Fifty years ago, they came here as Glenmen and left as Detroit Cougars. It’s a distinction they’ve proudly carried ever since.
This Saturday, two members of the 1967 team from Irish League’s Glentoran side that represented Detroit in the United Soccer Association will return to the Motor City.
Detroit City FC plays Glentoran FC in a friendly match to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Cougars at Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium, which is about seven miles from where the original outfit played their home matches at the former University of Detroit Stadium during a whirlwind two-month tour five decades ago.
Much has changed from when they arrived on May 24, 1967. Dressed in smart green sport coats, shirts and ties complete with white straw hats, they were transported from Metropolitan Airport in a cavalcade of Ford Motor Co.-supplied Mercury Cougar convertibles. William Clay Ford was a team owner.
Players earned a princely sum of 44 British pounds ($123 U.S.) a week — plus bonuses — for their labor, a nice bump from 6 quid they were being paid for playing part time back home.
“Obviously when we got there we were like children at the time,” said Billy Sinclair in a telephone interview from his home in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. “It was like a great adventure in front of us.
“Obviously not knowing who we would be playing or where we would be playing like, you know. There was a lot of excitement on the plane.”
Sinclair is joining Tommy Jackson as one of Cougars alumni returning for Saturday’s friendly. Jackson also served as manager of Glentoran, leading the East Belfast side to a league-cup double in 1986-87.
Their fiery player-manager John Colrain was an inspiration and would ring loud in Cougars’ lore.
Colrain led the Irish part-timers to a 3-3-6 (win-loss-ties) record while playing top-flight clubs like English First Division’s Sunderland and Stoke City as well as Scotland’s Aberdeen and Dundee United.
The nascent USA decided import wholesale teams from abroad rather than stock rosters with individual players for the hastily arranged 12-team tournament.
Detroit was one of two Irish teams in the league’s Eastern Division, the other being the Boston Rovers, who were represented by Dublin’s Shamrock Rovers.
League organizers, perhaps exploiting the North-South political and sporting rivalry, had the two squads meet twice, including the opener that finished in a raucous 1-1 draw in Lynn, Mass., outside of Boston.
Colrain scored the Cougars’ tying goal but was banned for two matches after allegedly punching a linesman when one of three Detroit goals were disallowed.
The passionate Scotsman, a product of Glasgow’s rough-and-tumble Bridgeton district, claimed he merely shook his fist under the assistant referee’s chin.
“He was a bit hot-headed at times,” said Jackson, who was 19 when he played here, “but I liked him very much.”
The return leg in Detroit 10 days later stoked a political incident, which went to the root of the Troubles.
As the Cougars and Rovers players lined up to take the field, a person at the front of the entourage unfurled a large tricolor flag representing the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Irishmen in the Cougars lineup balked at being led onto the field with the anathema such a banner represented.
The flag bearer was quickly pulled aside and given a cliff notes version of Irish history.
“The man says, ‘Where am I going to find a Union Jack at this time of night?’ ” recalled Sinclair, who included the incident in his autobiography “Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.”
The matter was resolved by letting Boston’s team proceed ahead with the tricolor while the Cougars delayed their entrance.
Only 648 fans attended the rain-drenched affair, which was a sharp drop-off from the 11,629 people who showed up for the team’s home opener a week earlier. The Cougars averaged 5,708 spectators in six matches at U-D Stadium, according to Kenn.com.
While a flag was an unattended source of insult, Brazilian opposition used flag poles with the intent to injure.
The Cougars became involved in a mass brawl while playing the Houston Stars in a match abandoned in the 73rd minute.
A Detroit News account had a picture of Jackson lying on the ground with a melee breaking out around him. Another photo depicted the Cougars’ Danny Trainor being drop-kicked in the back by a player from the Stars, who were represented by Rio de Janeiro’s Bangu.
“There was murder then,” said Jackson, who went on to play for English First Division sides Everton and Manchester United before turning to management. “I actually got pole-axed at one stage. One of their players drop-kicked me … It was dreadful. I was only trying to stop a fight, you know.”
Sinclair confirmed opposing players used corner flags as weapons. The worst of the violence lasted five to six minutes.
Then two police officers walked into the center circle, withdrew their revolvers and took turns shooting once into the air, Sinclair said.
“That’s how everything came to a standstill,” he said. “No one moved after the police fired their guns.”
Adventures continued as the team traveled to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
In the Big Apple, avowed Frank Sinatra fan Colrain reportedly met his idol along with journalist Malcolm Brodie. (The Belfast Telegraph sports editor filed reports for The Detroit News when the Cougars played on the road.)
Brodie, who died in 2013, remembered getting the phone call from Colrain in his New York hotel room after the Cougars defeated Cerro of Uruguay at Yankee Stadium.
“I thought he was drunk,” Brodie said in a 2007 Ulster Television documentary on the Cougars. “I said, ‘John, get your bed. He said, ‘Calm you down. You’re meeting the Chairman of the Board.’ ”
The encounter with Ol’ Blue Eyes took place at Jilly’s Saloon with a promise of tickets for the singer’s upcoming show in Detroit, Brodie said. The journalist was still somewhat skeptical but true to Sinatra’s word, the passes were left under drummer Buddy Rich’s name at Cobo Hall.
At the meeting, Sinatra told Colrain, “Play good ball, buddy.”
It wasn’t the first time the Cougars would be somewhat star-struck. The team stayed at Howard Johnson’s on West Grand Boulevard.
Through his hotel window, Sinclair recalled seeing limousines pull into a nearby building. Later he learned it was Motown.
Forward Eric Ross remembered the Cougars taking their physicals at Henry Ford Hospital where these behemoths where also getting checked out. They were football players of another kind, most likely Detroit Lions.
“They were 6-foot, 7-foot ... whatever,” said Ross, who lives in suburban Vancouver, British Columbia. “It was incredible. We were taken aback. ‘Oh God. You want to look at our little bodies compared to these guys?!’ They were massive.”
Cougars players held court at the former Lindell A.C. on Cass and Michigan avenues, which was frequented by players on Detroit sports pro teams.
There, the charismatic Colrain, who died in 1984 at 47, used to share stories about the heated rivalry between Glasgow Celtic and Rangers with Lions’ All-Pro linebacker Wayne Walker, who passed away last week.
The Cougars’ last match in Detroit was July 5, a 0-0 draw against Cleveland, which was nearly three weeks before the city became engulfed in riots.
Sinclair recalled an incident that perhaps foreshadowed civil unrest.
He and teammate Billy McKeag wanted to repay a nearby pharmacy clerk who had been very helpful in developing film for them.
They invited the young woman, who was black, to the hotel for lunch. She came to their room first and was there for a few minutes when the phone rang. It was a hotel clerk, wanting to know about a “young lady with a very dark suntan,” Sinclair said.
He was told she would have to leave. They went down to the restaurant and the three waited to get served, but no one took their order.
“So we just got up and left,” Sinclair said. “We just walked her back home. Maybe we had done something we shouldn’t have done, but we just wanted to show her our appreciation for the way she got our photos done so quickly and they were probably done at a special price. That’s just the way it is or it was whatever.
“We have the same problems in this country, except it’s not over color you know.”
The Cougars received a hero’s welcome back in Belfast. Players were paraded around the city in an open-topped bus.
Glentoran commemorates the Cougars team with anniversary events and its players are still held in high regard. A 50th anniversary dinner is planned on June 10.
A chance of returning to where it all happened is too good to miss, said Jackson, who runs soccer schools throughout Northern Ireland.
“We might see some of our ex-friends because we made an awful lot of friends over there,” Jackson said. “It was 50 years ago. I was only 19.
“It was a big, big world to us all.”
Detroit City FC vs. Glentoran FC
What: Detroit Cougars 50th anniversary match
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Keyworth Stadium, Hamtramck
Tickets: $15 general admission; $20 gold section; $50 VIP
Note: Both clubs will wear special jerseys to commemorate the occasion.