FEBRUARY 1963 proved to be a bonanza for Irish soccer followers who never had it so good; a seven-week big freeze in Britain brought sport to a standstill resulting in several of England’s top teams seeking matches in Ireland where the weather had been just miserably wet.
Man United (twice), Coventry (twice), Birmingham, Stoke, Bolton, and Wolves were just some of those delighted with the opportunity of playing in Ireland.
Wolves and Coventry flew into Cork for a hastily arranged match at the Lodge on Saturday, February 8.
In normal circumstances, the ground would not have passed a referee’s inspection as Cork had experienced torrential rain overnight and early on the morning of the match.
Rather than disappoint the matched starved teams, the game was allowed to go ahead thanks to the herculean efforts of groundsman Freddie Harte who managed to clear the water off the pitch.
Despite the heavy going the teams provided great entertainment for the 6,500 spectators who paid £900 for the privilege. The visiting teams were guaranteed £500 plus one third each of the gate receipts. The pitch cut up very badly and it became a race against time to get it ready for the next attraction — Manchester United v Bolton Wanderers, fixed for the following Wednesday.
United were in Dublin earlier that week where their friendly against Coventry attracted a massive 18,000 spectators to Milltown.
Heavy rain spoiled what promised to be a great day in Cork soccer history. Such was the pre-match excitement that thousands of factory employees worked two extra hours the previous day (Tuesday) in order to get time off to attend Flower Lodge where the admission prices were set at 3/6, 2/6; schoolboys 1/-.
The usual charge for attendance at League of Ireland matches at the venue was 2/6, 2/- and schoolboys 6d. Seeing that 18,000 turned out at Milltown to watch Man Utd against Coventry a similar crowd was expected at the Lodge which was still under development.
The Cork Schoolboys League who were promoters of the match were banking on a much-needed cash injection but the inclement weather ruined all prospects of that.
Unfortunately, Wednesday was such a rotten day that huge numbers of intending spectators decided to forego the opportunity of watching Law, Cantwell, Giles, Setters, Gregg and company. This was a friendly between football starved English Division 1 clubs at a usually immaculate Flower Lodge which on the day resembled a swamp.
It could hardly have been anything other than a friendly between two teams who had flown from Manchester together, stayed in the same Dublin hotel and travelled south in the coach of the same train. Respective managers Matt Busby and Bill Ridding were driven to the venue by Lord Mayor
Sean Casey TD while the players battled through drenched autograph hunters and well-wishers to reach their bus.
Those who braved the conditions were well rewarded, for Leeside supporters had never witnessed football like that which was played in terrible conditions. The only covered accommodation, for standing spectators only, sheltered a mere tenth of the ground.
After a look at the Flower Lodge pitch, Busby said, “This suits us.” He had been looking for mud in which to give his team a real try out before meeting similar conditions which were certain after the thaw in England.
But Bill Ridding was pleased with any kind of a match, for Bolton hadn’t played for 10 weeks (December 8). Just 6,000 soaked fans piled in to stand in ankle-deep mud. A directors cum press box was improvised from the team bus which stuck in the mud while being moved to its intended position behind the terrace at the Blackrock end.
It was then all hands on deck; two overseas reporters with the help of a Bolton director and United secretary Les Olive plus over a dozen local fans spent 20 squelching minutes trying to push the bus out of the mud.
In the end, all stood and watched in the rain, including Matt Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy.
Yet, in comic opera conditions, with the pitch churned up, mud and rain driving hard across the ground, exhibition stuff was out of the question!
Or, so we thought!
Spectators marvelled at the ease with which these renowned stars overcame the conditions. And the wonder grew as they passed the ball with amazing accuracy through the mud.
“The mud: I never saw so much in my life”, Pat Crerand, Man Utd’s new £55,000 signing from Celtic, said.
Two combatants who, with the ball in the middle of a pool, kicked the water over each other in a spirit of playfulness generated some light-hearted humour.
Cork followers' eyes were centred on Denis Law, United’s £115,000 record signing from Torino three years earlier. Crerand, too, was under the microscope as were Albert Quixall, Noel Cantwell, and Maurice Setters. Spectators craved a Denis Law goal and although it didn’t come until the second half it was worth waiting for.
After the game rain-drenched supporters were still discussing how he did it. He weaved his way past three Bolton defenders and, with a body swerve, left-right back Hartle sitting on his backside in the muddy penalty area, before placing the ball wide of Hopkinson the English international goalie.
Hopkinson nearly stole the show with an acrobatic save, one of the best seen at the venue, when stopping a David Herd thunderbolt. Busby was smiling from ear to ear at the display by Crerand who marked his debut with a spectacular goal equalising young Franny Lee’s opener for Bolton.
Ball artist Albert Quixall added United’s third from the penalty spot.
Bolton made a match of it when Lee added his second, also from the spot. Lee later created a record for the highest number of penalty kicks scored in a season (1972) when 15 out of the 35 scored were from the penalty spot; many awarded for fouls on himself which earned him the nickname Lee Won Pen.
Back at the Lodge, Giles with the nicest touch of the game, a dream chip over the head of the advancing Hopkinson with the accuracy of Jack Nicklaus with an eight iron, sent the soaked fans home in a happy mood. The only ones not happy were the Cork Hibs directors and players who were worried that their FAI Cup tie at the weekend might not get the green light because of the horrendous state of their lovely pitch.
Two weeks after the Flower Lodge friendly Man United got their much delayed FA Cup campaign off to a start.
They defeated Huddersfield in Round 1, postponed from early January, and within 12 days advanced to the sixth round with wins over Fulham and Blackpool. United, captained by Noel Cantwell, went on to win the Cup - their first major success in six years and the first since the Munich disaster.
The cup win was strangely just a consolation as their 19th place finishing position was a major concern; they avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth and were just ahead of Bolton in 18th.
A moth-eaten Man Utd v Bolton programme, one of a 100 or so that survived the inclement weather at Flower Lodge and years later bought for a few pennies in a Crosshaven car boot sale, was resold to a local collector through the Echo Pink Pages for 200 punts.
In the noughties, the catalogue price for that rare programme was £350. Unaware that the programme was considered very rare and extremely valuable, a Cork widow threw a box of 1,000 of those single folded A4 unsold programmes which had been taking up space in her garage for over 40 years into the recycling.
Of course had they come on the market the price would have collapsed. But I’m sure there were ways and means!
Hibs worry about the damage to the pitch was emphasised when their FAI Cup tie had to be transferred to Turner’s Cross where, watched by a bigger crowd than that which attended the friendlies, they beat St Pat’s with the help of a last-minute goal. Hibs reached the final but were defeated by Shelbourne.