THIRTY years ago this month, Cork City packed their bags and flew to China, to take part in the Marlboro Shanghai International Football Tournament.
It was an invite-only competition and Noel O’Mahony’s side were drawn into a group with the Chinese Olympic team and the Polish national team. The other side of the tournament featured Dutch club Ado Den Haag, a local Shanghai XI, and the Romanian Olympic team.
It was a mismatch of club and countries, and the Rebel Army were there flying the colours for Cork and Ireland.
The prestige of the tournament was worthy of City’s growing stature in Irish football, which was increasing rapidly following their foundation in 1984.
Three months before they flew out from Cork Airport, Dundalk pipped City to the league title with a 1-0 win at Turner’s Cross on the final day of the season. A week after the heartbreak, the club beat Limerick 3-0 to lift the Munster Senior Cup for the third time in their history.
In between the highs and lows, it was announced that £3 million was to be spent on a new soccer stadium for Cork.
The actual trip to China, came from a chance encounter that club chairman Pat O’Donovan had that summer.
“I was doing business with a number of guys in the UK and one asked how were Cork City doing. I said the club was good. He said he was asked by a Chinese businessman about a soccer tournament in Shanghai and he asked would we be interested,” he explained.
“I was a bit ambitious about the club and I thought the idea of going to China was a wonderful opportunity for all of us.”
The former City chairman then put his business brain to work to come up with sponsorship and exposure for the club’s trip to the far-east.
“I asked one lad who I knew from television, Joe McCarthy, would he have an interest in travelling with us.
“Joe was working with RTÉ at the time, covering events in Munster. He said he would go and he said he will get us on Sports Stadium, a very popular sports programme on Saturday afternoons that was presented by Brendan O’Reilly.
“We were told that the Chinese trip would get us on for 20 to 25 minutes. I then went to Guinness asking for a few quid for expenses. Brian Brown, the Chief Executive of Guinness, said that they wouldn’t be able to do this. I told them about the exposure on national television and we compromised.
We were also going to represent Ireland. So, rather than just representing Cork City, we went to Tony O’Sullivan, who was involved in Cork City and worked for Adidas. He said he could do us a strip with Guinness on it. This kept Guinness happy in Dublin.”
A hybrid jersey was created, which had the crest of Cork City on the Ireland jersey worn by the squad at the 1990 World Cup.
When the squad was told about the scheduled tour of Shanghai, the reaction was of pure disbelief.
Stephen Napier, who came back from England to sign for City, fondly remembers the feeling around the team when Pat broke the news.
“My first thoughts were ‘wow’,” he said. “There was a lot of talk of pre-season friendlies, with some big English and Scottish teams set to come over. Then this trip to China was presented to us.
“We weren’t given a whole pile of information about what was happening.
“Seeing was believing. We learned more over there than we did in the build-up.
“It was mind-blowing as a young player, to be off to China and then have those pre-season friendlies waiting for you when you’re back.”
Unfortunately not everyone in the squad was able to make the trip. John Caulfield had work, and poor Anthony Buckley ended up sick in bed.
“There were 20 places. Anthony was on standby. He had to get the same jabs as the rest of us.
“Anthony got his, had a reaction, and he ended up sick in Wilton. He tried to get to China and only got as far as Wilton! Anthony still laughs about this.”
The flight out brought City from Cork to Frankfurt, then to Beijing, where they got a connecting flight to Shanghai.
“It was an extremely long flight. There was a screen that showed where we were. There was a dot that seemed to be on standstill. It took an eternity to get over there,” Napier explained.
My memories of the flights are of Patsy Freyne. He had a real fear of flying. He went out clutching rosary beads in his hand!
“Once the plane door opened, an intense heat hit us. It was like someone opened an extremely hot oven.
“There was a huge culture shock then. We went onto a bus that had thousands of cyclists around it.
“It was like every man for himself. Bicycles were everywhere. Our jaws just dropped.”
Declan Daly, the club captain from Farranree, vividly remembered the shock of going from the northside of Cork city to the bustling metropolis of Shanghai.
“The poverty levels there were very bad,” he recalls. “The hotel we stayed in was one of the best in the city.
“The big thing for us was the volume of people out there. It was just a sea of people on bikes and people cycling in between moving vehicles. There was loads of Thai Chi too. Every morning you’d wake up, the parks would be full of people doing Thai Chi.”
One of the main issues the squad had was food, which Pat O’Donovan was able to help them out with.
The former chairman said: “We were all saying on the way over how we loved Chinese food.
“But this was Cork’s version of Chinese food. We got Chinese food over there for our breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“The lads got sick of it after a couple of days. Liam Murphy said he would eat the salads and he got sick!
After a few days I managed to locate a McDonalds, which had a nightclub, and that was some relief!”
The tournament kicked off with a banquet featuring all the teams. It was an all-star affair with iced sculptures lining the grand hall in Shanghai.
The matches then started with the worst possible result for Cork City, the Chinese Olympic side drew 1-1 with Poland, meaning goal difference would decide the group’s winner.
The Rebel Army’s first game was against the Chinese Olympic team, a fixture that brought 20,000 people to the stadium and had an estimated 100 million watching on television.
“They thought it was the Irish National team that was playing. People were asking us about Jack Charlton,” Daly explained.
Napier cannot get the feeling of playing inside the arena out of his head.
“We went to the first game and we were trying to find shade. First, we were blown away by the stadium, then we were blown away by the crowd and the noise.
“Our jaws dropped when we saw the quality of the opposition.”
O’Donovan, who watched the game from the stands, vividly remembers Noel O’Mahony’s game plan 30 years later.
“Noel would be shouting not to give the ball away,” he said.
“So the goalkeeper would pass it to the left back, who’d pass it to a midfielder, who’d pass it back to the goalkeeper.
“We were going nowhere. If we opened up, we’d have been taken to the cleaners!”
City lost 4-1, with Pat Morely scoring a consolation goal for the club on the night.
Next up was a match against Poland, who won 3-0.
The Rebel Army did not dwell on the disappointment, as they used the experience to soak up Chinese culture.
“In between games we played a lot of pool in the hotel,” Napier explained.
“A lot of trips were also organised for us. We went to a factory that made football and leather garments.
“The factory was as long as the eye could see with workers.
“Another day we went up the Yangtze River. It was an unbelievable cultural experience.”
Things only got better for Cork City as they got the results of the UEFA Cup draw on the final day of the trip.
“Noel Spillane rang the hotel to tell us we had been drawn against Bayern Munich. The lads were at the swimming pool and I told them we got a bad draw,” O’Donovan said.
“The lads looked down. I told them Munich and everyone started jumping up and down!
“It was like one good news story after another,” Daly recalled.
“One minute we were off to China to play in a tournament and then we were drawn against Bayern Munich in a European competition.”