Glentoran F.C. player-coach John Colrain was a man on a mission when his team, representing the Detroit Cougars franchise during the inaugural United Soccer Association tournament, arrived in Manhattan ahead of its meeting with the New York Skyliners, Cerro from Uruguay, on July 2, 1967.
The booming Glaswegian had learned that his hero Frank Sinatra regularly frequented a bar called Jilly’s Saloon on West 52nd Street. Colrain soon befriended the head barman who informed him that Sinatra would be in town that weekend. First though was the Sunday afternoon clash played amid sweltering heat and high humidity at Yankee Stadium that appeared suited to the professionals from Montevideo rather than the part-timers from East Belfast.
Jim Weatherup’s industry was rewarded when he grabbed the only goal for the visitors on 33 minutes. The lively forward beat Uruguayan defender Francisco Camera before firing home from 10 yards despite a valiant attempt by Skyliners goalkeeper Eduardo Garcia. Detroit knuckled down after the interval to protect their lead with a gritty, gutsy display inspired by a sound performance from goalkeeper John Kennedy.
The Skyliners camped around the Cougars’ 18-yard box in the second half, ultimately outshooting their plucky opponents by 30-11, but they were unable to create a clear scoring chance. Referee James Black sparked wild celebrations from the Northern Irish exiles making up the majority of the 3,517 crowd when he blew his whistle for the final time. A hearty rendition of “Here, Here, The Glens Are Here” ringing out from the bleachers carried the Cougars players back to their dressing room.
“It was the piece-de-resistance of five arduous weeks against the toughest of opposition,” wrote the Belfast Telegraph’s Malcolm Brodie in his summary. Remarkably, Detroit still held an outside chance of advancing to the USA championship decider as the Eastern Division leading Cleveland Stokers, three points above the Cougars with two games remaining, traveled to Michigan in midweek.
Colrain resumed the pursuit of his idol shortly afterward by dropping by Jilly’s Saloon on his way back to the team’s hotel. He called Brodie upon his return and asked the reporter to meet him in the lobby.
“We’re going to meet the Chairman of the Board,” Colrain told his good friend.
Sure enough, Sinatra and his entourage arrived at Jilly’s later that night and the two Belfast-based Glaswegians sat drinking into the early hours in the company of Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil” by Ian Thomson charts the story of the 1967 USA tournament. It recalls the capers, the gimmicks, the celebrity brushes and the games that provided its participants, including former Glens winger Eric Ross, with the trip of a lifetime.
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