George, Geoff, Uwe and Cork : The story of three famous icons turning out for a little club in Ireland

Best Hurst Seeler Cork Celtic

No, not a singing group from the sixties. But these were three footballers famous during that decade and beyond. George, Geoff and Uwe were three of the most famous footballers their respective countries have ever produced.

George Best, Geoff Hurst and Uwe Seeler.

Hurst and Seeler played against each other in the 1966 World Cup Final and Best is possibly the most famous footballer never to play at a World Cup.

What do they have in common? Well, probably several things but for the purpose of this piece we’re going to focus on a little club in the south of Ireland.

Cork Celtic.

Cork began life as Evergreen United in the late 1930s, becoming Cork Celtic in 1959. Their one and only league title came in 1974 when former Chelsea all-time league goalscorer Bobby Tambling helped them win the League of Ireland.

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They were managed by former player, Paul Donovan. On the back of their league success, Donovan looked to take advantage by trying to sign big names to play at the club.

The League, at the time, had a policy of allowing clubs to play ‘guests’ in matches so Donovan looked to see what deals could be done to attract top names to their ground, Turner’s Cross, and hopefully add a few punts onto the gate. Obviously, Tambling had some connections in England so this proved fruitful too.

In December 1975 the club managed to persuade one of the biggest names in the game to turn out for them.

George Best

Best’s career at Manchester United had come to an end at the beginning of 1974. He turned out for Stockport County in the Fourth Division for a few matches in 1975 and was then approached by Tambling to play for Cork.

There are conflicting reports over how much they offered him. Some say £1,000 per game, others state £600. Either way the average wage for the man in the street at the time in Ireland was £53 per week so you can see the comparison. By this time Best was short of cash having had to pay for treatment for his alcohol addiction.

News of one of Northern Ireland’s finest sons appearing in Cork caught the public’s imagination so much they had to move the game to a bigger ground to accommodate the crowd.

A clearly unfit Best was not enough of an inspiration for the home side as they lost to Drogheda United. 12,000 people turned up.

The former European Footballer of the Year didn’t return until a few weeks into 1976 but by then he was a more determined, fitter man. They beat defending champions, Bohemians.

They were then due to travel to Sherbourne but as Best wasn’t contracted to play in away games he was expected to sit that one out.

Eventually, Sherbourne agreed to share some of the gate receipts with Cork and so Best was in the starting 11. Unfortunately, his performance was memorable for its anonymity as he was largely a spectator.

This drove the Irish Times to report his performance as;

“Easy money for a player who showed he simply did not want to be involved. As far as I am concerned I never want to set eyes on him again. I would prefer to just remember him as he was during his Manchester United days.”

The fact they gave the headline Best at his worst as Shelbourne win said it all.

Despite all this, there was rising excitement at the prospect of taking on Waterford United next. Bobby Charlton had turned out for Waterford United for three matches after leaving the Preston North End manager job.

The prospect of seeing Charlton and Best on the same pitch less than eight years after the two inspired Manchester United to become the first English club to lift the European Cup was almost more than the locals could bear.

Unfortunately, it never happened. Charlton cancelled his trip to Ireland due to ‘business commitments’ and Best subsequently called off his trip claiming the flu.

Neither player would be seen in club colours in Ireland again. Cork worked out they made more money from the matches he played in than they did from the other home games for the entire season.

“Easy money for a player who showed he simply did not want to be involved. As far as I am concerned I never want to set eyes on him again. I would prefer to just remember him as he was during his Manchester United days.”

Geoff Hurst

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Undeterred the Best experience had been rather short, they enticed World Cup winner, Hurst to visit.

Hurst, known throughout the world as the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final was another player running down his career.

His time with West Ham and England had made him famous but they both came to an end in 1972. He moved to Stoke City where he inspired them to two fifth-place finishes in the First Division. In the summer of 1975, he dropped down a Division to West Brom, but after 12 games he decided he was getting too old. He then signed a deal in the NASL with Seattle Sounders.

Before heading for the States he accepted an offer for some match practice in Cork.

In all Hurst played in three matches for the club, scoring as many goals. He netted an important goal in the crucial derby against Cork Hibs, which would’ve endeared him to the locals somewhat.

The derby game must’ve been quite an occasion as Rodney Marsh was in the Hibs line-up. He too was on a pay-to-play basis and turned out for Hibs on three occasions. Before he too was attracted to the sun, sea and razzmatazz Stateside.

Players who played alongside Hurst at the time all point to how much of a gentleman he was, but then we’d never expect anything less from Sir Geoff.

Team-mate Michael Tobin told These Football Times;

“He was a lovely fellow and made everyone at ease. He had no ‘look at me’ attitude. He got on with all the players, staff and supporters. He was a gentleman and we had great respect for him”

Uwe Seeler

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In 1978 the club had a kit deal with Adidas. Uwe Seeler had become a representative for the kit manufacturer mainly on the back of a recommendation from former national manager, Helmut Schön. His club, Hamburg had a deal with the company which was largely an up-and-coming firm, rather than the huge global brand it is today.

Seeler played his whole career at Hamburg and there are suggestions his loyalty to the club and the brand were the reasons he turned down more lucrative offers to move to clubs such as Inter.

He retired from the game in 1972 but continued with Adidas.

In 1978 he received an offer to play ‘an exhibition game’ in Ireland. Former Hamburg team-mate and fellow Adidas rep, Franz-Josef Hönig was also going to be playing so the offer was quite an easy one for Seeler to accept.

He was 41 at the time and was under the impression his, and Hönig’s presence would add much-needed funds to a struggling club.

So they rocked up at Cork Celtic expecting to be playing in a fund-raising event. It’s uncertain whether Hönig knew what was going on, but Seeler confirmed years later he was unaware it was a standard league match.

They were up against Johnny Giles’ Shamrock Rovers, who were in with a shout of the title. Seeler scored two goals within two minutes of each other in such style many in the watching crowd would remember for years.

The Irish Examiner was gushing in its praise of the German’s exploits in its report;

“He showed devastating shooting power with a right foot volley that beat goalkeeper Alan O’Neill from 18 yards after 57 minutes and within two minutes he scored again with an acrobatic bicycle kick from the edge of the penalty area.”

Rovers won 6-2 but no one seemed to be talking about their goals. All the focus was on the two from Celtic & Seeler.

The Cork Examiner reported;

“The genius of Uwe Seeler transcended all else in this Bass League game at Turner’s Cross.

“Shamrock Rovers played some excellent football, clinched a place in the top four, outplayed Celtic without three of their first team regulars…but Seeler’s two breathtaking goals will live long in the memory when all else has faded.”

Seeler scored 500 goals in his career, was named German Footballer of the Year three times, played in four World Cups and captained his country in the 1966 Final at Wembley. What a thrill for the watching public to have a man of this magnitude don the colours of their local team.

“He showed devastating shooting power with a right foot volley that beat goalkeeper Alan O’Neill from 18 yards after 57 minutes and within two minutes he scored again with an acrobatic bicycle kick from the edge of the penalty area.”

Cork weren’t the only club which attracted a few top names. Gordon Banks was in goal for St. Patrick’s Athletic for one match a year later in the off-season during his spell in NASL with Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Former Arsenal, QPR and Chelsea player and manager, John Hollins played one game for Cobh Ramblers, another club from Cork. Cobh was the club where Roy Keane started his career.

In the 1930’s luminaries such as Dixie Dean and Raich Carter also turned out for Sligo.

In 1978 Scottish wing-wizard, Jimmy Johnstone played nine matches for Shelbourne, as he was running down his career.

Despite the influx of major stars, Cork Celtic couldn’t stave off financial ruin and the club folded in 1979. They had been trying to sort out who owned the ground they had a lease on. Their intentions were to develop it for additional revenue. But the whole thing went on for about three years and in the end, the FAI and the League finally lost patience and they were expelled from the league.

Five years later Cork City was founded and elected to the league. They play their home matches at Turner’s Cross.

Tambling was asked back to manage the new club for a short period. The club continued Celtic’s tradition of attracting English players and soon had Terry McDermott playing for them.

A year later Trevor Brooking wore the club’s colours as they struggled to hold onto Premier Division status.

In 1987 they appointed former Everton midfielder, Eamonn O’Keefe as player-manager. Although born in Manchester, O’Keefe had played five times for the Republic of Ireland during the ’80s.

In latter years the English connections have continued with Rob Hindmarch managing the club in 1995 and Colin Murphy and Derek Mountfield both spending time in charge in 2000.