THERE was little Christmas cheer in December 1975 for the two League of Ireland teams based in Cork.
Both Cork Hibernians and Cork Celtic lagged behind leaders Finn Harps 45 years ago in the title race with both struggling to recapture the form which landed Hibernians the championship in 1971 and the FAI Cup in 1972 and 1973 and Celtic the title a year later in 1974.
Celtic manager Paul O’Donovan turned to former Chelsea, Crystal Palace and England striker Bobby Tambling, who joined the Cork club in November 1973 while spreading the Truth as a Jehovah Witness, to entice former Manchester United star George Best to turn out for the Leesiders with the two-fold intention of increasing attendances and reigniting the club’s title aspirations.
Best had played his last match for United a year earlier in a 3-0 defeat in the league to Queen’s Park Rangers on January 1, 1974 and after playing for Dunstable Town and Stockport County, agreed to put his talents at Celtic’s disposal on a play-for-pay basis for £1,000 a match.
The Northern Ireland international travelled to Dublin from Manchester on Saturday, December 27th ahead on Sunday’s encounter with Drogheda United at Flower Lodge.
A fervent attendance of 12,000 paid gate receipts of £6,000 but unfortunately for Celtic the gamble, while proving hugely profitable on the financial front, backfired as Drogheda rose to the occasion to secure an unlikely 2-0 win despite flashes of Best’s magic failing to inspire his team-mates.
The visitors exposed the hosts' unease at the back to open the scoring in the 22nd minute through Damien Byrne who beat Keith Edwards in the air to head in Jerome Clarke’s corner. With Tambling unavailable due to a stomach ailment, Celtic lacked the leadership which would have undoubtedly allowed Best more freedom to display his renowned ability.
And while his exquisite passing occasionally drew applause, he did produce Celtic’s best chance for John Carroll who shot wide.
Cathal Muckian added a second for the visitors eight minutes from time to burst Celtic’s bubble and prompted Best to comment after: "It’s always hard playing your first match for a new club... it takes a while to get used to one another".
Two weeks later the Belfast Boy returned for the visit of Bohemians at Turner’s Cross.
The 9,000 attendance drew gate receipts of £4,000 and made it a win-win occasion for the Rebel County team after Tony Heery’s 10th-minute header sealed the points at the finish.
A week later on Sunday, January 18, Best lined out against Shelbourne at Harold’s Cross. Celtic were rocked by two goals from Roche and Lawlor after Best’s corner had earlier been headed into his own goal by 'Mo' Shiels to give the visitors the lead. Later, Best fluffed the chance to grab a point in the final minute when he shot wide with the goal at his mercy.
Before Celtic’s next encounter with Waterford who included former United team-mate Bobby Charlton in their first eleven, Celtic terminated the arrangement with their disappointing star and cited, lack of effort as the club’s reason for discontinuing the experiment despite the Dublin outfit paying the player’s expenses.
Young Celtic goalkeeper Alfie McCarthy recently recalled Best’s contribution.
"He did nothing for us. He wanted to take all the free-kicks and corner-kicks but as we tried to play everything through him, we were always going to be in trouble if he lost possession.
"I remember in the dressing room before his first match at Flower Lodge he broke one of his laces when tying up his boots."
The Belfast legend’s fleeting appearances for Cork Celtic midway through the 1975/76 season were a curious footnote in the football history of the southern capital. While Best would go on to play with a host of clubs before his untimely death in November 2005, Celtic wouldn’t last quite as long, going the way of many Cork clubs before them, by quitting football altogether following financial difficulties at the end of the 1978/79 season.
While Best’s brief odyssey in Cork barely registered in the many biographies written about the great man, many who saw him play on Leeside nearly 45 years ago, myself included, will never forget the excitement of seeing at close range the one player responsible for the dreams of a generation.