In part 2 of his guest supporter article reflecting on friendly fixtures from yesteryear, Linfield member Ian Gordon looks back at a series of friendly games from the 1980/81 season.
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“The 1980s was a golden time for Irish League clubs in terms of pre-season friendlies, with the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion coming to Northern Ireland. At Windsor Park, Linfield had started the trend in 1978, but forty years ago the 1980-81 season saw an unprecedented number of visits from not just England, but also Holland and the United States.
Kicking it all off on a sun splashed Saturday, 26 July was the visit of Southampton. The Saints had visited us twelve months earlier, but their return in 1980 created huge interest because it featured what would turn to be the first match played back on British soil by the iconic Kevin Keegan. Keegan, the golden boy of English football in that era, had spent three successful seasons playing for S.V.Hamburg in the Bundesliga and was twice winner of the Ballon D’Or. Looking back, it appears strange that his return to England was, without wishing to sound disrespectful, to the modest Saints who had finished 8th in the old 1st Division the previous season. Perhaps a reminder of the more egalitarian nature of football in England at that time? As it turned out, Keegan wasn’t on the scoresheet that afternoon as the Hampshire club avenged their defeat of twelve months earlier with a 4 - 2 victory.
The second 1st Division club to come to Windsor that season were Stoke City, a mere four days later. The attendance at this was of much more modest proportions. Perhaps not surprisingly, as it was already to be the Blues third game in five days. Two nights prior to this, Linfield took the first step on the way to winning that season’s Tyler All-Ireland Cup with a 2 – 1 win over Finn Harps. The Blues acquitted themselves well in the first-half, with Colin McCurdy cancelling out an opener from the visitors. However, the busy early season fixture list undoubtedly took its toll on us in the second period, as the men from the Potteries ran in three goals against tired legs to win 4 – 1.
Linfield entertained American visitors for the first time in our history in early October. It wasn’t Tulsa Roughnecks‘ first visit to these shores, as they had gone down 5 -1 to Glentoran a couple of years earlier. Linfield also recorded a victory over these opponents, running out 3 – 1 victors in an entertaining Monday evening fixture.
The history of Linfield F.C. often refers to the relationship built up with and debt owed to Dutch club F.C.Haarlem. From 1977 and through to the early 1980s we had sent sides to play in that club’s U-23 tournament and had performed with some distinction. The Dutch club were also kind enough to make their ground available to us after the harsh punishment imposed upon us by UEFA after the trouble at Oriel Park in August 1979. Consequently, we played two European “home” games (Dundalk and Nantes) on Dutch soil. As a gesture of thanks, Haarlem were invited to Belfast to play in a friendly. It is a game perhaps most noted for a young teenager listed amongst the Haarlem squad in 'Look at Linfiled', notably one Ruud Gullit – a later star for his national side, Milan and Chelsea, as well as, like Keegan, being another Ballon D’Or winner himself in 1987. In truth, whether the 18 year old Gullit played or not, no one seems to recall. Which was a bit like the game itself, which finished scoreless. That said, it was a short golden period for the Dutch club, who won their nation's 2nd Division by the end of that season and qualified for Europe a year later.
Blackburn Rovers had started the trend of pre-season tours to Northern Ireland in 1978 and they arrived again in November 1980. As before, they put four goals past us, but on this occasion Warren Feeney snr. at least netted for us .
The biggest and best was still to come and that occurred in February of the New Year when the club landed one of the biggest coups in our history, by persuading one of the giants of world football to visit Windsor Park. The 1980-81 version of Manchester United were a pale impersonation of former and subsequent great sides hailing from Old Trafford, but in an era when there wasn’t wall to wall football coverage on television, the modest abilities of United mattered little. Nobody knows for sure how many crammed into Windsor Park that February evening, with conservatives estimates on the crowd total being a rounded (weren’t they all in those days?) 30,000. You can find ten minutes or so worth of highlights on YouTube, with commentary from a young Alan Green. The Blues acquitted themselves excellently on the night. Sadly, a rare error from the normally reliable George Dunlop allowed million pound striker Garry Birtles to tap home a close range winner for United. It was one of only two goals Birtles scored for United that season – a real ‘I was there‘ moment, if you like.
The last visitors to Windsor that season were West Bromwich Albion, an up and coming team under the stewardship of Ron Atkinson. Regarded as one of the more flamboyant teams plying their trade in the 1st Division at that time, the Baggies featured Bryan Robson, Cyrille Regis, Remi Moses and Derek Statham in their ranks. Again the Blues did themselves and their fans proud, losing by only two goals against high quality opposition.
In total, Linfield played 54 competitive matches across the island of Ireland and Europe in 1980-81, relinquishing all four of the trophies won in cavalier style twelve months earlier. Despite that early season All-Ireland triumph, it would be regarded as a disappointing campaign with only a County Antrim Shield triumph over the Glens book ending the season. It is perhaps best remembered for the galaxy of talent that paraded their skills across South Belfast, the vast crowds and perhaps a reminder of a time when the game was more in touch with the people.”