How Bobby Charlton played four games for Irish club Waterford FC

Bobby Charlton receiving the European Cup after Manchester United defeated Benfica in 1968
Image caption,Bobby Charlton lifted the European Cup in blue for Manchester United – eight years later he’d be playing in the blue of Waterford FC

It’s 18 January 1976 and the clack of the turnstiles at Kilcohan Park is non-stop as more than 6,000 people cram their way into the home ground of Irish club Waterford FC.

The team’s golden era is behind them. Waterford won six league titles in eight years up to 1973 but the club has been on the downturn in the three years since.

So have the attendances, but on this day what would have been a 2,000 or so strong crowd has multiplied, abuzz with giddy excitement as a football icon takes to the pitch – Bobby Charlton, a World Cup and European Cup winner, famed for Manchester United red now togging out in Waterford blue.

The 38-year-old will go on to set up a goal in a 3-2 win against St Patrick’s Athletic.

He’ll pick up a chunk of the £1,900 gate receipts for his trouble and, in the coming weeks, play three more matches, score one goal and generally be the best player in every game before returning to England.

It’s all part of a strange, brief postscript to an illustrious footballing life that will be celebrated when Sir Bobby Charlton’s funeral takes place later, following his death at the age of 86.

It’s a period Alfie Hale remembers well. He’s a man who knows football and Waterford.

As a member of that glorious Blues side that spent the best part of a decade hoovering up trophies, the Irish international scored more than 100 goals for the club before two stints as manager.

A black and white photo of a young Bobby Charlton on the pitch at Old Trafford
Image caption,Bobby Charlton in his younger years with Manchester United

By the time Charlton arrived, however, Hale was playing elsewhere, like many of the players who had made the club great.

“When Bobby came it was too late, there was no excitement in Waterford football any more,” he said.

“The flame had gone out for Bobby as a player and, if he was coming for the gates, we were getting 10,000 to 15,000 when we were winning leagues, now that was relegated to probably 2,000 or 1,500.”

Why did Bobby Charlton go to Waterford?

A combination of good relationships, opportunity and Ireland being a minor meal ticket for famous pros on the downswing played a role in bringing one of the greats to the League of Ireland.

Long before the lucrative riches of the Saudi Pro League or Major League Soccer in the United States, Ireland could attract some big names to inject glamour into the domestic game – at the right price.

The statue of the United Trinity at Old Trafford - George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton
Image caption,The United Trinity – George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton

Take Cork Celtic – in the 1970s they trotted out George Best (three appearances), Geoff Hurst (three appearances) and German legend Uwe Seeler (one appearance, two goals – his only club game outside his beloved Hamburg).

For Charlton, there was opportunity. He had left Manchester United three years prior to manage Preston North End but it was an unsuccessful spell.

“Bobby was at a disillusioned stage in his life. He had tried his hand at managing Preston North End and that didn’t work out,” said Hale.

And there were established relationships between Waterford and Charlton that could help grease the wheels.

In 1976, Joe Delaney became chairman at Waterford FC.

These days he may be best known as the father of John Delaney, the long-time Football Association of Ireland (FAI) chief executive who quit under a cloud of controversy in 2019.

Bobby Charlton as manager of Preston North End
Image caption,Bobby Charlton with the Preston North End team he managed in 1973 – it was his only spell as a manager

Delaney senior wanted, in Hale’s words, to “put a spark back into the football club”.

When Best rocked up to Cork Celtic, he took a percentage of the gate receipts as payment – perhaps there could be a similar deal for Waterford?

Then there was Shay Brennan, a former Manchester United teammate and close friend of Charlton’s who managed Waterford until 1974.

According to Hale, the two were like brothers.

And finally, there was the fact that Charlton himself was no stranger to the club thanks to a fateful European draw.

In 1968, just months after lifting the European Cup for Manchester United, Charlton and his teammates defended that title for the first time by taking on the Irish champions – Waterford FC and Alfie Hale.

It was a momentous occasion in Irish football.

United agreed to play in Ireland first as “they didn’t want us going through Old Trafford and getting hockeyed,” said Hale, leaving nothing at stake in the second game.

More than 50,000 people packed into Lansdowne Road, the home of Irish rugby, to see United’s victory at the stadium’s first football match

At Old Trafford, Waterford did get hockeyed 7-1.

Those European Cup games began something of an association with the club for Charlton – there was a subsequent friendly at Kilcohan Park with the Busby Babes coming to Waterford; a five-a-side tournament he played in there with Johnny Giles and Nobby Stiles; his ongoing friendship with Shay Brennan.

So it was that when an offer was made, a deal could be struck – Charlton was coming to Waterford.

The fan excitement was real but, said Hale, his past visits may have dulled it a little.

“It’s like Frank Sinatra walks in the door and you can’t believe it – but if he walks in the door for a second time, you do believe it.

“But there’s no doubt seeing Bobby Charlton, for those who didn’t get a chance first time round, that was a huge thing – a Sinatra moment.”

And it started well – that win against St Patrick’s was followed by a 3-1 victory, and a goal, against Finn Harps.

When George Best came to Cork a year earlier, he was a shell of his former self but, in contrast, Charlton was dominating and appeared as fit as ever.

A tribute to Sir Bobby Charlton outside Old Trafford

But the wheels began to come off at the next game away to Bohemians.

Some clubs objected to handing over turnstile money they felt was theirs.

With uncertainty over whether Charlton would play, a small crowd turned out to see Waterford lose 2-0.

Charlton was in the team but the Dublin club, blaming Waterford for the low attendance, refused to share the money.

The deal simply wasn’t meant to last.

“Bobby being Bobby, the last thing he wanted was anybody bargaining for him to play through Delaney’s arrangement,” said Hale.

“If he knew what he was coming into, I don’t think he would have come.”

His final game came in the cup away to Finn Harps. Charlton was again excellent. Waterford lost 3-0.

A couple of years later Bobby Charlton would finish off his career by making the odd appearance in Australia’s National Soccer League. He played his final game in 1980 at 42.

Hale went into management and was even asked by Bobby’s brother Jack to join his Republic of Ireland coaching team in 1986 (he declined to stay in Waterford). His decades-long career brought him foot-to-foot with some true greats.

But number one was the guy who strangely trotted out almost five decades ago at Kilcohan Park.

“I think when you judge a player in any sport, and in music or anything else, they’re judged by their peers. And the peers all say Bobby Charlton is the best – the best of all of them.”

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