In last week’s article we examined the strange and wonderful story of Alan Simonsen’s all too brief career at Charlton. This week we shall be looking inward, specifically the League of Ireland in the 1970s.
It may seem a strange destination. Indeed when many of us think about weird transfers in the 1970s, the North American Soccer League comes to mind. But forget dear readers about Pele going to the New York Cosmos, Gerd Muller playing for Fort Lauderdale or Eusebio going to the fabulously named Boston Minutemen. No, these transfers pale in comparison to the moving and shaking of the League of Ireland. The 1970s was a time when George Best, Gordon Banks and even German great Uwe Seeler plied their trade in Ireland.
These transfers may seem to some readers to be the zenith of bizarre football dealings but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Today we will look at the transfer of a man who played over 600 games for his club and 100 times for his country. This is a man who for club and country won the World Cup, the European Cup, along with domestic leagues and cups. This is a man whose international goal scoring record is yet to be broken by his fellow countrymen and whose name is still revered in the history books.
Without further adieu ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Sir Bobby Charlton’s 1976 transfer to none other than our own, Waterford United.
Yes, having spent twenty eventful, and in light of the club’s efforts after Munich, heroic years at Manchester United from 1953 to 1973, Sir Bobby decided to move to pastures new. It was not however the easy transition that many assumed it would be. In 1973 following his time at United, Charlton became manager of Preston North End, bringing along with him former United and England teammate Nobby Stiles as player-coach.
While Irish fans may remember the Charlton name as synonymous with good management, Bobby’s time at Preston was not a happy one. His first season ended in relegation, prompting Sir Bobby to come out of retirement for the following season as player-manager, (something that we need more of, Mark Hughes anyone?).
Matters soon worsened and Charlton left by the end of the 1975–76 season after a disagreement with Preston’s board over the transfer of John Bird to Newcastle United (and to be fair to Sir Bob, Bird spent a solid 5 years with the Toon Army).
On a personal note, Bobby Charlton moved one step closer to becoming Sir Bobby in 1974 when he was awarded the CBE for services to football (as a side note, how many active footballers are awarded chivalry medals?). Sir Bob’s footballing fortunes were about to look up however, for in early 1976, a full two years before Pele shocked the footballing world by joining the New York Cosmos, Sir Bobby made his own groundbreaking move to Waterford United.
Charlton’s momentous arrival at Waterford was announced following the club’s 2-1 league defeat at Limerick on January 11th 1976. Waterford Chairman Joseph Delaney, revealed to those interested that the length of Charlton’s contract at Waterford was dependent on the response of the Waterford public to the club and whether other clubs would pay a percentage of their gate receipts when Waterford and Charlton came to town.
Charlton’s arrival was big news for the whole league and his first match showed as much. Charlton’s debut against St. Patrick’s Athletic on January 18th attracted a big crowd to Kilcohan Park where the gate receipts were £1,900. This paled in comparison to the £5000 George Best generated for Cork Celtic on his debut but was nonetheless a serious haul.
On the pitch, Charlton produced a virtuoso display in his debut game, pulling the strings throughout in the heart of the Waterford midfield.
The home side eventually emerged victorious following a 3-2 win. Pat’s had taken the lead early on but when Charlton was fouled in the penalty area Waterford ace Mick Leech equalized from the spot before half time. Later in the game, Charlton was instrumental in the move that gave Waterford the lead after 71 minutes when he set up McCarthy to score from 25-yards and the young ex-Man United striker made it 3-1 soon after. Byrne pulled one back but Waterford held out for the win.
Next up for Sir Bobby was Finn Harps and at the time Waterford manager John McSeveney was openly confident that the club could better £1,900 at the gate:
“We have had enquiries from all over the country about this game and I believe we could well have a record gate”.
In the end, 6,000 brave souls endured the harsh snow to witness another superb Charlton performance as Waterford won 3-1. It was remarked by contemporaries that Charlton was the fittest player on the pitch and he even scored a late goal to seal the match.
Sadly payments to Sir Bob became an issue, specifically compensation in away matches. This came to a head on February 8th when Charlton appeared at Dalymount Park in a 2-0 defeat. Charlton had only announced that he would be available to play late in the previous evening meaning so that few people knew that Charlton would be playing. The gate receipts reflected this with only £793 being brought in. Incidentally Bohs, refused point blank to give Waterford any share of the gate receipts.
Sadly all good things must come to an end. Charlton’s final appearance for Waterford was the Cup match with Finn Harps at Ballybofey. Again, Charlton pulled the strings from midfield but even with a World Cup Winner in their midst, Waterford could not break down the Finn Harps defence, losing the game 3-0.
Has football moved past the stage when a World Cup winner plays in the League of Ireland or can we one day hope to see recent winners such as Zidane, Pirlo or Xavi gracing the touchlines of Dalymount Park? If the Charlton transfer is anything to go by, we may see them in Ireland just yet.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena