Belfast Telegraph

The best is yet to come for Tobermore in Irish cup

By Graham Luney

When the Linfield players line up against Tobermore United on Saturday they may have to wipe their eyes and look again to see Steven Gerrard on the opposing side.

It may seem a far fetched scenario but in Tobermore they like to have a surprise up their sleeve.

The little club near Magherafelt does things differently - very differently. When Warren Feeney's Premiership high-flyers arrive at Fortwilliam Park for an eagerly anticipated fifth round Irish Cup tie they should expect the unexpected.

A big crowd will converge on the venue ahead of the 1.30pm kick-off and the Belfast Telegraph Championship 2 side certainly relish a special occasion. On February 11, 1984, supporters travelled in their thousands towards Maghera for an Irish Cup battle.

They had good reason as a true legend was in town. Manchester United and Northern Ireland icon George Best had guested for teams close to home but this was going to be his only competitive appearance on home turf outside of international duty.

The day Bestie donned the red and black of Tobermore is part of Northern Ireland football folklore.

Despite sprinkling his magic dust on the Fortwilliam surface, his side lost 7-0 to a Ballymena United side managed by Jim Platt, who went on to win the tournament.

Then 37-years-old, Bestie's glorious years were behind him but the 4,000 fans were simply thrilled to enjoy a close-up view of one of the greatest players of all time.

Fortwilliam had become a 'little Wembley' and George, despite his fading powers with the ball at his feet, remained a class act off the pitch, signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans who had raced to the Tobermore dressing room after the game.

Two hours after the final whistle, Best was heading to London to catch a flight to Los Angeles and a rendezvous with girlfriend Mary Stavin, leaving behind some lifelong memories.

George, who passed away on November 25, 2005, won the European Cup at Manchester United in 1968 and even though his glittering career was fading when he played for Tobermore, supporters saluted a genius.

Tobermore chairman Raymond Beatty was a centre-half back in 1984 when Bestie came to town but a move a few weeks earlier to Moyola Park meant he was unable to line up with the legend. "There's been a story that I was dropped for that game but the reality is I was never going to play because of the move to Moyola," said Beatty.

"I was lucky enough to get to watch the game and we will not dwell on what happened as it was a heavy defeat for Tobermore but the supporters were happy to see George. He had agreed to play in the game and did what he had to do, attracting a crowd of thousands.

"It really put the club's name on the map and it was a massive coup for Tobermore. George stayed to sign autographs and pose for photographs and the fans loved him. He was coming to the end of his career but he was still a hero to everyone.

"They had a personality of the round back then and not surprisingly it came to us. Whenever people talk about Tobermore they do mention the George Best connection and it's a great honour for us.

"You couldn't imagine something similar happening today. It's impossible to imagine someone like Steven Gerrard leaving Liverpool and playing for us and I would add that George was a better player."

The arrival of Linfield this weekend will not generate the same excitement as Bestie's visit 30 years ago but United are hoping to make their own headlines by making Blues boss Feeney remember his first taste of Irish Cup action for all the wrong reasons.

"A lot of hard work goes into these matches which people aren't really aware of," added Beatty.

"These big matches just don't happen. They don't come along very often and have to be done right.

"It's important a club of our size makes the most of it. It will be a financial boost to us and hopefully a lot of Bluemen come along. It's not the first time Linfield have come to us but we're not talking about the George Best era now."

In February 2003, two goals from Davy Larmour gave Linfield a 2-0 win at Fortwilliam Park to progress to the Irish Cup quarter-finals.

"Hopefully we can make it another tight game for them," said Beatty.

"It's been a difficult season for us as we have been playing our matches away from home after relaying the pitch.

"We've had injuries and bad luck but returning home can help us get back on track.

"Our leading goalscorer Neil Lamont has been out injured for a long time so we need to get him back on the pitch."

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