Tommy proved one of the Best
Published 13/12/2006 | 00:00
Strange as it may seem football in Northern Ireland during the Second World War, 1939-45, was one of the most glamorous and entertaining periods in its history with huge crowds and a mouth-watering galaxy of great players.
When Neville Chamberlain announced on that dark Sunday September 3 that the United Kingdom was at war with Germany all professional football contracts were cancelled permitting players serving in the armed forces to register temporarily for teams where they were stationed or working.
And in Northern Ireland the lists in the regional league which had replaced the Irish League, looked like a who's who of the English and Scottish game.
And this week I spoke to one of the great characters of that era and a Belfast Celtic icon Tommy Best now 86 living in a home in Hereford. He possesses fantastic and articulate recall of his Paradise heroes of yesteryear.
Tommy, then 19, was the first coloured professional to appear in top grade local football and for the fans that was a new trend in those days.
His story is a fascinating one. His father was from Barbados and Milford Haven his birthplace on December 23 1920. He is as Welsh as the valleys.
A Royal Naval rating, he was stationed on HMS Gloman, a minesweeper berthed at Pollock Dock which was damaged in one of the German air raids. He had been spotted by Sammy Allen, a chief petty officer from Frenchpark Street on the Donegal Road who introduced him to the football scene via Brantwood United, an intermediate club, Cliftonville, the Combined Services and of course Celtic in one of the golden eras of that renowned club whose departure from football in 1949 left a void never adequately filled.
During the war years the North-South Intercity Cup was one of the main tournaments attracting capacity attendances.
Drumcondra, a man short, arrived from Dublin at Grosvenor Park for a match against Celtic. Best, sitting in the stand, was invited to play, produced a brilliant performance against Bertie Fulton, one of Ireland's most accomplished full-backs, scored the second goal and eliminated Celtic from the series!
"Celtic was a wonderful club," said Best. "They had quality players - real quality. I was on the wing with Jimmy McAlinden and Norman Kernaghan on the other. It was a never to be forgotten season but unfortunately I had to leave for Australia on naval duties."
Celtic fans affectionately called him "Darkie Best" which today of course would be politically incorrect. "I suppose it was a novelty seeing a coloured man playing in green and white," he laughed. "I was never subjected to racial comments by anybody - team-mates, officials or supporters. Indeed, I looked upon Belfast as my second home."
Jimmy Donnelly, a lifetime Celtic supporter, former player and member of the 1989 reunion dinner at Balmoral said: "Tommy was unique in that with his unusual physical shape he could trap a ball on his posterior!"
Elisha Scott, the legendary Celtic manager, also signed young Chelsea centre-half Ron Greenwood who became England manager and Brentford striker Len Townsend.
"He celebrated his farewell to Ireland by scoring six goals for Celtic against Derry City at Brandywell and three days later hit four for Brentford. "
One of the most accomplished quartets in Irish football then was the Stoke players Bill Mould, Alex Ormston, Frank Baker and Syd Peppit, all members of the Royal Artillery, who signed for Linfield making the team one of the best in the Blues' history. Billy Liddell (Liverpool) also guested for them.
Distillery's signings included George Drury (Arsenal), Jack Rowley (Manchester United), Ivor Broadis (Newcastle), Les Bennett (Spurs) and Ted Sagar (Everton).
Glentoran had their quota - Frank Neary, Johnny Deakin (St Mirren), Bobby Langton (Blackburn Rovers), Peter McKennan (Partick Thistle), Jimmy Dykes (Hearts) and Albert Young (Arsenal).
Best ended our conversation like this: "Maybe some day I'll go back again to Ireland - and to Belfast which I really mean is my second home."