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The official attendance was a little over 24,000 but many claim that in reality there were as many as 40,000 present. A Benfica side that included the late great Eusébio, Portuguese star at the World Cup in England a year earlier, were big name opposition for the part-timers of Glentoran and seemingly much of Ireland were out in force to witness this historic occasion.
Each year the Champions League usually starts way back in mid-June whilst most of Europe’s elite are barely getting their pre-season underway. With numerous qualifying rounds to navigate before the big guns enter, the competition starts with part-time minnows from Europe’s smaller nations facing off against each other knowing they will probably get nowhere near Europe’s elite. Once upon a time, however, European football for these club’s was a very different kettle of fish.
Played solely as a knockout competition, the old European Cup placed all clubs as equals and starting in round one club’s from Europe’s footballing backwaters could be drawn against the continent’s superpowers right from the off. With the gulf in class often huge and the matches involving two legs as opposed to one-off ties the big boys almost always won. Unlike domestic competitions such as the FA Cup or the Coupe de France, both famed for their upsets, David defeating Goliath in the European Cup was very rare. Ties ending with double digit margins were commonplace. The 1969-70 competition, for example, saw first round aggregate scorelines of 10-1, 12-2, 14-1, 16-2, and 16-0. That season was perhaps the extreme end of the stick but nonetheless the minnows never seemed to win. One team who did come very close to upsetting the odds, however, were Northern Irish side Glentoran in 1967.
East Belfast side Glentoran entered the 1967-68 European Cup fresh from winning a twelfth league championship in their history and their second of the decade. The club were one of the bigger names in Northern Irish football but on the European scene they were part-time nobodies who were expected to bow out UEFA’s most prestigious competition early on. Glentoran had just come back from a pre-season tour in the United States when the 1967-68 season got underway. The club had participated in a new professional competition that saw them represent the city of Detroit against in many cases bigger names in the world of football, albeit with little success. In the US Glentoran played 12 games but won just two with victories against sides represented by Shamrock Rovers and Dundee United respectively. It was, nonetheless, a thrilling summer for the part-timers and something they would not experience again. But Glentoran’s squad arrived home in Belfast knowing they had been drawn against Benfica, one of the continents biggest names, in the European Cup and if anything was worth coming home for then this was it.
The contrast between Glentoran and their European Cup opponents Benfica was stark. Twice European Cup winners earlier in the decade, Benfica had a squad full of Portuguese internationals, many of whom had helped their country to the semi finals of the previous year’s World Cup. This list of World Cup stars included Jaime Graça, José Torres, José Augusto, Mario Coluna, and of course the star of the show 1965 European Footballer of the Year Eusébio. Okay, there were a handful of names in the Glentoran squad who had or would play professional football across the Irish Sea in Britain, for example, but not many. Midfielder Tommy Jackson would move to England in 1968 and have a successful career with Everton, Nottingham Forest, and Manchester United, whilst wing back Arthur Stewart would have a short spell with Derby County and Johnny Johnston was to play for several English clubs, mostly in the lower echelons of the Football League. Player-manager and forward John Colrain had previously made appearances for Celtic and Clyde in Scotland, and Ipswich Town in England, whilst Billy Sinclair, another midfielder, had a brief spell with Scottish side Kilmarnock. The rest, however, spent their whole careers playing part-time football in Northern Ireland and many were one club men never leaving Glentoran.
Glentoran’s Oval ground is a real gem of a stadium and today sits in the east of city looking like little has changed since 1967. I’m sure one day it will get replaced by something more modern but probably something a bit soulless and lacking the charm of the current venue. Playing host to part-time football, this stadium that could once officially hold over 25,000 and seemingly on the night Benfica came to town a considerable lot more, these days rarely sees anywhere near a full house present. This is surely for the best as due to modern day health safety rules a full house would probably mean not much more than 5,000 attending if Benfica were to ever visit again.
With those reportedly 40,000 spectators from all over Ireland cheering Glentoran on, Albert Finlay saved a penalty for the hosts early on and before long they took the lead through a penalty of their own. Tommy Morrow was fouled in the penalty area and Glentoran had the chance to take the lead against one of the best club sides in the world. Discussions over who should take said penalty eventually saw John Colrain step up. Colrain beat the keeper and the crowd went wild – little Glentoran were in front against Benfica. Eusébio was expected to the be the star of the show but for large parts of the game he never got a look in as Tommy Jackson was seemingly marking him out of the game. Five minutes from time, however, Eusébio did have his moment when he struck a superb equaliser. Torres controlled the ball down towards Jose Augusto who knocked it on to Eusébio and his shot, according to Malcolm Brodie of the Belfast Telegraph, ‘hit the net like a rocket leaving the launching pad’. An away goal that in the end would prove vital.
The players were given a rapturous round of applause as they left the field at full-time after what was a famous draw but for the second leg in Lisbon, it was a far more hostile atmosphere. Around 60,000 were in attendance at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz. Glentoran needed a goal but one did not come, they arguably should have had a penalty at one point but the referee was not interested. The hosts did not fare any better in front of goal, however, as this time Glentoran did keep Eusébio at bay but unfortunately, a 0-0 full-time scoreline saw the home side through on the away goals rule and the Belfast minnows crashing out. Interestingly, Benfica would go on to lose to Manchester United and Belfast legend George Best in the final at Wembley Stadium.
After that historic meeting with Portugal’s finest Glentoran would be crowned league champions again that season but manager Colrain would soon be out the door after failing to agree a new contract. The failure by the club to keep hold of him was by many seen as rather short sighted and Glentoran promptly missed out on a third championship in a row. They have sporadically won league championship’s in the years since.
Those two tussles with Benfica would go down in East Belfast folklore and were night’s the like of which Northern Irish football would never see again. The occasions when opposition of anywhere near such prestige have visited the country in the years that have followed the games have usually been predictably one sided. The few exceptions generally being second leg matches where the tie has been already all but over. Those sort of matches are all way back in the past now, anyway, and in the modern day Champions League era with seeded qualifying rounds the idea such ties is all but impossible. In some ways this is a shame but in a world where money rules the roost very little thought is given to the Glentoran’s of this world.