As featured on Guardian Sport
THE NUMBER 10 INSIDE LEFT for Cork Celtic that day zipped around the field with ease, leaving the Bohemians defence consistently baffled. He feinted one way and then the other, with the ball seemingly immovable from his foot. The local population filled out Turners Cross stadium on 11 January 1976 with the hope of seeing one of the best players the world has ever known put on an exhibition. Instead, it was Bryan MacSweeney from county Cork who stole the show and wowed the audience while George Best was relegated to secondary status.
As the Irish writer Noel Baker recalled in his writing for In Bed With Maradona, it was not unusual at the time for League of Ireland clubs to bring over celebrity players from England to boost their attendances and pad out the wallets of players who were well over the hill. What was unusual about Best’s time in Cork was that he was a mere 29 years old, an age when most players are hitting their peak. To put this into perspective, Cristiano Ronaldo was 29 last season, when he broke the record for the amount of goals scored in a single Champions League campaign with 17 goals in 11 games.
The year 1975 was the beginning of the nomadic second half of the career of George Best. His stint at Manchester United came to an ignominious end with his final game coming in a 3-0 defeat to Queens Park Rangers on 1 January. It had been clear since 1971 that Best’s heart wasn’t in the game anymore. He was missing games and training sessions in favour of drinking and fame.
Meanwhile, Cork Celtic were having little on-field success despite winning the league two years previously. Celtic captain and former Chelsea all-time top goalscorer Bobby Tambling was tasked with recruiting a big name from England to help ease the club’s growing financial problems.
Through contacts in England, Tambling got word that the European Cup-winner might be available, but only at the right price. Tambling relayed the message back to the directors of Cork Celtic, who jumped at the opportunity to bring Best to the club.
Cork’s offer of £1,000 per match must have been a shining light for Best, who was struggling financially in late 1975. He had been attempting to sort his life out at a recovery clinic while paying the bills by turning out for Stockport County’s home games in the Fourth Division.
Best was set to make his League of Ireland debut against Drogheda United on 28 December 1975. In expectation of a big crowd, officials moved the game to the much larger Flower Lodge venue and the people of Cork did not disappoint. An estimated 12,500 fans turned out, with the club receiving over £6,000 in gate receipts.
The match was infused with a grand sense of occasion. Unfortunately, this filtered down to the players, who seemed to be overawed by the knowledge they were playing with a man who had been crowned European Footballer of the Year only seven years earlier in 1968. Cork Celtic were well beaten 2-0 by Drogheda as a clearly unfit Best struggled to get going in the game. Best admitted his own disappointment with his debut: “It is difficult playing with a club for the first time. The game was scrappy and disappointing, but has made me feel like wanting to return and play again.”
Cork officials were initially reserved on the question of whether Best would return or not. Club secretary Donie Forde said: “We don’t really know how much money we made. It was certainly profitable, and while it is nice to take that sort of money from one game, which will help to keep us going this season, it’s annoying to think that had we won we would have been in third place in the league instead of just sixth. We don’t know if he is coming back until he phones us during the week.”
Best was not contracted to play away games so he missed Cork Celtic’s impressive 3-0 victory over league leaders Finn Harps in Donegal. Best’s next match at Turners Cross stadium was against champions Bohemians. It was an altogether better performance from the star. He was hungrier, as if he had something to prove to everyone and, perhaps most importantly, to himself. He showed a real commitment to work hard for the team, even making tackles beyond the halfway line. There were brief glimpses of his old self, he showed some nice touches and he sent a well-taken left-footed volley narrowly wide.
Cork Celtic won the game 1-0 and though it was a markedly improved performance from Best, it was still nowhere near his usual standard. In fact, Tambling and MacSweeney grabbed the headliness. The former spent much of the game in goal following an injury to regular goalkeeper Bertie O’Sullivan and the latter captured the imagination of the crowd on that brisk Sunday afternoon in January. Indeed, if you didn’t know what George Best looked like, it would have been natural to assume that the Cork man was the Manchester United legend. Following a wonderful run into the box, shimmying past defenders as if they weren’t there, commentator Jimmy Magee quipped: “Lovely piece of play from MacSweeney. If George Best had done it, he would have gotten a standing ovation.”
After the match it emerged that Waterford United had completed the signing of 38-year-old Bobby Charlton. Anticipation built steadily as Cork Celtic were due to play Waterford in two weeks’ time. Donie Forde told a crowd of reporters to “take it for granted” that Best would turn out against his former team-mate.
Though Best was not contracted for away games, he was named in the starting 11 to face Shelbourne after the Dublin club agreed to give a percentage of the gate receipts to Cork. A crowd of 5,000 arrived at Harold’s Cross stadium with the hope of seeing the Belfast man strut his swaggering stuff.
What ensued is best described using the match report in the Irish Times. The headline on Derek Jones’ article reads: “Best at his worst as Shelbourne win.” The reporter described Best’s performance as “easy money for a player who showed he simply did not want to be involved”. He further lamented Best’s fall from grace, writing: “As far as I am concerned I never want to set eyes on him again. I would prefer just to remember him as he was during his Manchester United days.” It was to be the last time Best would pull on a Cork Celtic jersey.
Rumour had it that the night before the match at the hotel, Best had charged a number of champagne bottles to Cork Celtic, which may explain his lacklustre performance. The former Football Writers’ Player of the Year was marked out of the game, only producing a few off-target shots and the free-kick that led to his side’s only goal in a 2-1 defeat.
Despite this, Cork still persisted with the arrangement and desperately wanted him to be available for the Bobby Charlton reunion against Waterford United. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Two days after the Shelbourne, Charlton ruled himself out of contention citing business commitments that needed attending to. Best was due to fly into Cork the night before the game but he did not travel claiming he was suffering from the flu, ending the arrangement between player and club.
Cork Celtic lost 4-3 to Waterford in what proved to be a thrilling encounter, but failed to draw crowds with gate receipts of just over £800. The Cork club would not see crowds the size Best drew again. In the two matches he played in Cork, the attendances and gate receipts generated by Best earned more than every home game for the entire season combined.
It’s clear that club officials attempted to replicate the Best formula in bringing English World Cup winner Geoff Hurst who scored three goals in a month long spell in 1976 and Germany legend Uwe Seeler in 1978. Bizarrely, Seeler played for Cork Celtic six years after his retirement. He wrongly assumed he would be playing in a charity game instead of an official match. Despite that, he scored two goals for Cork Celtic, including a sensational overhead kick in a 6-2 defeat to Shamrock Rovers. Sadly the financial problems persisted and the club dissolved in 1979.
Following his stint in the League of Ireland, Best moved on to the North American Soccer League where he played with Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes before a short resurgence with Second Division Fulham, and an ultimately poor spell with Scottish side Hibernian in between. He also played a handful of games in Hong Kong and Australia before retiring from football in 1984.
The career of George Best memorable yet colourful, attaining dizzying highs in his six years at Manchester United before throwing much of it away for alcohol, fame and playing out his football career as a mercenary. A sideshow attraction to sell tickets. His time at Cork Celtic is quite understandably forgotten and one would think it would be among of a number of George Best’s regrets about his life.
That said, in his peak, few will ever match his hunger, talent and match-winning ability. Best was, and probably still is, the most naturally gifted Brit to every play the game and through thick and thin, he enduring smile and bubbly personality live on.
By Dean Murray