With the passing of the great Diego Maradona, we're reposting this Issue 5 feature. For a motley crew of the League of Ireland’s finest, football paradise was found in South America, when they also faced the teenage sensation, writes Macdara Ferris.

For a motley crew of the League of Ireland’s finest, football paradise was found in South America, writes Macdara Ferris from Póg Mo Goal Magazine Issue 5. 

In decades gone by, it was a regular occurrence for a League of Ireland XI to take on visiting teams at home, or to travel away on tours at the conclusion of the season. In March 1980, a league selection beat a Scottish Football League XI 2-1 at Dalymount Park in front of 5,000 fans. In their next match a month later, with a team line-up showing only one change, the League representatives took on slightly higher calibre opposition and in a much bigger venue. 

On the 30th of April 1980, an Irish XI played in River Plate’s 75,000 capacity Monumental Stadium, the Buenos Aires venue that had hosted the World Cup final just two years previously. This team of players drawn from across Ireland’s domestic league took on the then reigning world champions Argentina, who had 19-year-old Diego Maradona in their starting line up. 

The match was the opening game of a three-week Argentinian tour for the Irish side. Legendary manager and then Dundalk boss Jim McLaughlin had picked a squad of 18 players for the trip which began after the conclusion of the 1979/80 season – a campaign where Eoin Hand’s Limerick United side prevailed by a point over Dundalk to win the title. 

Ahead of the tour though, McLaughlin withdrew for personal reasons and with Hand installed as caretaker Republic of Ireland manager, the league officials chose Waterford player/manager and former Northern Ireland international Tommy Jackson to lead the tour. 

Jackson had just helped the Blues secure their second ever FAI Cup – their first since 1937. Goalkeeper Alan O’Neill, who had played in the game against the Scottish league side in Dalymount the previous month, didn’t travel to Argentina, and neither did his named replacement Peter Thomas. “I would have loved to have gone to South America,” Thomas told the Irish Press newspaper at the time, “but I could hardly go off on a three week tour when my wife was expecting!” 

Reflecting on the tour 39 years on, Sligo Rovers boss Liam Buckley recalled the trip fondly: “It was a fantastic group of fellas, and was the best of the League of Ireland at the time. From the players’ end, it was a great experience.” Buckley was one of the few full-time players in the squad – both himself and the league’s top goalscorer Alan Campbell were starring with Shamrock Rovers. 

It was a different story for Terry Eviston of Bohemians though, who had to take unpaid leave from work to travel. “I was a teacher and the team was made up of various trades like taxi drivers, postmen and shopkeepers,” recalled Eviston. “I got special leave from work and we got expenses – I think it was £200 to cover loss of work.” 

The tour was organised by the league vice-president Louis Kilcoyne and ahead of the trip, the Shamrock Rovers director said, “We consider this to be an exciting coup for the league. I believe this tour underlines just how much the League of Ireland has improved its image over the past 12 months, thanks to improved administration and to a string of very good results at representative level.”

Argentina v League of Ireland XI 30th April 1980 

There was no easing into the tour with the opening game against Argentina in Buenos Aires. The home side were warming up for a trip that summer to Europe where they were due to play England, the Republic of Ireland and Austria. Manager César Luis Menotti had four of his World Cup winning squad in his starting team, along with young Diego. 

Buckley recalled: “Maradona was an up and coming superstar then and as it turned out he was one of the best players to ever play the game.” The Argentinian was South America’s player of the year in both 1979 and 1980. He had helped his country win the World Junior Championship (U20 World Cup) in Japan the previous September. 

The playmaker had already scored a dozen goals for Argentinos Juniors across the first 12 weeks of the Argentine First Division – he would go on to score 43 goals in 45 league appearances that year. 

“It doesn’t get any bigger than playing the world champions,” said Buckley about lining up for the League of Ireland team against Argentina. “It was a full house and the place was jammers. There was all the ticker tape stuff – it was exactly like I’d seen on the TV for the 1978 World Cup final and all of a sudden we were there playing in that stadium. It was one of the most moving moments of my career to hear our national anthem through all that noise before kick-off. It was a bunch of us lads from our league playing their national team. It was a very proud moment for all of us.” 

Footage of the game shows the ticker tape strewn across the pitch, Ireland’s old-school green jerseys up against those iconic Argentinian blue and white jerseys over black shorts, and Maradona in truly mesmerising form. In it, he seems to skim across the sticky pitch with such ease with several trademark slaloming runs through a sea of Irish players. 

“I can remember being under the cosh alright but it wasn’t backs to the wall stuff like you had sometimes with your club in Europe,” said Eviston. “We had a few chances with Alan Campbell and Bucko who had a good game.” Buckley called it “a unique experience playing them in that full stadium. They deserved to win but we had a couple of chances.” 

The beginning of the Irish Times match report noted: “A 12th minute goal by the man acclaimed as a new Pele, Diego Maradona, was all world champions Argentina could manage against a plucky League of Ireland side in the River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires. 

There were some fine moves with Leo Flanagan and Liam Buckley in sprightly mood, but Argentina’s World Cup goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol refused to be beaten. Alan Patterson in the Irish goal played outstandingly and made two superb saves from Maradona, for who the Spanish club Barcelona are reported to be ready to pay six million dollars, and who cracked in the winner.” 

The goal started with the Argentinians bringing the ball out from the back before Maradona dropped into his own half to pick it up. Having passed it wide, he ambled forward and then a sudden burst of speed saw him race through the Irish defence. With Paddy Duggan and Pat Nolan unable to get close enough, Maradona took one left foot touch on the edge of the area and then rifled the ball into the top corner by the despairing dive of Patterson. 

It is an iconic goal in terms of Argentinian sport as when it was shown on the news the next day – May 1st – it was the first day of full colour television transmission in Argentina. For Terry Eviston the match sticks out as a real highlight from his time in the game, “When you look back on your career, it is an outstanding memory and something that I cherish. We’d never played in front of such a big crowd. 

I still have the jersey here at home of Jorge Olguin who marked me. He was the full-back who played in the 1978 World Cup final. I remember I had a chance in the game when it was scoreless where I jinked by him and I hit it – the ball just went outside the corner of the post. That could have been my claim to fame if I’d scored!” 

Image: El Grafico, Issue 316, 1980

As for Buckley, he hung onto his own shirt. “I kept all my jerseys like that and the kids have worn a few of them and got some use out of them.” The squad spent some time in Buenos Aires before their next match and got to feel what it was like to be professionals. In between tough training sessions they took in some of the sights, sounds and flavours of the capital city, even seeing BB King in concert as the American bluesman was also on tour in the country. 

“It was the time of the military dictatorship,” recalled Eviston. “There was a fairly large military presence around the city. Then there was the food. The steaks were amazing. If you were a carnivore, it was brilliant! BB King was staying in the same hotel and we went to see him in concert. We trained hard and it was a taste of what it was to be full time. 

It wasn’t like we were heading off to the pub every evening. The training regime meant we were at our peak – training in the morning and sometimes twice a day. We had the best facilities, food, flights, hotels and the most enjoyable part was being away with such a great group of lads, representing our league and we took great pride in that.” 

Club Cipolletti v League of Ireland XI 4th and 6th May 1980 

After experiencing the capital, the squad headed south to Patagonia to play two games against Club Cipolletti in Rio Negro, losing the first game 1-0 but extracting revenge in a tough encounter just two days later. 

In that match there was a red card, four yellows, three penalties awarded – with one of them saved – all while the home supporters were throwing missiles onto the pitch. The Irish side lost Liam Buckley to a straight red card just before half-time with the game scoreless. 

“I can’t remember getting another red card in my career,” said Buckley. “It was a rough and tumble game and they got stuck into us. They had seen us against their national team and they wanted to win. They were kicking us all over the place. One fella tackled me and gave me a punch when we were on the ground. I gave him one back and unfortunately the referee was standing over me and he sent me off.” 

Eviston describes that game in Rio Negro as “a dogfight. It was South American football at its roughest and dirtiest!” Four minutes after the restart, Leo Flanagan slotted home a penalty after Tommy McConville had been fouled by goalkeeper Carlos Zambrano. Mick Smyth went from villain to hero on the hour mark having taken down Rueben Flores, but the Athlone Town ‘keeper saved the resulting penalty kick. 

The Irish team doubled their lead 11 minutes from time after a fine four-man move. Dundalk duo Tommy McConville and Martin Lawlor linked up well to feed Johnny Walsh who, after playing a onetwo with Eviston, scored from distance. Cipolletti got another penalty with a minute remaining after Alan Campbell pushed Fernandes in the box. While this time Daniel Sancisi made no mistake for the home team, the Irishmen saw out the remainder of the game to win with a ‘magnificent performance in a fiery game’ according to the Irish Press.

Newell’s Old Boys v League of Ireland XI 11th May 1980 

The tour concluded with the Irish team taking part in the Semana de Mayo tournament in Rosario against a couple of Argentinian football heavyweights from the city – Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central. First up they took on the then league leaders Newell’s Old Boys and with no love lost between the two hometown teams in the city, the Irish players had plenty of support in the stadium from the Rosario Central fans. 

“It was a huge stadium and at either end it was full,” said Buckley. “At one end were the Rosario Central supporters, not as many as Newell’s and they were up for us as they hated Newell’s. It made for an interesting game as we had supporters cheering us on.” 

The League of Ireland side found themselves a goal down eight minutes in after Daniel Perez put Old Boys in front before Alan Campbell got the equaliser. Player-manager Tommy Jackson brought himself on with ten minutes remaining and when the game went to a penalty shoot-out, he slotted home a spot kick. 

Buckley also scored one. “When we scored a penalty, the Rosario fans all jumped up in celebration!” Eviston took a rare spot kick in the 5-4 penalty shoot-out win. “It was one of the few penalties I ever took. I put the head down, picked my spot and I scored!”

Rosario Central v League of Ireland XI 18th May 1980 

A number of players, including Eviston and Dermot Keely, returned to Ireland after the match against Newell’s due to work commitments. The team struggled in their final game played out in high humidity against a team who would go on to win the Nacional Primera Division that year. 

In front of a crowd of 18,000, Rosario Central were 2-0 up at half-time and led by five goals before Leo Flanagan scored a consolation goal with 10 minutes remaining – slotting home a superb freekick dispatched from 25 yards. It was a disappointing end to what was a memorable tour against such high quality opposition – when the league side came together next it would be in front of 2,000 fans to see them beat a Northern Irish League selection 1-0 at Tolka Park. 

It is difficult to envisage a current League of Ireland team ever taking on such a tour again and the nearest we see to such a team lineup again is on paper when the PFAI Team of the Year is named at the end of season. In the last decade there have been just three matches involving a League of Ireland selection – with the Irish side taking on visiting British teams in the Aviva Stadium – the last such game taking place in 2011. 

“I’d love to see that resurrected purely from a players’ point of view,” says Buckley about those away tours. “If you picked the best team from Dundalk, Cork, Sligo, Bohs, Pats and Rovers you’d get a team that would do really well. These games give more profile to the league. Those representative games are some of the proudest moments from my career.”

Issue 6 of Póg Mo Goal Magazine is now available at www.pogmogoal.bigcartel.com

Macdara Ferris is a Shamrock Rovers fan and co-author of Tallaght Time: Shamrock Rovers 2009 to 2012. He is a senior reporter with Extratime. covering Irish football stories from the domestic and international game. www.extratime.ie

Dorothy are a UK-based design studio. www.wearedorothy.com