The Passenger - George Best at Cork Celtic

The 1970's saw many of the world's biggest names head for the North American Soccer League.  But it wasn't just the USA that lured football's leading lights.  Welcome to IBWM Noel Baker.

All the trademarks were there. The jinking, almost insolent runs with the ball superglued to the boots, and the lean physique running at pace under flowing locks of hair as he darted past helpless defenders, as one team mate said, “for fun”.  Bestie was there too, of course, but like many of his Cork Celtic team mates, and those in the crowd watching them take on Dublin side Bohemians, George was part of the support cast. It was Brian McSweeney from the Cork suburb of Ballyphehane who ran the show that day, Sunday 11 January 1976. For 90 minutes everyone else was eclipsed, even the genius from Belfast.

Best’s fleeting appearances for Cork Celtic midway through the 75/76 season was a peculiar interregnum in his career, and a curious footnote in the history of football by the banks of the River Lee. Just 25 when he first fell out with Manchester United in 1971, he returned to Old Trafford – briefly – in 1973, but it seemed the love affair between club and player had died. By 1975, Best was living the life of a footballing nomad and pay-for-play was the stratagem employed by one of the greatest players the world has ever seen.  At this time, Cork Celtic captain, Bobby Tambling, was despatched on mission.

Cork had a tradition of drafting in players from across the water ever since the former England international Raich Carter decamped to the ‘Rebel County’ in the 1950s. Tambling was bossing midfield for Celtic in the mid 70s, following a distinguished career, which yielded three England caps. He is still Chelsea’s all-time top scorer. Now retired and living on the Cork coast, he recalls that he knew Best from his encounters on the football field.

“Celtic wanted an attraction and we were sort of going nowhere in the league at that stage and we wanted him to pull in a few crowds,” he says. “They [club management] asked me did I know anybody, so I said let me ring someone in England and see who we could get hold of. As soon as that name was mentioned I took that back to the club and they went for it.”

The idea of one of the greatest player’s in football history togging out for Cork Celtic is baffling; a modern day equivalent is hard to imagine, but Tambling reveals that while the move had many scribes scratching their heads, the switch to Leeside may actually have proved beneficial to Best’s life off the field. “We were probably lucky with that spell in his career and in his life,” he says. “He had been out of the game. He was in a clinic when we actually met up, he was sorting his life out again and perhaps he felt the hardest thing for a professional, or any professional sportsman, is to sort of be finished. Whatever chance you are given to prolong that day to retirement you would go for it. Perhaps he thought this is a chance to get back on the field.”

With surprising ease, the deal between Celtic and Best was finalised not long afterwards. He would make his League of Ireland debut for Cork Celtic on 28 December 1975.  Celtic’s goalkeeper at the time, Bertie O’Sullivan, recalls feelings of bewilderment when he first heard news of Best’s imminent arrival. “There was a great buzz when he heard he’d be coming over – everybody wanted to see him,” he remembers. His team mate, midfielder Gerry Myers, was more circumspect: “We were told in the dressing room at one of the matches that he was going to come over and play a few games, but you would always be expecting these things to hit a snag. You would believe it when you saw it.”

However, the mercurial Best, who had savaged defences for United just years before, did make the flight to Cork. His match fee was reputed to be IR1,000 per game – incredible money when compared to that earned by his new team mates, a mere handful of whom were on professional contracts. Bertie O’Sullivan, for example, was working as a machine operator in a city factory at the time. He puts it succinctly: “I was earning shag all – maybe £15 a match.”

Best’s first match was to be against Drogheda United. In expectation of an enormous attendance, the game was switched to Flower Lodge, then a hotbed of Irish soccer, now owned by the Cork Gaelic Games Association (GAA) and renamed Pairc Ui Rinn. The financial chiefs at Celtic expected Best to attract vast numbers of supporters, and he did not disappoint. But first, Best was introduced to his new team mates in the altogether more salubrious surroundings of the Country Club in the city’s well-heeled Montenotte area. “We were all sitting down having the grub and he came in and was introduced to us,” recalls O’Sullivan. “He had a bit of grub as well and then we went by bus to the grounds and he came down by car. We went in and got ready and he came in five minutes before we went on the pitch and togged out. There was no talk or nothing.

“I’d say he was quite shy,” he continues. “There wasn’t much talk with him. I suppose coming from Belfast and coming down here to the likes of us – he probably couldn’t understand a word we were saying with our accents. We went on the pitch then, and he didn’t kick a ball.”
Gerry Myers was a substitute that day. “The first time I saw him was in the dressing room in Flower Lodge. He was quiet, but he didn’t ignore anybody, in fairness to him, and he didn’t look down his nose at anyone either. If you asked him anything about his career he answered, that kind of way. He had done the business in the football world.”

Twelve-thousand fans paid an estimated £6,000 in gate receipts to watch Best make his bow for Celtic. The city of Cork, not unlike other parts of the country in the mid-70s, appears to have had the tired air of a man clearing out his desk on his last day at work, but Best’s signing promised fireworks for the fans who crammed into Flower Lodge that day. It proved to be an anti-climax. Drogheda won one-nil.

According to Tambling, “Everybody expected George to run the show and we’d win six or seven nil, which never happened any time he was over. I think he found it difficult because our side wasn’t up to [the standard of] his previous team mates.

“It’s very easy to slip into a ‘we’ll give it to George and he’ll go past three or four and slot it into the net. George wasn’t match fit and he probably found that a bit deceptive. We would have been fitter than George was when he ran out onto the pitch.”

Football historian Plunkett Carter, an authority on everything related to football in Cork, still has a video of Best’s Celtic debut. As if the images are tattooed to his memory box, he recounts how the match slipped away from the home side, despite the presence of one of the game’s greats in Celtic colours. “He did a few pirouettes on the ball, and one very good pass that brought the house down, but it was obvious against Drogheda that he hadn’t prepared for any kind of a game in ages. It was a gamble. The crowd just wanted to show their appreciation. They were more affectionate, than anything else.”

After the game, Best made his way back to England, while Celtic were fined £50 by the league as the Ulsterman’s registration didn’t arrive until the Monday after the match. One week later, Celtic travelled north to Donegal to play league leaders Finn Harps. Best was not contracted to play away fixtures and so was absent as Celtic hit three unanswered goals to register an impressive victory.

All was now set for the next game, at home against Bohemians at Turner’s Cross. Best arrived the night before the game and stayed in the picturesque coastal town of Kinsale. The following day he met the players at the Country Club, while the fans descended on Turner’s Cross. Nine-thousand supporters squeezed into the compact ground for the match; “They were standing on each others’ toes,” according to Jerry Myers. But an unheralded hometown boy provided the flashes of brilliance as Best again appeared a little bemused in his new surroundings.

“If you were a guy that lived in the mountains, and you only read about soccer and you had no television and you walked into Turner’s Cross against Bohemians, you would say that Brian McSweeney was George Best,” recalls Myers, his voice betraying a sense of lingering awe. “He was unbelievable. He was going by people for fun, everything he done was magical.

“Having said that, every time Bestie got the ball there was a fierce hullabaloo. Bestie put the bums on seats. But if you lived in the mountains of Moher you’d think Brian McSweeney was George Best.”

Celtic won one-nil, and while Best was undoubtedly the main draw, it was McSweeney and Tambling who made the headlines. The latter played much of the match between the sticks having replaced goalkeeper O’Sullivan, who admits: “I shagged up my back coming out for a cross.” Bobby Tambling admits that he can’t remember much about the game, as he was terrified of anyone getting near the goal he was now minding. Amusingly, he won the player of the month award based, he believes, “on the fact that I kept a clean sheet in that game”.

The knockabout nature of the fare on display was perfectly illustrated when Celtic won a penalty in the last minute and Tambling, the designated penalty taker, strolled up from the opposite goal, missed, and ran back as fast as his legs to carry him as Bohs threatened a quick restart. “George must have thought ‘what I joined here?’”

A victory in the bag, Celtic fans were exuberant after the game. Yet the poignancy in the very fact of Best’s playing for Celtic was not lost on football writers such as Billy George, who noted in the city’s Evening Echo that the Belfast man could well have been playing in front of a full house at Old Trafford, instead of making cameo appearances for Celtic.  There was speculation that Best could remain in Cork until the end of the season, when he was due to fly to the US to play in the nascent NASL (with a resurgent spell at Fulham to come as well). First, there was the next game against Dublin side Shelbourne, away at Harold’s Cross. Celtic agreed to name Best in the starting 11 as Shelbourne committed to paying his match fee, and 7,000 fans watched the home side walk away with a 2-1 win. Best was listless; the experiment wasn’t working. One newspaper headline summed it up: ‘Best at his worst as Shelbourne win’.

“I wouldn’t say we were overawed, but we weren’t that great either,” avers Bertie O’Sullivan. “And we gave him too much of the ball to try and make him look good, instead of playing our own game. He was a passenger. I’d say he was a bit disillusioned to be honest. You’re talking about probably the greatest player in the world, and I’d have expected him to be getting the ball, beating people, but there wasn’t much.”

Just one week later, it was all over. Celtic were due to play Waterford, who themselves had just agreed terms with another United legend, Best’s former colleague Bobby Charlton. Best was due to fly into Cork from Manchester on the Saturday night, but he never made it to the departure lounge, complaining of flu symptoms. Celtic managed to get the news of Best’s non-appearance in the Waterford game on television’s ‘Match of the Day’ programme, and also posted signs at the ground. The following day Celtic lost 4-3, and disastrously, the tills at the turnstiles rang to the meagre tune of just £800. Charlton had not played, as Celtic did not agree to pay his match fee, having imagined that Best’s appearance would be enough to guarantee a full house. He didn’t, it wasn’t, and the club called time on the Best deal.  “We were a mid-table side,” admits Bertie O’Sullivan. “Cork Hibs [the other side in the city at the time] were the team.”

O’Sullivan’s equally blunt about the long-term effect of the Celtic board’s myopic approach to running the club, characterised, he argues, by the manner in which the Best money was not better utilised. “They took the money,” he says, disappointment stitched into every syllable. “They were thinking about yesterday and today, but they weren’t thinking about down the road at all. All they wanted was a bit of glory.”

There are bittersweet memories surrounding Best’s time on Leeside. There were stories, typically of the harmless variety, such as the time a blonde woman arrived at the Country Club and demanded to see ‘Gorgeous George’. When she met him, she uttered the apocryphal words: “Jesus, I never thought you were so small.” After the Shelbourne match – or so the legend goes – the club received a bill for a few bottles of champagne. Best had stayed in the hotel the night before the match. He left for the airport straight afterwards. The bottles of bolly might help explain his pedestrian contribution during the game, but fact or fiction, it wasn’t quite up there with the infamous ‘where did it all go wrong?’ high jinks of both years past and years to come.  According to Bobby Tambling: “George wasn’t a success on the field for us, but if you were to ask anybody at the end would we play serious football again you’d have said ‘no’. It just shows you how well he done to get back and play in division one again.

“He was still hugely popular, it was well documented what he was going through but he was a real nice guy. The players at Celtic were delighted to have had the experience of playing alongside him as a team mate and I think that was the bonus for the lads in the side because that [having stars from England come over to play] happened two or three times.

Jerry Myers wakes up some mornings and reminds himself that he played alongside George Best. “I always thought he was taller than he was,” he says. “The photographs and the pictures of him on the telly, he always looked taller. At the time, he was probably the biggest draw in English football, and for the few games he was here, there was a buzz in the city. And the way he used to take corner kicks and bend the ball, and the flicks; there were a few memories – he wasn’t a total disaster at all.”

Myers’ pal Bertie O’Sullivan agrees. “The majority of the crowd were just delighted to see him. They can say for the rest of their lives that ‘I went down to the Cross and saw Bestie play’.” Plunkett Carter, however, maintains the viewpoint both of the uncompromising Cork fan and someone who appreciates something that perhaps the George Best of 75/76 did not; that for all the fitful memories he gave to people on Leeside, he should have been elsewhere, on a stage befitting the grace and verve of his play when he was in his pomp.
“It was a successful venture money-side,” Carter says. “All they [the club owners] wanted to do was make money, and they did make money, and they got out in time. The novelty was gone, and it was a time for results. They wanted more, they would have wanted much more.”

Within three years Celtic had been dissolved – not, alas, the last time that a club in the city has fallen away. Just last season, Cork City FC, founded in 1984, were taken over by a fans network after a period of financial turmoil. While modern day greats, or even faded starlets from the bigger European leagues, are not a feature of Irish domestic football, the continuing struggles of League of Ireland are. A move to summer soccer has been at best a qualified success, while attempts at an entirely professional game has left many clubs with serious debts they are struggling to pay. Shelbourne have been languishing in the second tier for the past few season, while Bohemians, who a few seasons ago threatened to reach the group stages of the Europa League, have had to make a six-figure payment to Revenue in recent months. The notion of a modern day equivalent to Best, even with dimmed star power, appearing for a League of Ireland club is virtually unthinkable.

Best’s evanescent spell at Celtic marks one of his career’s less spectacular points, and his ensuing ubiquity in newspapers and television, followed by his tragic early death, contrast with the glory of his game in full, untrammeled flow. As Jerry Myers admits: “We still have a bit of banter about it. They were good times.”

Even at something much less than his best, the Belfast man left an indelible and enduring mark, simply by playing. But so did others. As recently as a decade ago, Brian McSweeney was playing senior football for Tramore Athletic in Cork, and more recently, he was still playing the playing Night Owls football with Tramore Athletic. Brian McSweeney is almost sixty years old.  George Best would have been 64.