Belfast Telegraph

The tale of Glentoran's transformation into the Detroit Cougars, by Malcolm Brodie

It was 50 years ago this week that the late, great Malcolm Brodie accompanied Glentoran's famous Detroit Cougars during their tour of America...

By Malcolm Brodie

A magnificent grandfather clock, made in Belfast in 1820, stands proudly in the City Hall of Detroit, the automobile capital of the United States. Visitors admire it and, of course, many Americans "would just die" to possess one similar in their home!

It was presented to the mayor by Glentoran chairman, the late Harry McNeely, at a banquet in the Sheraton Cadillac Hotel to commemorate the start of the 1967 Detroit Cougars memorable six-week tour of the United States and Canada.

The adventure began with a telephone call to me from the late Ken Wolstenholme, the BBC TV commentator, and Jimmy Greaves: "Can you get an Irish League team for an all expenses paid US tour with guarantees, compensation for players' loss of wages, everything?"

They explained the Irish League representatives would compete against English, Scottish, European and South American opposition, financed by industrialists throughout the USA as a launch pad for a league of their own a year later.

Read more: Glentoran arrive in Detroit to turn back the clock 50 years

That sounded like fantasy land but Wolstenholme, Greaves and Jimmy Graham were reputable agents for the organisers, their word was their bond.

Linfield had been originally invited but declined because Sunday football was banned under their regulations and those of the Irish FA.

I then approached Glentoran chairman McNeely and vice-chairman Jack Dornan with this offer: "If you received an invitation for a two-month United States tour, all expenses paid and a huge guarantee, would you accept?"

"Yes," came the immediate reply. "Even if it means Sunday football?" I emphasised. "Yes," was the answer again.

And so they undertook the tour led by inspirational and charismatic manager John Colrain with fun and revelry in cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Detroit, their headquarters and home of the Ford Motor Company which was sponsoring the Glens on the trip and also promoting their new Cougar car.

Contracts were signed in the York Hotel, Botanic Avenue, and the seal was on a 12-match safari during which Glentoran had three wins, three defeats and six draws; they were undefeated in the last five fixtures against top-grade opposition in a highly competitive environment.

It was a tour which established a bond between all of us privileged to be members of it - a bond which exists to this day.

As Billy Sinclair, that dynamic Scot with a fanatical zeal for football, puts it: "Once a Cougar, always a Cougar."

The arrival at Detroit Metropolitan Airport after a 17-hour flight via London, New York and Cleveland set the scene for what was to be an incredible and often bizarre safari.

"Keep the Cougars caged!" shouted the public relations officer on landing. All passengers disembarked followed by the Cougars in their green blazers and panama hats to be met by a pipe band and baton-swinging drum majorettes who marched the travel bedraggled group through the terminal building to the tune 'The Minstrel Boy to War Has Gone'.

The tour commenced with a controversial 1-1 draw with Shamrock Rovers at the Manning Bowl in Lyn, Massachusetts, where it was alleged that Colrain had struck a 40-year-old linesman with his fist in protest over an incident. "I merely brushed his raised flag," insisted Colrain who was suspended for two games by the US Soccer Commissioner.

"Soccer Debut Packs A Wallop" screamed the Boston Traveller headline.

And how about this for an intro paragraph: "What is the penalty when a player storms up to a linesman, calls him an unprintable bum and lands him one on the kisser?"

Eric Ross, who is now a travel agent in Vancouver, was the star of the 1-1 draw with Sunderland; there was a 1-0 victory over Shamrock Rovers, a 2-2 draw against Aberdeen and then the abandonment after 73 minutes of the match against Bangu of Brazil sparked after a tackle by Danny Trainor, a guest player loaned by Crusaders, and, sadly, later to lose his life in a road traffic accident back home.

A Brazilian raced half the length of the pitch then jumped with his two feet into the back of Tommy Jackson, another used a corner flag pole as a spear while fighting took place on the pitch and the referee called a halt with Bangu leading 2-0.

Wolves mauled them 4-1 in Los Angeles, San Francisco's golden sun didn't shine on them when they lost 6-1 to ADO of the Hague (Holland) whose team included Dick Advocaat, later to become Rangers manager.

That city by the bay was voted the tops except for the result.

The Cougars' hotel was only a block away from the gourmet restaurants, the expensive bars with their topless waitresses, all the rage at the time. It was situated at the terminus for those world renowned cable cars that, as Tony Bennett tells us, "go halfway to the stars".

There were compulsory visits to Fisherman's Wharf, the Haight Ashbury district, the then residence of the hippies and the Flower People of the Swinging Sixties.

After the 'Frisco disaster, Glentoran fortunately got back on the rails with some excellent results including a 1-0 win over Dundee United, a 1-1 draw with Cagliari of Sardinia at Comiskey Park, Chicago, and the 1-0 triumph against Cerro of Montevideo at the Yankee Stadium, in 80 degrees heat and 65% humidity.

En route back to the Manhattan hotel, the coach passed the Triborough Stadium, Randall's Island, where in 1949 Belfast Celtic dramatically defeated Scotland 2-0. Glentoran had followed proudly in that famous club's footsteps.

That night, July 2, 1967, was one of the most memorable for Colrain and myself. We were the guests of the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, until the wee small hours of the morning at Jilly Rizzo's Bar and restaurant on West 52nd Street.

Colrain, a Sinatra fanatic, had stalked the bar for a week, realising it was Sinatra's favourite watering hole. The head waiter tipped him off Sunday would be the night for his visit. Around midnight he arrived with his entourage who laughed in unison every time Frankie cracked a joke.

"Play good ball, buddy," said Sinatra to Colrain as we departed on to the rain drenched streets of Manhattan as dawn was breaking. It was like waking up from a dream.

No Irish League club made such a decisive impact abroad as did the Cougars while their performances also gripped the football public at home.

They were given a civic reception at Belfast City Hall two weeks after their return, thousands lining the route from Donegall Square along the Newtownards Road to Dee Street as the squad, in a decorated lorry, made their way back to The Oval where today, in the directors entrance hallway, is a plaque containing the names of the Cougars and their results.

Belfast Telegraph

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