# Genius Week
‘The only time I got near George Best was in the queue for the jacks’
How do you stop the best players on the planet weaving their magic? Garry Doyle spoke to the men who got up close and personal with George Best, Pele, Maradona, Rory McIlroy and Jonah Lomu.

Genius Week

This article is a part of Genius Week, a series of features reflecting on sporting genius in its many different forms. Here, Garry Doyle finds out what it was like to play against a superstar.

IT WAS DEVILMENT at first sight. The DJ was playing Give Me Just A Little More Time by Chairmen of the Board when their eyes met across a crowded niteclub. There was Paddy Mulligan who was sitting next to Peter Bonetti and Peter Osgood, talking football mostly, his cheeks flushed, his head racing. And then there was George Best, superstar and showman, who earlier that night had given Mulligan the runaround at Old Trafford. “Bestie, jeez, no matter what you did, he always seemed to be in the right place.”

It was a similar story here. Mulligan, Osgood and Bonetti may have sounded like a firm of travel agents but in actuality they were a trio of footballers who’d spent that October 1970 evening at Old Trafford, hoping to get out of there with a replay. But Best put an end to those notions, zipping past the Chelsea defence with the kind of speed that takes gossip through a small town. 2-1. Game over.

The night was only starting, though. “We’d hit the niteclub,” Mulligan says. “Alan Ball and a couple of the Everton lads had come up and join us. The disco might’ve been noisy but we’d always have the craic, us, the United players, the Everton boys. Green velvet couches if memory serves me right; the music blaring, the hot bright disco lights hanging over us. We enjoyed the chat, loved the company.”

But Best was different. He was on his own, standing on the balcony above, figuratively and literally on a different level to the rest. When Mulligan spotted him, he walked across to say hello. “Why don’t you join us, George?” he said.

Best smiled, gesturing to the door behind him, a sign that said LADIES TOILETS. 

“They’ll all have to walk past here at some point, Paddy,” Best smiled with the kind of confidence that suggested he’d soon have company.

soccer-george-best PA Where did it all go wrong, George? PA

Mulligan laughed. “I’d spent 90 minutes on the same pitch as him that night and now here I was in his company for about 90 seconds. The queue for the jacks was the only time I got any way close to him.”


Michael Brett was heading west. He was nearly six months into the biggest gamble of his life, giving up the safety of the nine-to-five world for a shot at glory. Results had been okay since he’d swapped investment banking for the dole and hour after hour on the golf course.

But okay wasn’t going to get him a Walker Cup spot. It was June 2005. The Irish Close’s matchplay format suited his mentality. A winner and a leader, he’d been head boy at Leo Varadkar’s old school and captain of the university hockey team. He’d been climbing the work ladder too but golf people were in his ear, telling him he had a gift. He’d made the Leinster squad, won an All-Ireland inter-county title with Dublin. “Give it a rattle, Mick,” they told him. “Go at it full-time and see where it takes you.”

On this particular week, it took him to Westport. He travelled there with fear and doubt, money running out, time standing still. Summer had arrived but summer would disappear just as soon if he didn’t do something here. He remembers looking at the draw. Mark Campbell – who’d subsequently turn pro – was standing in his way. Brett beat him.

Next up was this kid everyone was talking about.

Rory McIlroy, shaggy-dog hair, daddy carrying his bag; sponsor on his hat, the chosen one. Brett didn’t have a caddy never mind a sponsor. An old college friend had given him the keys to his holiday home in Louisbourgh where he put his head down for the week. It was a 7am start and Brett was on the course just after five, his arrival coinciding with McIlroy’s.

“Every one of us wanted to have a shot at him,” Brett says. “We’d seen whiz-kids come along before, the branding on their bags, the swagger in their step. You built yourself up to take them on, knowing you’d taken a scalp or two before.”

But this guy was different. Despite being the only two on the practice green, they didn’t exchange a glance, never mind a word. The tension built. “There’s nearly always some sort of chat (on the course),” Brett says. “Not here. No banter. No niceness.”

rory-mcilroy INPHO Rory McIlroy in 2005 with his branded cap. INPHO

Two holes played, the first halved, the second won by this former banker who no one knew much about.

“He was playing the better golf,” Brett says, “but I kept sinking putts. You could tell he was getting a little tetchy.”

Then came the ninth. McIlroy missed. Brett didn’t. “He put his putter under the surface of the green,” Brett recalls, “and his old man publicly chastised him.” Meanwhile, Brett was away, on the tenth tee, looking around to see his opponent still on the ninth green. “I remember thinking, ‘right, he’s playing some little game, here’. So feck it, I didn’t wait. I took my drive.”

With nine holes to play, the mind games had just begun.


Jonah Lomu and the 1995 All Blacks didn’t wait until the half-way stage to initiate their mind games. Instead, they had the game won in the tunnel. “Way back then in Irish rugby, you’d go into matches with hope but not much more than that,” David Corkery, a then 22-year-old playing in his first World Cup game, says. “Deep down, we kind of thought that if we’d lose by 10 points or so, it would be considered a good day. That was a shocking way to be. But we didn’t know any different.”

Nor did they know much about Lomu, who was a couple of years younger than Corkery and about to win only his third cap. “He was just another All Black in our eyes, possibly considered a weak link. The bit that stood out was the facial expressions of Sean Fitzpatrick and Frank Bunce just before we took the pitch. They’d an aura about them. I’m embarrassed to say it but we had a massive psychological barrier to jump.”

Their feet barely left the ground.


By the time he was facing Brazil at Lansdowne Road in 1973, Paddy Mulligan knew all about dancing with the greats. At this juncture of his career, he’d already won the FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup with Chelsea and had man-marked Best, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Eusebio. “None of them knew who I was,” he says. “You had to introduce yourself.”

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-chelsea-centenary-event-london-hilton EMPICS Sport Paddy Mulligan at an anniversary dinner to celebrate Chelsea's Cup win. EMPICS Sport

Now 75, Mulligan is the quintessential gent, mannerly, gregarious and fun. In 1970, he was a tough nut defender. Beckenbauer learned this the hard way. First time they met, Mulligan in a Shamrock Rovers shirt, Beckenbauer in a Bayern one, the World Cup winner ended up on his arse. “Let me help you up there, Francie,” Mulligan said to him. The Galwegian scored that day, was named man of the match. Four years later, his job once again was to stop Beckenbauer.


The German was on the ground again.

“Hey, World Cup,” Beckenbauer cried. “World Cup!” 

“Ah you’ll be fine for Mexico, Francie,” Mulligan said to him. A couple of minutes later, Mulligan nailed him with another crunching tackle. “It was a tough old world,” he says. “You had to let people know you had something about you.”

That’s what he was up to this day – 3 July, 1973. Lansdowne Road, a game played at the height of The Troubles between an all-Irish X1 and Brazil, the defending world champions. “Johnny Giles slipped a pass out to me early doors,” Mulligan says. “Now I’m not sure who it was, it might have been Jairzinho, could have been Rivelino, you didn’t stop to ask their names. All I knew was that he was charging at me, ready to nick the ball and go on and score.”

So Mulligan feinted to go right and then shifted his bodyweight to his left as he let the ball disappear through his legs before moving it on to Allan Hunter. For the hell of it, he looked back at his Brazilian pursuer and smiled. “You had to let them know you could play a bit, had to show a bit of confidence. Otherwise, they’d destroy you.”


Back at Westport, the 16-year-old McIlroy and the dreamer on a year’s sabbatical from the bank had reached the 13th. Brett was one up but both men were in trouble off the tee. While McIlroy’s shot was shy, his persona was anything but. Brazenly, he walked 50 yards across the fairway to check Brett’s lie. “When he saw I was in the shite, he just kind of smirked. And I was thinking, you cheeky f***. No one had ever done something like that to me before. He was cheeky enough to get right close to me. I’ll be honest – he got right under my skin.”

They halved that hole but Brett scrambled to win the next. Two up, four to play. On 15, he had his moment, a chance to go three up. But McIlroy holed from 10 feet and Brett missed from six. “I hadn’t even replaced the flag by the time he had teed off on 16,” Brett says. “He just switched into another gear and finished the match off with three birdies. I birdied 18 to put the pressure on. He didn’t flinch.

You knew, even then, that he was special. I’d caddied for some great players by this stage, Tiger (Woods) when he was practicing at Portmarnock; Payne Stewart, Sergio Garcia. Rory was in that ilk; the way he hit the ball was different. The sound of the connection; the rainbow flight of the ball – it was just like Tiger. Even at 16, you knew he was going to be a sensation.”


A decade earlier, in a different sport, on a different continent, Corkery was having similar thoughts about 20-year-old Lomu. The winger scored two tries that day at Ellis Park. Three weeks later he’d get four against England in the semi-finals. “He broke the mould and took rugby into a new era,” Corkery says. “The size of him, if he’d been Irish he’d have spent his career as a frustrated No8 or a second row but the All Blacks had the vision to see what he could become. Trying to stop him seemed a hopeless cause because he was as quick as he was strong. Look at his tries now on YouTube. They’re in the millions in terms of views. He was just way too good for the rest of us.”

jonah-lomu-new-zealand-1995 © Billy Stickland / INPHO Corkery (right) is one of four Irish players trying to stop Lomu. © Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO


Mulligan felt that way about Pele. And Maradona for that matter, not to mention Best. “They’re my one, two and three in terms of the guys I played against. Eusebio, yes – an exceptional talent. Bobby Charlton, Beckenbauer, Law – world class. But the difference between those guys is you could get near them every now and again. Best, you couldn’t. Pele, forget about it. Maradona, we played against him with Ireland in 1979 and had heard the hype. Well, he wasn’t hyped enough.

I mean you talk about class. Even at 18-years-of-age he always made the right decision. His first touch was way better than everyone else’s; his acceleration took him away from you in a second; his lack of inhibition was staggering. He was unstoppable. You could say the same about Georgie.”

In more ways than one he was the Best.

“I was lucky enough to play in a charity match with George once and even then – this was 1976 when he was past his prime – in terms of footballing intelligence, he was a professor. Any time I made a run forward, he saw it and would ping the ball to my big toe. Not my small one, my big one. Time after time. Make a dart like that when you were playing with Alan Hudson and you’d have been as well off running forever like Forrest Gump because Alan, bless him, would just turn around in circles, flicking the ball this way and that. But Georgie always saw you.

“And that’s one of the things that took him, Pele and Maradona onto another level. They made the right choice with a level of consistency that was frightening. So not only did they possess outrageous amounts of skill; they had the intuition to know where to find space, were streetwise to get away from trouble before trouble arrived and mentally, they were tough boys. Kick George, and he’d kick you back. Try to kick Maradona and you’d be swiping at fresh air. Nobody but nobody got near either him or Pele.

soccer-argentina EMPICS Sport Maradona in 1979. EMPICS Sport

“Pele’s Santos side beat the Boston Beacons team I was playing on, 6-0. It could have been 60-0. He controlled everything. He’d have had a field day in the modern game, Maradona too. Best was as talented as Messi and I know people may say that’s an exaggeration. Well, anyone who saw both men play would say I’m being generous to Lionel.” 


The moment the ball dropped on the 18th, McIlroy changed personality. The hat came off and the hair flopped out. The hand was extended, the grip firm and for the first time that day Brett heard the sound of his voice. “Join us for a drink,” McIlroy said to him. Gerry, McIlroy’s father, gave Brett a huge hug. “Where’d you come from?” he asked. A week later, the phone rang. It’s Rory, asking if Brett would mind playing a practice round with him at Portmarnock. This time Gerry McIlroy caddied for Brett. “Lovely, friendly people,” Brett says.

It was like his hat was a cape. When he wore it, he had his game-face on, was in a zone, played like a superstar. When he took the hat off, he was just a regular guy.”

Corkery says the same about Lomu. Two years after Cape Town, they met again at the Hong Kong Sevens. Staying in the same hotel, Corkery arrived down for breakfast with Paddy Johns and saw Lomu sitting with Bunce, who Johns knew. They gestured for the boys to join them. “A humble, nice, no bullshit, type of person. You’d come across a few players who had a status they didn’t deserve; dick-heads essentially. Well Jonah was the complete opposite. Neither success nor fame changed him. On the pitch, he was the ultimate competitor. Off it, he couldn’t have been any gentler. You’d be leaving the stadium and he’d be still there, signing autographs. I saw him about 10 years after the Hong Kong Sevens, introduced myself and he couldn’t have been nicer. A brilliant bloke.”


Our players summarise the experience of facing a sporting genius in a single word. Mulligan:  ‘Pride’. Corkery: ‘Humbling’. Brett: ‘Unforgettable’. He asks for another go. “And regret.”

By the end of that summer, he’d come to realise his game was good, but to be a professional golfer, good wasn’t enough. So he put the clubs back in the garage, took the pinstripe out of the wardrobe and updated the CV. These days you’ll find him back behind a desk. “Looking back now at the couple of things I could have won, that was the one that got away,” he says. “That was my chance. Against those guys, you don’t get a second one.”

Corkery too had only one shot at immortality, the 1995 World Cup proving to be his last as well as his first. At 27, injuries forced him to retire. “I arrived home from South Africa on a Tuesday and that weekend, I was sitting in the front room, watching the South Africa vs France semi-final on the telly, thinking I was watching a film I had been a part of. It was surreal.”


For a while, Mulligan kept the shirt Maradona gave him. Then, when the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin were organising a fundraiser, he donated it to charity. “It was 1986 and he was at the peak of his fame,” Mulligan says.

He has held on to the memories, though. “What’s the best way to put this?” he asks himself. “With those guys – Bestie, Maradona, Pele – it was an honour being on the same park as them. They tested you in ways no one else could. Super skilful, super intelligent, super strong in a physical sense, super confident in a mental sense.”


- Originally published at 08.08

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