'Seeing 40,000 packed into The Oval was just breathtaking... we felt we couldn't let down all those people'
Our Sporting Lives and Times with Glentoran legends Tommy Jackson and Billy Sinclair
Just when they thought their dizzying summer of '67 couldn't get any better... Glentoran's now legendary Detroit Cougars are relaxing in their hotel in Cleveland, nearing the end of an incredible US adventure that is now part of Northern Ireland football folklore.
Invited to help launch football as a professional game in the US and Canada, the Glens played 12 games across north America against top class opposition from England, Scotland, Holland and South America over a two-month spell in July and August 1967.
Representing the city of Detroit, bankrolled by its main employer, the Ford Motor Company, and named after its latest model on the market, the Ford Cougar, Glentoran punched way above their weight, sometimes quite literally, in exploits writ large in club and Irish League legend.
But on that particular day, they are thinking of home, family reunions and the start of an Irish League season, bringing back with them memories that will last a lifetime.
Then a telephone call comes through to the room of our own late, great Sports Editor Malcolm Brodie, the only journalist accompanying them on the tour.
Glentoran have been drawn to play mighty Benfica and the iconic Eusebio in the first round of the European Cup, forerunner to the Champions League. Today's equivalent of facing Real Madrid and Ronaldo. Mindblowing stuff.
And so, 50 years ago this month, fresh from their heroics on a US tour, the like of which there will never be again, probably the greatest Glentoran team ever prepared to go again in two games that gripped the country and entered the annals of European football history.
1-1 in Belfast in front of 40,000 at The Oval, 0-0 in the famous Stadium of Light in Lisbon, performances beyond belief from Irish League part-timers against a side packed with players who had reached the 1966 World Cup semi-finals with Portugal, losing to England, just over 12 months earlier. Glentoran nevertheless became the first team to be eliminated from Europe on the newly introduced away goals rule. And Benfica, they went on to lose in the Wembley final as the Manchester United of Best, Law and Charlton claimed their first European Cup.
Those were heady days by any stretch of the imagination.
But this was 1967 when transatlantic travel was the preserve of the privileged few, when televised football was in its infancy and chances to see giants of the game like Eusebio in the flesh, let alone on the same pitch, were rare. For two young, starry-eyed Glentoran players, just turned 20, this was living the dream, even though, career-wise, it did get better for team-mates Tommy Jackson and Billy Sinclair.
Uncompromising midfielder Jackson ended that '67-68 season a title winner with the Glens for the second year in a row. He finished the next a First Division champion with Everton, going on to Nottingham Forest and, finally, Manchester United, winning 35 Northern caps in an accomplished cross-channel professional career.
Sinclair, who could play equally comfortably at the back or in midfield, was transferred by the Glens back to his native Scotland, to Kilmarnock.
It was a reluctant move for a player not long arrived from Glasgow after an apprenticeship at Chelsea.
But he had become so assimilated into the club and Northern Ireland way of life, through the bond forged on that tour, that he hankered to get back.
"Once a Cougar, always a Cougar," is how Sinclair explains the unique camaraderie that shaped his life. To this day, those players are revered at the club and lauded on every significant anniversary of the tour.
Within two years, Sinclair was back playing for the Glens, going on to manage Linfield, Glenavon, Cliftonville and Sligo Rovers. Now living in retirement, with wife Bunny, in Lisburn, he scouts players and opposition for the Glens.
Cougars never stray far from their hunting grounds and Jackson, too, returned to manage the Glens to another title in 1992 and another distinction to add to his winners' medal as a player. He now resides in Glengormley with wife Vivien, dividing his free time between his favourite relaxation, fishing, and coaching football in schools.
Such is their continued standing at The Oval, the two old team-mates and still pals, now aged 70, were chosen as the link to the '67 Cougars when the Glens were invited to play a 50th anniversary match, back in Detroit, in May this year.
Both were astonished to be remembered and feted on a round of media engagements, a City Hall reception and supporter functions on their return to Motor City for the first time in 50 years.
"It was incredible, after all those years," relates Jackson. "But then everything about that time was like no other. It was like something from a Hollywood script.
"There I was, just 20 years old, having to get two buses from Ligoneil to The Oval, not long out of the Amateur League, with Ewarts, and then Glentoran reserves, going off to America to play full-time for two months against some of the biggest clubs and names in world football back then.
"And then coming home to face Benfica and marking Eusebio, who, with George Best, was the most famous footballer in the world at the time.
"It just seemed to be one big occasion after another.
"We arrived back from the States to a City Hall reception and parade from the city centre, being driven on the back of a lorry with thousands of people lining the streets all the way back to The Oval.
"That whole experience kept us on a high for the Benfica game and I think the full-time training and playing through the summer in America also stood to us."
Glentoran then were a team of big characters and personalities, in the image of their charismatic Scottish player-manager, John Colrain.
Albert Finlay, Harry Creighton, Billy McKeag, Jackson, Billy McCullough, Sinclair, Colrain, Walter Bruce, Trevor Thompson, Jim 'Bimbo' Weatherup and Tommy Morrow.
Of the 11 who took the field against the Portuguese champions that September night, Colrain and Walter Bruce are sadly no longer with us. Eusebio, too, passed away in 2014, his legend commemorated by a statue outside his Stadium of Light spiritual home.
This year, being the 50th anniversary of the Cougars, the others have seen a lot of their old team-mates at a raft of reunions. They were one of the finest Irish League sides ever assembled. Yet even they could not have contemplated competing on the same level as the Benfica superstars of their day... not just Eusebio but household names from the previous year's World Cup in Graca, Torres, Cruz, Jacinto and Coluna.
"The crowd lifted us," asserts Sinclair. "That is my abiding memory of the match. Walking out and seeing 40,000 packed into The Oval was just breathtaking.
"We felt we couldn't let down all those people or ourselves. Every Glentoran player that night dug deep and played to the very limits of their ability. There wasn't an individual man of the match. It was a one for all and all for one team effort."
Roared on by a crowd who'd come from all over Ireland, such was the magnetism of the match, Glentoran survived a scare when Benfica were awarded a penalty which keeper Finlay heroically saved, spurring his side to up their game further and incredibly take the lead.
"We were awarded a penalty and it was chaos," remembers Jackson. "John Colrain turned and said to me 'who's taking it?' I had to tell him 'we agreed in the team meeting that you'd take any penalties'."
At this Sinclair interjects: "Big John then turned to me and said 'do you want to take it'. I replied not on your nelly.
"So John steps up and beats the keeper and the ground goes wild."
With Eusebio shackled by Jackson and Glentoran a team inspired, an even more sensational result was in the offing until three minutes from time when the player known as the Black Pearl seized his only real chance of the game to equalise.
"It was Billy McCullough who gave him the opening, not me," protests Jackson of his old friend and one time assistant manager at the club. "John Colrain had warned us Eusebio would shoot from anywhere. He did and most of his efforts went wide or over the bar but this one he hit so hard the ball stuck in the stanchion in the back of the net."
The final whistle sounded and as they left the pitch to a rapturous ovation, Sinclair recalls: "All I could think about was we've got to do this all over again in two weeks time."
Bizarrely, Sinclair and the great Eusebio were to cross paths against after that, many years later at The Oval.
"I walked into the lounge at half time in a game and there he was on his own at the bar, supping a pint of Guinness. He was over to launch the Milk Cup and must have decided to take a trip down memory lane. My dad and I went up and shook hands with him but he didn't remember him. I wasn't surprised. I never got near him."
That was the job of Jackson whose football education that night can now be looked upon as a graduation towards his step up to Everton months later.
"John Colrain had a plan to keep Eusebio out of the game but I was also to get forward when we had the ball," he explained. "It was the toughest 90 minutes of my life at that point. Eusebio was one of the greatest players of his time but there was also steel in his game. People saw him limp away from one tackle I put in. What they didn't realise was that he'd hurt me more but I wasn't going to let him see that. And in the away game in Lisbon, he caught me across the neck, leaving scratches from his fingernails."
Sinclair's memory of that game is of a hostile 60,000 crowd, so frustrated by their team's failure to break down the resolute Glens that they spent the second half hurling seat cushions on to the pitch.
And he maintains: "We should have had a penalty when Johnny Johnston was brought down going through with a chance to score.
"The stadium was well named because, on paper, we were light years apart from Benfica. They were the great European force packed with World Cup stars. We were Irish League part-timers with day jobs. (Sinclair was an electrician, Jackson a woodworker).
"There is a picture of us in training for the match... on the beach at Estoril. That's how it was for us back then, no proper facilities or special treatment, yet we matched the top club in Europe at that time.
"We didn't realise the significance of going out on the away goals rule. We were just so filled with a mixture of pride and disappointment at going so close against a team who would go on to that famous final against Manchester United."
As career high points, that summer of '67 would be hard to top for any player but, for Jackson, the upward trajectory continued at the speed of light.
"It's hard to believe now but I played and scored in our last match of the season against Coleraine as we won the league again. I went straight from there to Everton, played against Forest on the Tuesday night and the following Saturday against Leeds in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Old Trafford.
"The next season I won the league at Everton. Things like that just don't happen to Irish League footballers any more. It really was a time like no other."
Sinclair's parting was less euphoric.
"Big John came to me and said the club had accepted an £8,000 offer from Kilmarnock, a handsome fee then," reflects Billy. "I told him I was happy at the Glens and didn't want to go but he said the club needed the money so I left reluctantly."
And soon, their giant of a manager in every way was gone too from the club whose big thinking in undertaking the ground-breaking tour to America was in sharp contrast to the financial small mindedness shown when it came to fixing up Colrain with a new deal.
"There wasn't much between what John was asking and what the club were offering," Sinclair says. "But they couldn't agree and John was off. What Glentoran lost for a fiver or tenner... money couldn't buy what he brought to the club."
Both men are agreed on Colrain as a manager ahead of his time, deserving of his place in club and Irish League history as one of the all time greats.
But Jackson still feels the need to point out the role of a late, much loved Glentoran figure: "We were Billy Neill's team to begin with. Billy had a big part in shaping the side that John took over."
Remembering how Neill had taken over in the interim after the departure of the previous boss, another fabled Scottish character in Gibby McKenzie, produced laughter from his countryman Sinclair.
"Gibby lived and breathed football. You couldn't have a cup of tea but Gibby would be using the sugar bowl and saucers to demonstrate how the game should be played. Once he was driving me to a game and trying to get over a tactical point. Next thing I know he is breathing on the windscreen and drawing me a diagram. I thought we were going to crash."
Joyful, never to be relived memories of a past golden era for Glentoran and Irish League football.
Yet, unlike many past players, neither Jackson nor Sinclair are dismissive of their modern day successors, accepting that the game, like all things, has changed. That was then and this is now and while acknowledging their former club is far from the force of old, both are encouraged by what they see in the current crop of players, on and off the field.
Present boss Gary Haveron can take credit and hope, too, from an observation by scholar of the old school Jackson, from his recent trip with today's fledgling Glens team back to Detroit.
"I was impressed by how respectful they were towards us," he said. "How they spoke to us, how they waited for us to get on or off the team bus first. When we came back, I wrote to the club chairman to commend them. Little things like that tell you the club is on the right lines.
"Courtesy is a quality in any era."