When Uwe Seeler played one match in the League of Ireland by accident

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Uwe Seeler, who finished his career with one game in Ireland, with Pele, in 1975 Credit: PA Images
Uwe Seeler, who finished his career with one game in Ireland, with Pele, in 1975 Credit: PA Images

The death of former West Germany striker Uwe Seeler calls to mind the unusual story of how he played a league match in Ireland by accident.

 

As professional footballers go, few have ever been loved in Germany in quite the way Uwe Seeler was. At club level, Seeler terrorised German club defences for Hamburger SV for almost two decades, and also featured in four World Cups for West Germany between 1958 and 1970, including captaining them against England in the 1966 final and scoring one of the goals that knocked them out in Mexico four years later. At the time of his international retirement in 1970, his 72 caps were a record. Two years after his retirement, he became the second former captain to be made an honorary captain of the team by the DFB after Fritz Walter, who led their 1954 World Cup-winning team.

In the club game, Seeler came to be known as an icon of one-club loyalty. He scored 406 league goals in 478 appearance for Hamburg, and refused temptingly lucrative offers to leave the club and try his luck elsewhere, even though they were not a particularly successful side at the time. The sum total of his medal tally for all those years there was two: a German football championship in 1960 and a DFB-Pokal three years later. But the big money offers never seemed to sway a player whose modest lifestyle was well-known and who became known as ‘Uns Uwe’ – ‘Our Uwe’ – while he was playing.

When Inter, who were building what would become the most successful club side in the Europe over the first half of the 1960s, came calling for him in 1961, they mistook his lack of desire to leave Hamburg as him attempting to negotiate a better deal. But the reality of the situation was that Seeler simply didn’t want to go. He never did sign for Inter, despite the offer of an annual salary of 155,000 Deutsche Marks, on top of a signing-on bonus of 500,000DM, or £44,000 at the exchange rate. For context of how vast this offer was in 1961, £44,000 adjusted for inflation from 1961 to 2022 is £910,000. In the same summer, Inter broke the world-record transfer fee of £142,000 by signing Luis Suarez – no relation – from Barcelona.

But his playing career didn’t quite end with him as a one-club player, after a strange set of circumstances resulted in him playing one game in the League or Ireland, several years after the end of his career. He’d started working as an advisor to the sportswear giants Adidas in the late 1960s while still playing professionally, and after his retirement from the game at the age of 36 in 1972 he settled into his position there as a fairly comfortable post-playing career. But in 1978, while he was working for Adidas, Seeler was persuaded to travel to Ireland to play in a match for one of his clients, which he had been led to believe was a charity game. But it wasn’t, and the result was his only club appearance for anybody other than Hamburg.

Cork Celtic had originally been known as Evergreen United and had risen to prominence in Irish football during the 1960s, but it was a chance encounter that led to their greatest triumph on the pitch. Former England international Bobby Tambling moved to Ireland to indulge in some evangelical Jehovah’s Witness work in 1973, but was soon presented with an opportunity to play for Cork and ended up scoring seven goals as they became the champions of Ireland for the first and only time in 1974.

And the success that the club had with Tambling persuaded them to go big again a couple of years later in a league that allowed the signing of ‘guest players’ on short-term contracts. George Best arrived at Turner’s Cross in December 1975, but while his three appearances for the club brought in huge crowds, he was considerably less than successful and left after just a month. Former England striker Geoff Hurst came in and fared better as a replacement, scoring three goals in his month, but neither celebrity signing seemed to benefit Cork Celtic very much; they ended the 1975/76 season in eighth place.

Uwe Seeler waving a Hamburg flag Credit: PA Images
Uwe Seeler waving a Hamburg flag Credit: PA Images

Seeler’s arrival in Turner’s Cross, it seems, came about almost by accident. An Adidas sales rep in Ireland asked him to make a guest appearance for Cork and Seeler, believing it to be an exhibition match for charity, agreed. Another former German international, Wolfgang Overath, had been due to travel with him, but when Overath became unavailable to make the trip another former Hamburg teammate, Franz-Josef Honig, travelled instead. But instead of this being an exhibition match – and it is worth recalling that by the start of 1978 Seeler was 41 years old, not an age readily associated with strikers even nowadays, Zlatan excepted – the match at their Turner’s Cross home was actually Cork Celtic’s last of the season against Shamrock Rovers. Their opponents were pushing for fourth place, while Celtic laboured near the bottom of the table. It’s been said that Seeler didn’t even find this out until after the match had been played.

Seeler wasn’t the only star on show that day. Shamrock Rovers were managed by the former Ireland international Johnny Giles, and Giles wanted to make them Ireland’s first full-time professional club, and hoped to make Rovers into a force in European football by developing talented young players who would otherwise go to clubs in England, or perhaps beyond. Eamon Dunphy had originally been intended to be in charge of youth development, but ended up playing for them and even won the only medal of his playing career at the end of the 1977/78 season – the FAI Cup.

And on the day, the experience of Seeler and Honig wasn’t enough to save Cork Celtic from a heavy defeat. Shamrock Rovers won 6-2, but there was something of a silver lining for Seeler, who scored both of the home goals. One was a bicycle kick described by one report the following day as ‘stupefying’. Always a stocky figure and just 5ft 7in tall, Seeler could still pull something out of the bag, even at 41. His performance was described as ‘ageless’ – ‘Seeler the star as Celtic crash to Shamrocks’, read the following morning’s Irish Examiner headline – but there was no question of this being any more than a one-off. Cork Celtic hadn’t really enjoyed too many benefits from him playing; the attendance was said to be ‘less than one thousand’ and the club was already in financial trouble by the time of his arrival.

Things would only get worse for Cork Celtic over the next couple of years. The club had decided that its best route out of financial trouble was the redevelopment of the Turner’s Cross site, but unravelling the details of who owned the ground and the land that it was built upon proved to be extremely challenging. In the meantime, the club had not spent any money on maintaining Turner’s Cross. At the end of the 1977/78 season the ground was deemed unfit for purpose by the FAI, leading to the club decamping to Flower Lodge, another stadium in the city.

After finishing that campaign bottom of the table, having collected just eight points from their 30 league matches (and picking up a three-point deduction for their troubles), the club was expelled from the league altogether in 1979, folding a year later after an application to rejoin at a lower level, in the Munster Senior League, was rejected. A legal fight over what happened to the ground next ended in 1982 when another club, Cork United, were also expelled from the League of Ireland. Cork City were formed in 1984 and continue to use Turner’s Cross to this day, having converted it into Ireland’s first all-seater football stadium in 2009.

As for Seeler, well, he ended up as the president of Hamburg in 1995, but lasted just three years in his role there before resigning over a financial scandal in which he wasn’t even implicated in the first place. His death has been particularly mourned in the city. Hamburg were relegated from the Bundesliga in 2018 and haven’t returned since, despite several near-misses. In England, he’ll be best remembered as the captain of the West Germany 1966 World Cup final team. In Germany, he’ll always be Uns Uwe, one of the greatest players in their nation’s history. But in a small corner of Ireland and for people of a certain age with a good memory, Seeler is the man who turned out for one match and scored a beautiful goal which has been half-lost to the ages. For those few who were at Turner’s Cross that day, the memory of this goal may just be as vivid as any of the other hundreds that he scored elsewhere throughout his career.

The article When Uwe Seeler played one match in the League of Ireland by accident appeared first on Football365.com.

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