blunted his edge. Then one of those strange quirks of fate occurred later that month at Peter Osgood’s testimonial match. Best played in it as did Tambling, who was then Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer and a former teammate of Osgood. Tambling, by now assistant manager at Turner’s Cross, tentatively suggested to George that he could link up with Celtic, play some league football at a reasonable level while building up his fitness before making a return to the pro ranks. The discussion was kept under wraps and did not hit the Irish media.
Best, however, was keeping all his options open and seemed unlikely to pursue Tambling’s low-key proposal. Four days later he returned to English league football after an absence of almost two years when he made his debut for Fourth Division Stockport County against Swansea, scoring in the process and adding over 7,000 to the gate. Initially signed on a one-game deal by the Edgeley Park club, the success of the venture saw it stretched to a month while George set his sights further afield and agreed a contract with Los Angeles Aztecs for the 1976 season.
Then, in the first week of December, Bill George sensationally broke the news in the Cork Examiner, “Best to play with Celtic.” Best was set to line out at Turner’s Cross against Limerick the following Sunday week after a fortnight of quiet negotiations had borne fruit. It was almost unbelievable! Celtic boss, Paul O’Donovan had this to say, “We are aware that George Best may not have been the most dependable player in the world in the past but we have entered into a firm arrangement with him through an agent and everything has been done at our end to ensure he will fly into Cork on Saturday of next week.” The arrangement was for the Limerick game only as Best had clearly indicated his ambitions to play in America but Celtic were hopeful he might yet play regularly in Cork as preparation for that. Celtic’s secretary at the time was Donie Forde, who had pulled off two major coups in the past when he had enticed the legendary Raich Carter to sign for Cork Athletic in 1953, and Jimmy Delaney to join the club three years later.
Celtic, meanwhile, were in the upper half of the table but off the pace for honours. A week before the Limerick game they gleaned a 1-0 win at Home Farm but as the days passed there first came news that Best had been injured playing his last game for Stockport and then the story that he was contracted to County until St Stephen’s Day. Either way, he would not play against Limerick and probably not at all.
Despite the disappointment of failing to land the former United star, Celtic began to hit their stride on the playing front with a 2-0 win over Limerick and a 2-1 success at St Patrick’s Athletic to move up to fifth spot.
Two days before Christmas the Examiner revealed that Tambling and Best had again met in London, although no deal had been struck. While still contracted to Stockport, speculation was rife about George’s immediate future. His arrangement at Stockport was reported at £100 per game and he played in home games only. But Best, who was a personal friend of County chairman Freddie Pye, was seeking an improved deal of £300 which, according to the Examiner, would take him “into the bracket of Britain’s highest paid footballer” if he secured it.
Finally, on 27 December Cork Celtic fans received their belated Christmas present and read over breakfast that George Best would be in the team for the next day’s home game against Drogheda. He had signed for just one game and his fee, plus Celtic’s decision to rent the larger capacity Flower Lodge meant that admission charges were ‘regrettably’ increased to 70p and 50p for adults, 30p for juveniles and £1.50 for a seat in the stand.
Celtic, however, were in minor chaos for the visit of the Boynesiders. Tambling was laid low by a stomach bug; goalkeeper Declan O’Mahony was injured while fullback Mick Tobin was also sidelined. O’Mahony’s replacement, Alfie McCarthy, picked up a hand injury during the game. It was immediately obvious that the re-jigged side was in total awe of their famous teammate while Best himself pulled out one or two feints and pin-point long passes, but generally looked uncomfortable and well off the pace. Drogheda, in no mood to play lambs to the slaughter before a bumper crowd, stole the points with a goal apiece from Damien Byrne and Cathal Muckian on the back of an organised, no-nonsense performance. Celtic’s Paddy Shortt and Drogheda’s Ray McGuigan were sent off after a tussle, but there was really no other talking point: Best had bombed. Read a Cork Examiner report from the following day (29/12/1975) here.
The star signing was honest enough about the situation afterwards. Aware of his sub-standard display, he hinted at a possible return. “It’s always hard playing your first game with a new team. It takes a while to get to know one another. I would like to come back and show that it can be different,” he said. The club trotted out a list of logistical problems that had affected Best’s form; alternative arrangements had necessitated flying to Dublin rather than Cork. He had been driven from the capital to Kinsale to guest at a media function and his arrival shortly before the game allowed little time to meet his teammates properly.
But the local press savaged his mercenary approach to the game. A caustic cartoon on the front of the Examiner showed the bearded legend with his arms folded and weeds growing to his knees while the action continued behind him. Cruel it may have been but it accurately summed up the colossal disappointment of the 12,000 crowd. Inside, the news was that he had returned to England and opened more talks with Stockport while he was due in America a week later to sort his situation there.
For Celtic, the huge £6,000 ‘gate’, which was well above normal returns, amply compensated for the loss of both points. The venture was an undoubted financial success. At League headquarters, meanwhile, Drogheda’s secretary, Charlie Hurley claimed Best had played illegally and his FAI counterpart Peadar O’Driscoll, who stated that the player’s registration forms had not been received, supported him. Celtic’s representative Donie O’Halloran protested that all the necessary paperwork had been undertaken but possibly had been delayed due to the strain on the postal services over the Christmas period. A decision on Best’s status was postponed.
Free from the hype of the Best affair, and perhaps galvanised by its negative outcome, Celtic travelled to league leaders Finn Harps and posted a resounding 3-0 victory to send out a strong signal about the genuine qualities of the side. The Drogheda debacle was buried.
But George Best had not gone away. On 8 January Donie Forde announced that the former Northern Ireland international would play that weekend against Bohemians. Both Celtic and Best had eagerly grabbed the opportunity for another chance to make things work. The board opted against renting the Lodge again and so on 11 January 1976 Best ran out on the sacred sod of Turner’s Cross for the one and only time. Even if he hadn’t played, the game that ensued was one of the most dramatic and enthralling seen at the venue in many a long day. But play he did, and he did play well. At first it seemed as if the fates would conspire against Celtic once more. Despite taking an early lead through Tony Heery, disaster struck when keeper Bertie O’Sullivan, signed from Munster Senior League side Everton to solve the ongoing netminding crisis, was carted off injured after just 21 minutes. No less a figure than Bobby Tambling took his place, and proceeded to produce a heroic display in his unaccustomed role. The team took inspiration from him and, Best included, knuckled down to the task in hand. Tambling played out of his skin to keep a clean sheet, while Best had a couple of opportunities to hit the net and displayed an appetite for the game that had been absent on his debut. With a couple of minutes to go the drama was complete when Tambling left the nets to take a penalty – and missed! But Celtic held out to claim a precious brace of points while George Best had redeemed himself before 9,000 fans agog at the excitement of it all.
“Better Georgie mobbed” was how the Examiner saw it, referring to the crowd’s mood swing. Paul O’Donovan reflected on the change in atmosphere all around, “The prospects are good now that Best could be with us until the end of the season. He will not be going to America until late April and we have discussed the possibilities of his stay with us until then. We should know more in a couple of weeks.”
In midweek the League decided to fine Celtic £50 as Best’s registration papers had arrived two days after the Drogheda game, but no other penalty was imposed. Across the city, Hibs were similarly fined £50 for illegally playing Harry Kirk against Bohemians at Dalymount Park.
With the experiment now producing a positive response on the field, both parties agreed to continue with the arrangement and so George and Celtic travelled to play Shelbourne at Harold’s Cross the following Sunday. The Dublin side anticipated a 20,000 turnout in the capital but on the day a substantially lower figure paid in to see the wayward genius in the flesh. Unfortunately, the enigmatic Best failed to repeat his form of a week earlier and looked inept and lethargic. Worse, he squandered a golden chance to save a point in the final minute. It was Drogheda revisited…
George Best playing for Cork Celtic versus Shelbourne at Harold's Cross 18/01/1976
|Cck here to view an expanded gallery.|
Andy Roche and Mick Lawlor both struck early for the Reds and although Celtic pulled one back on the half hour mark through a ‘Mo’ Shiels own goal, they were always chasing the game. They were particularly hampered by a series of defensive errors but Best, simply, just wasn’t at the races.
“Best proves a flop as Celtic lose” was the Examiner headline, while Dick Brazil reported, “George Best attracted a record attendance of 7,000 plus to Harold’s Cross yesterday, but then proceeded to show a distinct lack of interest in Cork Celtic’s efforts to maintain a fine away record. The once super-star of the English First Division hardly raised a sweat over the 90 minutes, and, while he was in position for two goal chances in the closing stages, he spoiled them with poor finishing.”
The same day at Kilcohan Park Bobby Charlton made his debut for Waterford in a 3-2 win over St Patrick’s Athletic.
Despite the fiasco against Shelbourne Bill George suggested in Monday’s Evening Echo that Best “…will continue to play for Cork Celtic for at least another four weeks and might remain for the remainder of the season.” Celtic boss Paul O’Donovan confirmed that, “He will stay with us until the season in America opens in April.”
There then followed an amazing week for the Turner’s Cross club. On the Tuesday Tambling unexpectedly resigned as coach and assistant manager due to “personal reasons” and a “difference of opinion with a member of staff.” He remained on the books as a player. Two days later O’Donovan was co-opted on to the board of directors while Best was confirmed as set to run out against his former Manchester United colleague when the Blues came to town on the Sunday.
Waterford did arrive – and took the points with a 4-3 win – but Best failed to show ‘’due to flu’’, as did Charlton though Waterford had stated he would not be available for the game. There had been frantic efforts to advertise that neither of the greats would line out and with a meagre attendance to witness an exciting encounter it would appear that the message had got through.
And despite the potential problems of having a famous name in the dressing room, the trend of signing them continued. Not content to see their rivals constantly gobbling headlines courtesy of George Best, Hibs announced the signing of Rodney Marsh.
Then, as suddenly as it had been announced a month previously, the Best saga was over. “Best not to play with Celtic again,” the Examiner recorded for posterity, adding that his registration had been cancelled “by mutual agreement.”
Paul O’Donovan summed up the affair thus, “We brought him across first day without knowing what he was capable of at this time. It was a success to a limited extent from a financial point of view and was very important because of that. However, it was not a success from the playing point of view. He did not turn it on and while the supporters showed their interest we believe it had reached the stage where his appearance had gone beyond the novelty stage. He needed to produce something but it would have been too much of a financial risk for us to bring him again. One ‘gate’ like last Sunday’s (£700) would have set us back to square one.” O’Donovan opined that Best had been relieved to be free from the contract but disappointed also that he had been unable to perform better.
Two days later, 1966 World Cup final hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst, just released by West Bromwich Albion, signed on the dotted line for Celtic. Hurst impressed during his brief stay on Leeside and scored on his debut in a 3-1 win over Shamrock Rovers.
Best had come to Cork at a time when the game on Leeside was in decline. Hibs had been champions in 1971 and had lifted the FAI Cup in 1972 and ’73. Celtic claimed the league title in 1974, but the cost of competing at the top level was financially draining and the expense could not be sustained. With supporters not keen to experience more long seasons of poor fare and no silverware, attendances had plummeted alarmingly. To counter this Hibs and Celtic were prepared to gamble on living legends pulling big crowds and thus replenishing depleted coffers. Unfortunately, there was a large element of risk involved and Hibs, in fact, went out of business at the end of that 1975-76 season – the year of Best, Marsh and Hurst – while Celtic limped along for just three more years.
A man who played a large part in attracting George Best to Cork was Bobby Tambling, himself a legend of top flight football in England and a player rarely given credit for his enormous contribution to the game in Ireland, particularly in Cork at many levels and for many years. Plenty of stars have flitted in and out on Leeside, happy with their cash, but Tambling stayed and gave good years to the game.
As for George Best, it is obvious that he was at a low point in his life when he crossed paths with Cork Celtic. It would be grossly unfair to say he was washed up when he played in Cork; he did, after all, subsequently play for Fulham and go on to outshine Holland in a 2-2 draw in Rotterdam wearing the green shirt of Northern Ireland just ten months after running out at Turner’s Cross. Things could have been a lot different with Celtic but clearly he did not have his act together at the time. But for those lucky enough to have witnessed even the fleeting glimpses of his talent on the League of Ireland stage, particularly in the game against Bohemians, the memory of the true greatness of Georgie will remain.
28.12.75 v Drogheda (0:2) at Flower Lodge
Team: Alfie McCarthy; John Carroll, Ger O’Leary, Keith Edwards, Richie Brooks; Paddy Shortt, Liam Gillen, Tony Heery; Bryan McSweeney, George Best, John McCarthy. Sub: Gerry Myers.
11.01.76 v Bohemians (1:0) at Turner’s Cross
Team: Bertie O’Sullivan (Shortt 21’), Carroll, McCarthy, Edwards, Brooks, Gillen, Myers, Heery, Best, McSweeney, Bobby Tambling
18.01.76 v Shelbourne (1:2) at Harold’s Cross
Team: A McCarthy, Carroll, J McCarthy, Edwards, Brooks, Myers (Shortt 55’), Best, Heery, Tambling, McSweeney, Gillen