It was 75 years ago this week that 2,000 or so curious and excited locals turned out at Sligo station to see former Everton and England striker Dixie Dean step off the train from Dublin.
He wasn’t a huge man and he must have been slightly lost amongst the crowd but the scale of his fame was truly remarkable at the time and expectations for the 32-year-old in the town must have been high.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that either the fans or club itself club felt short-changed when he left again after that season’s cup final.
Dean scored 10 goals in seven league appearances for Rovers, including five in one game against Waterford, along with one in four cup outings – against Shelbourne in a final that went to a replay which the Dubliners eventually won. Seventy-five years and hundreds of footballing imports on, it’s hard to think of many players who caused more of a stir here.
"He was a big, big attraction on the sort of scale Messi would be now," says club historian Anthony Kilfeather. "And he was treated accordingly, everywhere he went everything was free and when he left it was with a £60 pound bonus that was meant as a thank you."
While he was here, Dean delivered on and off the pitch; with some impressive displays augmented by plenty of PR work and a talk given to a packed-out venue in Killybegs when the team played a friendly there that is reckoned to have spawned a long-standing support for the club in Donegal.
Over the years that followed, not every chairman who looked across the Irish Sea for a fading star to light up the league here got quite such a return on his investment.
There always tended to be a few high-profile imports plying their trade around the league but the whole thing reach a slightly crazy crescendo in the mid to late 1970s when, in the space of barely a season or two the likes of George Best, Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Johnstone, Gordon Banks, Terry Venables and, perhaps most implausibly of all, Germany's hugely prolific striker, Uwe Seeler touched down, togged out then took off again.
In 1976, a Cork derby ended in a 1-1 draw with Rodney Marsh having scored for Hibs and Geoff Hurst for Cork Celtic.
These top-end signings generated headlines and an immediate boost to the gate receipts as when Best made his debut for Cork Celtic against Drogheda United on December 28th 1975 and 12,000 turned up at Flower Lodge.
The Belfastman, who had left Manchester United almost two years previously, is said to have received £500 for playing while the crowd handed over around £6,000 to see him. It should have been a mutually rewarding relationship but the club had expected to make more and disputes with other clubs over the splitting of away gates combined with generally poor performances by Best, meant that he only played here another couple of times.
Charlton, for similar money, did rather better in his four games with Waterford but didn't prove to be as big an attraction. Still, there was little of the fuss about the former England international either.
“I found him very down to earth,” says his then team-mate, Mick Leech. “I used to travel down to games with him from Dublin. There were three of us actually: me, him and the club secretary (Noel Wallace) and it was just like any three lads heading off to a game together really.
“He never made anything at all out of how famous he was, but on the way back up he would always just want to get a burger and chips from a takeaway rather than stop at a hotel or anything He was a nice fella and he played those games as if he was playing for Manchester United.”
Leech says there was some surprise among local players over the deals these ageing greats were getting but reckons there was a feeling too that anything that generated publicity or crowds for a league in decline, was to be welcomed.
Some stayed longer. Barry Bridges spent two season at St Patrick’s Athletic before returning to England while his former Chelsea team-mate Bobby Tambling headed to Cork Celtic and is still living in Crosshaven.
Bridges was made manager at Richmond Park towards the end of his first season and during the campaign that followed profits from the club's bingo nights meant there were funds for him to bring in players like Scottish striker Neil Martin as well as Venables and Banks.
"We were quite a good side with some good young local players too," recalls the now 72 -year-old Bridges who fondly recalls his time here, chuckling as he recounts board meetings that started with a bottle of whiskey on the table in a room that was thick with smoke after 15 minutes. "Then I went home to England for a six-week breather before the start of the next season and when I came back they told me they'd sold the bingo hall. It was gone! And there was no money so then I was stuffed because I couldn't bring in any of the players."
Johnny Matthews was only supposed to come to Waterford for six weeks on loan from Coventry City but over a decade he won six league titles with the Blues. “I enjoyed it and made friends and the prospect of playing European football was a big attraction,” he recalls.
“Then you get settled by degrees; the club was looking for a goalkeeper and I recommended Peter Thomas (who became so assimilated he won two caps for Ireland) and a while later I met my wife. I was doing well too, scoring goals and making a bit of a name for myself . . ”
“Technically the league was part-time but it was a pretty shoddy set up really and so generally the hope was that the guys would bring a bit of professionalism,” says Cork football historian Gerry Desmond who saw players like Dave Bacuzzi, Carl Davenport and Alec Ludzik make a big impact in the city.
"The minimum wage had been scrapped but the money wasn't really there so you had a lot of guys who were happy to come, not just here, but the United States too and there were quite a few who went between the two, trying to play all 12 months of the year. They were warmly welcomed here and a substantial number stayed."
They’re still coming and, on occasion, still staying too.
Banking on top talent
Former St Patrick’s Athletic manager Barry Bridges recalls how World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks came to play one game for the club in Inchicore on October 2nd, 1977.
When regular goalkeeper, the crossbar-breaking eccentric Mick O’Brien was injured, Barry Bridges flew to England in search of a replacement. The search proved fruitless until, while at Heathrow for his flight back to Dublin, he had a chance encounter with Gordon Banks and told him of his plight.
“Banksy said, jokingly, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ I said: ‘Banksy, you’ve only got one eye,’ and he said: ‘I can see the same balls with one eye that I could with two eyes, I’ll come over and play for you.’ I said: ‘You’re kidding me.’ He said: ‘No.’ He was going back to America a few weeks later but he said: ‘I’ll come over for a game if the money’s all right’. “I said: ‘leave it with me.’
So I flew back to Dublin and called a board meeting and they nearly died when I told them who it was. We offered him £500, which was bloody good money in those days. He flew over and I met him with the club secretary (Tommy Spollen) at the airport on the Saturday night where he signed in front of the television cameras.”
Bridges had to leave the club secretary home to Inchicore on the way back to his house, where Banks would stay the night, but he was afraid that the World Cup winner would see Richmond Park and think better of the entire idea so the club official was under orders not to mention the ground as they passed.
The next day Banks became suspicious when they arrived at Richmond and he recognised the area. “We walked into the ground and you had to walk though a bloody great iron gate to get into the stand and the dressing rooms and we walked through and he looked at me and said: ‘You bastard, what have you done?’
“From that moment on, though, he was a different class, he treated the whole thing as if he was playing for England. He walked in and shook everybody’s hands, he made everybody happy. He told them, ‘the 18-yard box is mine even if I have only got one eye’.
“We played Shamrock Rovers, won 1-0 and he made an unbelievable save at the end (from Eamon Dunphy) to keep it at 1-0. There were people up in trees, there must have been about 5,000 people there. It was a full house, we won 1-0 and then he went off to America.”
Sligo still a welcoming home for many foreign imports
Three-quarters of a century after Dixie Dean arrived at the club, Sligo Rovers are probably still the club most prominently associated with the use of imported talent here.
Locals like David Pugh, Tony Fagan and Harry McLoughlin were amongst the greatest players ever to turn out for the club but with the talent pool naturally limited by the relatively small population base in the area, Sligo have long been inclined to look beyond Dublin when it came to importing talent.
English or Scotsmen like Johnny Armstrong, Johnny Brookes and Chris Rutherford all made major contributions to the team over the years.
There are countless examples, in fact, and the tradition is still being maintained now with Leicester’s Ian Baraclough managing a side that includes Danny North, Kieran Djilali and, the club’s most recent arrival from England, Eric Odhiambo.