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George Best, Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks... and Uwe Seeler - when legends came to the League of Ireland


George Best played with Cork Celtic in the League of Ireland. Image credit: Getty Images.

George Best played with Cork Celtic in the League of Ireland. Image credit: Getty Images.

George Best played with Cork Celtic in the League of Ireland. Image credit: Getty Images.

THEY had the bones of a decent team between them, the fading stars of English football who came to the League of Ireland in the 1970s for a last pay cheque as their legs gave way so that top-flight English fare was now beyond them.

But a quick weekend trip over to Dublin, Cork or Waterford was fine as these footballers cashed in one last time on their talent and reputations.

Gordon Banks (St Patrick’s Athletic) in goal; John Hollins (Cobh Ramblers) minding the midfield; Bobby Charlton (Waterford) and Terry McDermott (Cork City) creating; Jimmy Johnstone (Shelbourne) on one wing, George Best (Cork Celtic) on the other; with any of Geoff Hurst (Cork Celtic), Bobby Tambling (Cork Celtic, Waterford, Shamrock Rovers and Cork Alberts) and Rodney Marsh (Cork Hibs) scoring the goals.

Yes you can see our team was orientated towards attack, towards giving the fans a glimpse of glory.

You want big, sturdy defenders from England? No thanks, the league could produce plenty of them – we want a bit of glamour.

Indeed, if we broadened our selection out from just English lads, we could leave two of Hurst, Tambling or Marsh on the bench and stick in Uwe Seeler. Yes, he played one match for Cork Celtic at that time and, quite properly for one of the finest centre-forwards there has ever been, the great German striker scored twice!

But one player who did not play in the League of Ireland, despite many a Dublin urban legend, was the magnificent Brazilian Socrates, the classy captain of their great teams at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups – surely they were one of the finest combinations never to win football’s ultimate trophy.

Yes, there is a record of Socrates studying medicine at UCD. But there is no record of him playing for the Students or for Shelbourne – the two teams those stories insist he played for.

If he did chance playing under an assumed name, you’d imagine someone around in those years would have remembered a tall, black lad, athletic, classy on the ball, and with a thundering shot, operating in the 1970s League of Ireland.

Speaking of Brazil, Bohemians and Drumcondra looked a bit further afar than England in 1972, when they persuaded that South American country’s top club Santos to play a joint selection at Dalymount Park.

Over 30,000 people turned up, paying gate receipts worth around €850,000 today, to see Santos, or, more accurately, the great Pele. Yes, the King of football played in ‘Dalyer’.

These players brought excitement, with huge crowds turning up at Turners Cross, Richmond Park and everywhere else, to see players in action that they had only read about, heard about, or seen on grainy pictures on a telly with a pair of rabbit ears on top – (if you don’t know what they were, ask your grandfather).

The League of Ireland at that time was struggling, just as it struggles now, for traction in the wider world of Irish sport.

The packed houses of Milltown and Tolka Park of the 1950s on a Sunday afternoon were by then a fading memory, a thing of the past, and there was little or no real money in the domestic game. Doesn’t it sound sadly familiar?

Facilities at the grounds were not great, indeed a lot worse than they are now, and remember it was a September to May season then. Many games were played in foul weather in the depths of winter at grounds where there might be little enough cover from the elements.

Nor had the league’s clubs developed the bases in their local communities that, say, Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght and Bohemians in north city Dublin, have done now.

Those running the clubs back then had to do something to try and put a bit of spark into the league and this was what they came up with.

These were the years in which Match of the Day and UTV’s The Big Match began to be seen widely in Ireland – these guys were on our TVs every winter weekend and now, albeit with slowing legs, they were coming to an Irish football ground.

Of course, they weren’t coming out of the goodness of their hearts.

For Banks, Charlton and Best the deal was always rumoured to be a cut of the gate. So if you had 2,000 at a home game on this weekend last season and now got 4,000 because George was playing, he, and others, took half the difference.

So George might get, at a then price of £1 a spectator, £1,000 for a quick Sunday flyover. This was the early-to-mid 1970s – that was serious money back then.

Others didn’t get that sort of reward – they settled for £200 or £300 per visit, still that was good bucks, but now it was up to the host club to get the punters through the turnstiles. If they didn’t they were seriously out of pocket.

The man who was believed to have started it all was Jack Burkett, who had been a player at West Ham with Bobby Moore and Hurst, and came to Dublin to live.

First Burkett joined St Patrick’s Athletic and was the man with the contacts in London who got the likes of Tambling to come over.

Soon, men in other club boardrooms, realised there was a few bob to be made out of this and the practice mushroomed.

Other English players came over and went down a different path. They put down roots, becoming truly part of their clubs and the cities they played in.

Dave Bacuzzi, Peter Thomas and Johnny Matthews (Waterford), Tony Stenson and Chris Rutherford (Sligo Rovers) and Carl Davenport (Cork Hibs) were just some of these lads whose contribution to Irish football went much deeper than a quick flight from London or Manchester.

That 1970s era was the highpoint of players coming and going in Irish football. It had happened before, the great Everton goalscorer Dixie Dean famously turned out for the ‘Bit O’Red’ as his career wound down, and it would happen again with the likes of Trevor Brooking who ended his career at Cork City in the 1980s.

Surely though now the practice is finished. Professionalism has seeped into Airtricity League dressing rooms and neither managers nor playing staff would stand for players being parachuted in on top of them for three or four matches – no matter how good they may have been once upon a time.

And such is the money in English football now that players coming to the end of the line don’t need retirement funds – or they shouldn’t anyway – with the PFA in England insisting that their members sign up to pension schemes.

Online Editors