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The story of Irish clubs and the European Cup Winners Cup

Sat, Aug 22 2020

It was an indication of everything that was to come for Irish sides in Europe, especially in the European Cup Winners Cup.

It was September 12th 1961 and in front of 18,000 people, Paddy O’Rourke scored for St. Patrick’s Athletic.

The Dubliner, who had won two League of Ireland titles and two FAI Cups with the Saints, pulled a goal back for the club in an away game against Dunfermline Athletic.

St. Pats eagerly regrouped, full of the desire and passion that one would expect from an Irish club playing on the continent.

In the end, it would be the Scots who would have the last laugh in this European Cup Winners Cup first round clash.

Over two legs, the Scottish Cup holders demolished St. Pats 8-1 in the first ever experience for an Irish club in the now defunct competition.  

The European Cup Winners Cup, which was only in its second year, was the brain child of football journalists who wanted a pan-European competition for all the domestic cup winners in UEFA affiliated nations.

Irish teams entered in 1961 for the second edition of the competition and like many European adventures on the continent at that time, they struggled to find form.

This did not deter interest, as was the case in 1963 when almost 20,000 people flocked to Dalymount Park to see Shelbourne take on Barcelona.

On display that night was a host of Spanish stars including Jesús María Pereda who had won the European Cup with Real Madrid in 1958.

The first Irish club to get a result in the competition were Cork Celtic, who held PFC Slavia Sofia to a 1-1 a draw at Flower Lodge, before losing 2-0 away in Bulgaria.

Shamrock Rovers recorded the first aggregate win for an Irish side in the competition in 1966, demolishing Spora Luxembourg 8-2 over two legs. Their cup adventure would come to an agonising end in the next round, as the Hoops were narrowly beaten 4-3 by Bayern Munich on aggregate.

A pattern of brave encounters and near misses can be regularly seen through Irish club’s involvement in the European Cup Winners Cup.

An Irish side wouldn’t win a game in the competition again until 1976 when Bohemians saw passed Esbjerg fB of Denmark 3-1 on aggregate. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a cup run for the Gypsies as Polish club ?l?sk Wroc?aw beat them 4-0 on aggregate in the next round.

Results for Irish teams were mostly once offs, with clubs rarely seeing out games over two legs. In 1981 Dundalk drew 1-1 with FA Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur before losing 1-0 in White Hart Lane.

The following season Limerick and AZ Alkmaar played out a 1-1 draw at the Mark Field with the Dutch club winning 1-0 in the return leg. Two years from that, UCD held FA Cup winners Everton to a scoreless draw at Tolka Park and lost 1-0 in Goodison Park.

In the entirety of the competition, right up until the final edition of the Cup Winners Cup in the 1998-99 season, League of Ireland clubs only won seven ties in total.

Despite the sometimes hapless performances by Irish clubs in the competition, the clubs and the general public never lost interest.

Dundalk can certainly attest to this following their 1987 clash with defending champions Ajax at Oriel Park. Trailing 4-0 from the first leg in the Amsterdam Arena, over 5,000 people flocked to the town to catch a glimpse of Johann Cruyff and his stars.

The first leg had produced an attacking masterclass from Frank Rijkaard, Danny Blind, Aran Winter, and Dubliner Frank Stapleton. The four, in an early version of Cruyff’s total football, demolished the Lilywhites. The return at Oriel Park saw Ajax win 2-0, with a starting XI containing six of the Netherlands team who would win Euro 88’.

If anything, the story of the Cup Winners Cup with clubs from the League of Ireland is a testament to the changing geopolitical landscape that was Europe in the 20th century. Irish clubs were consistently drawn behind the Iron Curtain, to countries such as Yugoslavia and the USSR for cup ties.  

Cork City, in what was their first ever outing on the continent, paid a visit to Red Square in Moscow in 1989, three months before the fall of the Soviet Union.

That trip saw the very much semi-professional Rebel Army travel East for a clash with Torpedo Moscow. For many associated with the club at the time, it was their very first experience of air travel, never-mind unknown factor that the Iron Curtain represented.

“The excitement was unbelievable,” broadcaster Trevor Welsh said in an interview in 2019 about the trip, “We got a bus to Shannon Airport and got a jumbo jet to Moscow. All my friends were envious of me for the experience. There wasn’t any McDonalds or chippers or anything over there. It was a culture shock to be over there!”

The might of Torpedo Moscow, who’s team included Yuri Savichev from the USSR’s gold medal football team at the 1988 Olympics, got the better of the Rebel Army in a 5-0 aggregate win.

Sligo Rovers recorded the final win for an Irish side in the competition, beating Maltese club Floriana 3-2 over two legs. They did not have much of a cup run, as Club Brugge disposed of them 5-2 in the second round.

The rebrand and expansion of the Champions League led to the decline of the European Cup Winners Cup in the 1990s.  Slowly interest in the competition declined and UEFA eventually decided to shelve the European Cup Winners Cup.

The 1998-1999 tournament was announced as the final edition of the tournament. Cork City were the representatives that year from Ireland and they were narrowly beaten by Arsenal Kyiv 3-2 on aggregate.

Nine months later, Lazio defeated Mallorca 2-1 at Villa Park in Birmingham to be crowned the last ever European Cup Winners Cup winners.