Celtic crossed

Dave Hannigan on George Best’s brief spell playing for Cork Celtic

Three days after Christmas, 1975, 12,000 fans were shoehorned into Flower Lodge to see George Best make his debut for Cork Celtic in the Bass League of Ireland. At that point in his travels through the world game, Best’s latest club had been Fourth Division Stockport County. They had reportedly paid him £300 per game. Cork Celtic had lured him across to Ireland with the offer of £1,000 per outing and, for his first game against Drogheda United, Celtic took in £6,000 at the turnstiles.

“I am a businessman who just loves to play football,” said Best. “I would like to help Celtic as much as possible.” With his new team-mates, Best was quiet and aloof, barely talking to them off the field and suffering the weight of expectation on it. In that first game, the other players passed to him at every opportunity – well, at least until they realised the 28-year-old wasn’t exactly trying too hard once he did get the ball.

Popular legend portrays Best as being grossly overweight for his debut and not managing a single attempt on goal. Only the second half of that myth holds true. A couple of typically visionary passes were the only things he did to excite the crowd. There were no mazy runs. No extravagant flicks. Nothing. Celtic lost 2-0. The fans were disappointed. The management less so. “Next time we would hope to get him into Cork several days before the game so he can train with the players,” said Celtic manager Paul O’Donovan. “With a little work, we can make it pay off.”

In a rather bizarre arrangement, Best was allowed to skip the next game, an away trip to Ballybofey at the other end of the country, before returning for a home clash against Bohemians. Having rented Flower Lodge, ground of their cross-town rivals Hibs for his debut, Celtic returned to their own rather less capacious home of Turner’s Cross for that fixture, and the build-up summed up the lunacy of the whole enterprise.

“We intend to start with the showers,” said players’ spokesman and former Chelsea favourite Bobby Tambling when announcing a scheme to improve the ground. “And after that we will work away on the facilities. We would be very glad of any materials or other help that supporters can give us.” At a time when Best was being paid £1,000 per game, the rest of the squad were clubbing together to try to make the dressing-rooms slightly more respectable, starting a weekly kitty and offering to do all the building work themselves to save on the costs.

Following another anonymous performance against Bohemians, Best’s participation in an away game against Shelbourne at Harold’s Cross was only made possible by the Dublin side contributing to his fee in the hope of boosting the attendance. Perhaps irked by the strangeness of a team helping opponents get a star player to the game, just 7,000 turned up to see a Best free-kick deflected in for a goal. “He will stay with us until the season in America opens in April,” said O’Donovan afterwards, still putting on a brave face. “Celtic are confident that their relationship with George Best will flourish.”

Oddly enough, other clubs bought into the idea of importing marquee names. Hibs soon signed Rodney Marsh and Waterford United picked up Bobby Charlton. Best never crossed paths with them, though, because his sojourn came to a premature end. On the afternoon before his next scheduled appearance against Waterford, a Cork Celtic official rang Best’s home in Manchester to confirm everything was OK. A few hours later, Celtic representatives were at Cork Airport watching the passengers disembark from a flight from London. Best was supposed to be among them. He wasn’t.

A frantic phone call later, it emerged he wasn’t travelling at all. He claimed to have the flu. After Match of the Day ended on RTE television that night, a bizarre announcement was made informing all those intending to attend Cork Celtic’s game that Best was unable to play due to illness. The following day, the approach roads to Turner’s Cross were hung with posters advertising Best’s absence. Some fans turned back when they saw the signs. Over 2,000 didn’t. Four days later, Celtic terminated Best’s registration by mutual agreement.

“It was not a success from a playing point of view,” said O’Donovan. “He just did not turn it on.” There are no reports of Best going on any benders before or after games. Well, he was never in town long enough to manage that.

From WSC 297 November 2011