In our ongoing series at detcityfc.com, DCFC welcomes journalist and author Ian Thomson as he takes a look at the history of Glentoran FC, the Detroit Cougars and the summer of 1967 ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Cougars and DCFC vs. Glentoran at Keyworth Stadium on May 27, 2017.
David Wylie will receive a late gift in May when his beloved Glentoran comes to Detroit for this year’s DCFC International Series clash a few weeks after his 40th birthday.
Wylie has been a frequent visitor to the Motor City in recent years through his job at the New York City office of a British infrastructure investment company. His first trip in 2011 was something different – a 5-day adventure that saw Wylie retracing Glentoran’s footsteps from their two-month cameo as the Detroit Cougars in 1967.
The Belfast native wrote a fascinating, self-deprecating account of his experience on his “Norn Ironman” blog. It is an engaging tale of a frenzied soccer fan’s futile attempts to find recognition for his heroes. Wylie spoke to DCFC recently about his love for the Glens and his thoughts on the upcoming game at Keyworth Stadium.
DCFC: How did you become a Glentoran fan?
DW: I grew up just north of Belfast. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all supported the Glens. You have to go back to my great-grandfather to find the last person that went week in and week out like I did when I lived in Northern Ireland. My father and my grandfather were “big game” supporters. They went to the derbies against our local rival Linfield. They went to the cup finals and the big nights in European competitions. I grew up with all the stories of these great games and, of course, the story of the Detroit Cougars.
I started going to games with my brother when I was about 11 years old and I got hooked. I went religiously, home and away, until I moved to Scotland when I was 25.
DCFC: What distinguishes Glentoran as a club?
DW: We have a great history. The Detroit Cougars are a massive part of that. But more so there is a really keen sense of our history at the club. We’d be the champions every year if they handed out trophies for books that have been written. I’ve always loved that rich heritage at Glentoran.
The club never had a sectarian signing policy even during the darkest days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. We had Catholics and Protestants playing alongside each other and so Glentoran always maintained a certain dignity and “sport first” ethos.
DCFC: How do people in America react when you tell them you support the Glens?
DW: There is a heightened awareness of soccer here and English soccer in particular. A lot of people frame the question as “Who is your Premier League team?” I’ll respond by saying that I don’t support a Premier League team. I support a team in my hometown of Belfast. I’ll elaborate on that and tell them the team is Glentoran if they looked suitably intrigued. We’re a small club in world terms but a big club in Northern Ireland. The conversation ends very quickly about nine times out of ten, or they quickly bring it back to talking about the Premier League.
DCFC: What prompted you to make that pilgrimage to Detroit in 2011?
DW: I was living in Vancouver at the time and working a lot in Toronto. In a fairly naïve way I thought Detroit isn’t that far away and I could tag on a few days of vacation. It was too good an opportunity for me to miss.
I would say there are three major milestones in Glentoran’s history. We won an early attempt at a European trophy in 1914 when we lifted the Vienna Cup. The next major event was the Belfast Blitz in 1941 when Luftwaffe bombs destroyed our stadium while targeting the neighboring Harland and Wolff shipyards. We were left homeless and it looked like we were going to go out of existence. The community rallied round and our stadium was completely rebuilt eight years later. And then there is the Detroit Cougars from 1967.
I’d never been to Detroit before that trip. You form an image of it in your mind that is shaped by popular culture and what you see in the media. You identify it as a blue-collar, industrial city and yet it’s a place with real soul, pride and personality. I think Glentoran fans feel a real affinity for Detroit because people see a lot of parallels with Belfast.
DCFC: Did you track down many people that were aware of Glentoran and the Cougars during your stay?
DW: No. It was obvious to me that the story of the Cougars had been completely forgotten. I reached out to people that were involved in soccer in Detroit beforehand. They were genuinely pleased to hear about this piece of history, but it was a surprise to them.
That was before Detroit City F.C. came along. It’s great to see the club developing and wanting to revive Detroit’s soccer history.
DCFC: How do you feel about this new generation of Detroit soccer fans now taking an interest in your team?
DW: It’s brilliant. I can’t wait to see the Detroit supporters myself in May. I’ve watched the YouTube videos and I’ve read about them being really passionate for their semipro team. It’s funny that I’m now in Detroit regularly for work some six years after that first visit. It’s a completely different place. There are a lot of new businesses moving in and you’re getting this energy from internationally-minded people in their 20s and 30s. It looks like Detroit City has managed to capture that resurgence.
DCFC: You mentioned in your blog that Detroit had charmed you. How so?
DW: Everybody in the Detroit soccer community that I contacted accepted my offer to meet even though I don’t think any of them had heard of Glentoran or the Cougars. I sat with a few guys for three or four hours talking soccer in pubs. There was a real friendliness without any airs and graces. There was a down-to-earth nature to the city like there is in Belfast.
It was surprising to people at the time that I was spending a long weekend in Detroit for recreational purposes. Some British guy going there for five days by himself to research some niche part of the city’s sporting history from 50 years ago was something that also really pleased people. Detroit was going bankrupt and was on its knees. So people were genuinely thrilled that I was taking an interest in their city and showing a passion for it.
DCFC: What was the high point of retracing Glentoran’s movements?
DW: Going to the old University of Detroit Stadium site where the Cougars played. It was knocked down a few years after the 1967 tournament. I knew it was at the University of Detroit Mercy campus a little bit out of town. It was a bit of a trek to get there and an adventure trying to find the exact stadium location because the current soccer field and the old field don’t quite line up. There was a women’s game going on when I visited, so it was great to see some soccer when I was there.
This was the heart of it all. This was Glentoran’s home for two months and the site where many of the iconic photographs that our supporters are familiar with were taken. There is a big arena on the campus called Calihan Hall that contains a mini museum with photos of the old stadium lining the walls. It was pretty special being there.
DCFC: How often do you get to watch Glentoran these days?
DW: Two or three times a season on average. There was a major hardware failure in the U.S. immigration system two summers ago and the U.S. government stopped issuing visas for about three weeks. I was in Belfast at the time getting my visa renewed when the server went down. They couldn’t give me my passport back, so I was stuck there for a few weeks. It was great. The Glens were in preseason and I managed to watch a bunch of games. I really enjoyed getting back into the old routine. That’s one thing I definitely miss about home.
DCFC: What’s your sense of how many fans will be coming over from Northern Ireland for the game?
DW: I would guess about 50-100 fans. There are a lot of people that were either around in the Cougars era or were brought up with stories about it like me. People are really excited about having a nostalgia fest for a few days.
DCFC: Who is going to win?
DW: It’s difficult for me to compare across leagues and countries. We’re coming off a bad season in the Northern Irish league. Our players don’t get to play abroad too often, particularly in recent years when we’ve been struggling to qualify for European competitions, so coming to the U.S. will be a big thing for them. I hope it’s going to be a really competitive game in front of a great crowd.
I think our fans will be pleasantly surprised by what they find in Detroit. They might be expecting a family-oriented environment akin to going to a baseball game. I think it will be more raucous. Detroit City fans won’t be going along to eat popcorn before leaving 15 minutes early.
Ian Thomson is a journalist and author based in Washington, D.C.
His book “Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil” tells the story of the United Soccer Association tournament via interviews with 16 players including former Glentoran winger Eric Ross.
“Summer Of ‘67” is available in Kindle and paperback formats via Amazon.com.
Single match tickets for DCFC v. Glentoran are now on sale. Tickets are $15 online now, but they'll be $20 online and at the gate on matchday. Get yours here.
The Gold Card season ticket package grants entry to the May 27th international friendly. In addition, Gold Card season ticket holders receive free parking, priority stadium entrance, midfield seating and more. Get your Gold Card here.