Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Lübeck Irish

Few Irish footballers have attempted to conquer German football. None have succeeded. Noel Campbell is arguably Ireland's most successful fußball export, while Patrick Kohlmann's success in Germany's lower tier has been aided by his German birth.

Most Irish exports to the continent have gravitated toward France, Spain, and the Netherlands, but two players who did try their luck in Germany were an obscure League of Ireland striker nearing the end of his career and an Irish international defender trying to break out of the domestic league. Both spent a season in Germany before coming home. 

Eddie Byrne
NASL Soccer Philadelphia Fury 78 Head Eddie Byrne
1978 : Philadelphia Fury (U.S.A.)
1980 - 81 : VfB Lübeck (Germany)

If some players are simply made for domestic Irish soccer, then Eddie Byrne is one of them. A decent striker with some talent, this Dubliner played for 6 teams in Ireland before hanging up his boots in 1986 at the age of 35.

He began his career with Shamrock Rovers where he met and played with a young defender named Eamonn Gregg. In 1976 Byrne joined up with Bohemians for a second time, and also for a second time linked up with Gregg. Together the pair won 2 major domestic trophies, and were integral to a talented Bohemians side that dominated Irish soccer in the late 1970s. Byrne was unfortunate to never earn a cap for the Republic of Ireland, and in 1978 he jumped at the chance to move to America and try his hand in the NASL.

He signed for the Philadelphia Fury franchise, and was teamed up with Irish legend Johnny Giles at the club. In fact Philadelphia hosted a noticeable Irish contingent that season. Joining Byrne and Giles were Irish international John Dempsey, Fran O'Brienand Pierce O'Leary who had come with Giles on loan from Shamrock Rovers. The side's first manager was Englishman Richard Dinnis and the team that year was a highly talented one. Included were English World Cup winner Alan Ball and Chelsea legend Peter Osgood.

Philadelphia were a brand new franchise in NASL, having been just set up earlier that year. They played home games at the colossal Veteran's Stadium in the city, and were preparing for their maiden season in the NASL in 1978.

The Fury were drawn in the NASL Eastern Division along with Noel Cantwell's New England Tea Men, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. This meant that Byrne & co. would be playing against the likes of Gerry Daly, Rodney Marsh, Mirandinha, George Best and Ian Callaghan.

In spite of their fine squad, the season was utterly disappointing for the Fury as they lost 18 matches, winning only 11. This left them bottom in the Eastern Division. Coach Dinnis resigned in mid season, and Alan Ball replaced him at the helm as player-manager.

The play-offs also ended disappointingly as they were knocked out in the first round by Trevor Francis' Detroit Express. Ball was named in the Team of the Season, but otherwise Fury won no other accolades. Byrne played solidly enough however. Deployed mainly in midfield, he notched up 18 games for the club and scored one goal. After the season ended, he joined Shamrock Rovers for one year, but was released in the summer of 1980.

Eamonn Gregg

1980 - 81 : VfB Lübeck (Germany)

A defender, Gregg also began his career with Shamrock Rovers, where he and Byrne met. He joined Bohemians in 1972 and enjoyed a hugely successful time at Dalymount Park where he picked up 2 League medals, 2 League Cups, 2 Leinster Senior Cups, and an FAI Cup. While with Bohs he also won all 8 of his international caps, beginning with an outing against Poland in 1976.

Heavily linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur in England, Gregg instead moved to Germany in 1980 to sign with Oberliga Nord side Lübeck. In Germany, he linked up for a third time with Eddie Byrne.


Reformed in 1945 out of the ashes of a predecessor club, VfB participated in post-War regional leagues with moderate success. In 1963 the Bundesliga was reformed, but Lübeck were forced to play in the second-tier Regionalliga Nord. After just missing out on promotion to the Bundesliga in 1969, they eventually found themselves in the Oberliga Nord (the Northern segment of Germany's third tier) by 1980. The club has no major honours to date. 

In spite of their modest size and status, the club's home stadium is the rather large, 17000 capacity Stadion an der Lohmühle which they have used since 1924. Although Gregg played during the League of Ireland's heyday in the 1970s, his new home ground would still be one of the biggest he'd play in. Having played in the mega stadiums of American sports, the grounds in this league would seem tiny to Byrne's eyes.

Both Byrne and Gregg were signed by coacJürgen Brinckmann who had been appointed in July after the club had gone through a host of managers in under two years. While Byrne was merely a League of Ireland regular, Gregg was an Irish international, and was the club's most high profile signing in a long time. 

Sadly however, their time in Germany was nothing remotely resembling a success. Brinckmann was sacked in February after winning only 4 of his 21 games in charge. He was replaced by Rolf Oberbeck who failed to invigorate much form into the team. VfB finished in 12th, just one place above relegation to the abyss of German amateur soccer. Neither player had made much of an impact, and both left the country after one season.

Byrne's career petered out with Shelbourne, Athlone, and Longford before he hung up his boots at the end of the 1985-86 season. Meanwhile Gregg stayed in the game much longer. He moved to Dundalk where he would win his third League of Ireland title in 1982. After stints with St. Pats and Kilkenny, he retired from playing in 1990. He moved into coaching, where he took Bohemians to the FAI Cup in 1992, before leaving football for good in 1994.

Of all the European leagues where Irishmen try to succeed, our record in Germany is the worst. If this league is the league of the future, then we might want to see more Irish players give it a go in the Bundesliga. Currently youth international Selcuk Tidim is knocking about with Hansa Rostock. Here's hoping he might succeed, both at club and country level, where others have failed.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Travis Binnion

2008 : IFK Mariehamn (Finland)

Born in Derby, England in 1986, Travis Binnion was a talented full-back whose promising career was cut short by injury, forcing him to retire at age 22.

Although born and raised in England, Binnion qualified for the republic of Ireland through family and represented the Under-19 side 5 times in 2007. He came through the youth academy at Sheffield United and was with the Blades when he earned his call ups to the Irish team. In 2006-07 despite a serious knee injury, he broke into the reserve squad at Bramall Lane and his early career had been progressing well.

In January 2008 it was decided that the defender needed a loan spell away from Sheffield in order to gain first team experience. Rather than the usual destination like a League One or Two club in England, Finland's IFK Mariehamn expressed an interest in the Irishman, and he was loaned out straight away.
IFK were founded in 1919 in the southern Finnish town that bears its name. Mariehamn is in fact located in Åland an autonomous Swedish speaking island under the sovereignty of the government of Finland. The town consists of roughly 11000 inhabitants and is the capital of Åland. Since 1932 IFK have been playing home games at the Wiklöf Holding Arena a multi-purpose ground that holds 4000 fans. Their nickname is Grönvitt (meaning Green White) reflecting their home colours and they have played a majority of their recent history in Finland's Kakkonen (Second Division). In 2005, they gained promotion to the Veikkausliiga, or Premier Division, and were still in the top flight when Binnion arrived.

Although Binnion had been loaned out from a team then playing in the English Championship, his move to Mariehamn did not see him playing in a completely undeveloped and crap league. He was training alongside talented footballers such as Finnish internationals Jani Lyyski and Paulus Arajuuri, and Kenya goalkeeper Willis Ochieng. Binnion wasn't the only British/Irish member of the squad either. Fellow Sheffield United youngsters Jordan Eagers and Scott Boden had also made the journey from Bramall Lane to Finland, lessening the potential for homesickness. Team-mate Jani Lyyski's father, Pekka, was the club's manager and had brought Mariehman from the third tier to the top flight in under three years.

By moving to Finland, Binnion had taken an unusual step for an Irish footballer, but he wasn't breaking new ground. Pat Walker had played in the country in the early 1980s before becoming a managerial legend in Sweden.

Wearing the number 16 shirt, the Irishman made just 6 appearances for the grönvitt that season. Finland's domestic season runs from late spring, through summer and early autumn. The country's cold, near-Arctic climate make winter football impossible. Thereby arriving in January meant that Binnion was arriving in pre-season, ready for a full 2008 campaign.

In April, before the season had even started, he and team-mate Eagers were informed that they had been released by Sheffield United, complicating the manner of their loan to the Finnish side. However, Mariehamn were unperturbed and were considering keeping the Irishman on with a full-time contract. Binnion himself was content with staying in the country, but for the time being his contract was short-term.

Later that month, he made his debut for a Mariehman side on the loosing end of a 0-2 home defeat to giants HJK Helsinki. The following month he was part of the squad that defeated FC KooTeePee 4-2 at home.

His time in Finland began promisingly. However, pretty soon his career-long knee injury caught up with him and he was sidelined for months. While he was out of the team recovering, the club went on a massive losing streak, and were soon battling relegation.

He returned from injury in August. playing in the 0-0 away draw to VPS. A few more games were to follow, and Mariehamn finished the season in 12th place, just about avoiding relegation in a 14-team league. For Binnion though, his time in Finland and as a footballer was over. On medical advice he was forced to retire from playing. It was a quiet end to a brief but promising career. 

Following his retirement, Binnion went into cricket and played a single A-Match for Nottinghamshire in 2003. Later he turned to coaching, and is now involved with the youth setup at Sheffield United. Mariehman still play in the Veikkausliiga today, and in 2013-14 qualified for the Europe League.

Three years after Binnion left Finland, Shane Robinson would arrive to play for and captain FC Haka.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Martin Bayly

1988 - 89 : Figueres (Spain)

Bayly is a member of a prominent League of Ireland family. His older brother Ritchie was a midfielder with Sligo in the 1980s, while his nephew Robert has played for Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, and (as of 2013) Shelbourne.

Martin was born in Dublin in 1966, and at the age of 16 went to England to join the ranks of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Between 1982 and 1985 he made 10 appearances for Wolves before leaving the club at the end of the 1984-85 season to join Coventry. However, he failed to settle in the West Midlands, and by the time he was 20 he was back in Ireland where he linked up with brother Ritchie at Sligo.

In the 1986-87 season the midfielder was named as the PFAI Young Player of the Year before a brief and unhappy spell with Derry City in 1988. After leaving Brandywell and with no club attachments, the 22 year old left Ireland once again, and this time went south to Spain. He signed with Figeres.

Unió Esportiva Figueres hail from Catalonia in eastern Spain. Situated roughly 140 km from Barcelona, the town of Figueres is an historically significant settlement of 45,000 inhabitants. The club were founded in 1919 and their home ground, Vilatenim, holds just under 10000 fans. Having played most of their history in Spain's third tier or various regional leagues, the club were naturally in the shadow of rival Catalan sides like Barcelona, Espanyol, and Sabadell. 

In 1987 they gained promotion to the Segunda Division (Spain's 2nd tier) for the first time in their history, and were still playing at this level when the Irishman arrived a year later.

The squad around Bayly featured a number of talented footballers such as former Barcelona star Pere Gratacós, Espanyol legend Tintín Márquez, and Spanish international García Pitarch. His new coach was former Spain 
midfielder Peiró, who had played for Atletico Madrid, Roma, and Internazionale where he was a two-time European Cup winner.

Peiro, Bayly's coach at Figueres
Bayly made his Spanish football debut on September 4th away to Castellon in the league. He was an 86th minute substitute for own-goal scorer Martin Dominguez. Figueres won the match 1-2.

In October he picked up an injury that kept him out over the winter period, but once regaining fitness in spring he began to earn starting XI status as the team went on a rich run of form. Some of the bigger names that the Dubliner lined out against that season were Racing Santander, Rayo Vallecano, and Barcelona B (where he played against future Barce manager Tito Villanova in a 2-4 loss)

Bayly scored his first goal for Figueres in May at home to Mollerussa. The away side had gone up 0-3 inside the opening 36 minutes before the Dubliner ignited Figueres' comeback. His goal in the 39th minute was the first of four for the home team who went on to an incredible 4-3 victory.

His second goal for the club came less than a month later when he scored in a convincing 3-1 victory over Eibar. 

By the end of the 1988-89 season, Bayly had made 11 appearances with 2 goals to his name. Not a bad start to life in Spain. Figueres finished the league in 9th place, not good enough to compete for promotion by very much safe from relegation.

Vilatenim, Figueres' stadium
The following season saw Figueres make a slow start and record some damaging home losses. After a poor 0-1 home reversal to Recreativo Huelva and a 5-0 hammering away to Burgos, the Irishman was one of the players to pay. He lost his place in the starting XI and struggled to gain it back. He did feature as a 64th minute substitute in an October 1-0 home win over Espanyol, as well as another against Racing Santander later that month, but his days in Spain were numbered.

In winter 1989 he had his contract mutually terminated with Figueres and returned home to Ireland. His last game in Spain was a 1-1 draw with Levante (who would later have Ian Harte in their team), where he picked up a yellow card.

Figueres went on to finish in 12th that season. In 1994 they would slip back down to the Spanish 3rd tier where they remain today. 

Bayly enjoyed a successful career in Irish football over the next six years. he represented a number of clubs on the island, most notably Monaghan United and Linfield (where he won a league medal in 1993).

Martin Baly was one of a number of Irishmen to ply their trade in Spain in the late 1980s. It is curious that Ashley GrimesJohn AldridgeAlan CampbellKevin Moran, and Liam Buckley should all have chosen to try their hand in the country in a six year period, and yet in the 22 years since Aldridge left Sociedad, only a handful of Irishman have played in the country (only two in la Liga). Some of this can be explained by the ban on English clubs' participation in UEFA competitions in those days, but given the state of Irish football at the moment, perhaps we could do with a few more Aldridges, Morans, and Baylys.

Not a success, but he tried.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Mike McCabe

1984 - 88 : Vard Haugesund (Norway)
1988 - 90 : Tromsø (Norway)
1991 - 93 : Viking FK (Norway)

Born in Waterford in 1964, Mike McCabe was an aggressive striker who played all of his professional football in Norway. At the age of 15 he moved to London to sign as a schoolboy with Tottenham Hotspur. 

While at the club he played for the Ireland Under-16 and Under-19 teams, but was refused a call-up yo the Under-21s due to a back injury he sustained.

Although at White Hart Lane for just over four years, he never made a senior appearance for Spurs, and was released just short of his 20th birthday.

In 1984 at the age of 20, he moved north to Norway and signed for Vard Haugesund. 

Founded in 1916 and based in the southern Norwegian city of Haugesund (a settlement of roughly 34000 people), Vard have played most of their seasons in Norway's 2nd tier. They reached the final of the Norwegian Cup in 1962 and 1975, but have no makor trophies to their name. Their home ground, the Haugesund Stadion has room for 8000 fans.

At the time of the Waterford man's arrival, Vard were languishing in Norway's 3rd tier, the 3. Divisjon. With his goals they finished in 1st place and earned promotion back to the 2. Divisjon. McCabe would spend another three seasons with the club, in which time they would never finished lower than 9th in the third tier. In 1988 he was snapped up by 1. divisjon side Tromsø.

One of the country's most famous clubs, Tromsø also hold the position of being the most northerly located top-flight club in the world. Tromsø is Norway's 7th largest city (with a population of 69000 people) and the 2nd largest city in the Arctic Circle (after Murmansk in Russia). The club was founded in 1920 and when McCabe arrived they had just moved into their new stadium, the 7000 capacity Alfheim Stadion. Nicknamed Gutan (the boys), Tromsø only had one Cup title to their name by the time the Irishman came.

His new coach was former Sweden international Tommy Svensson, who would later coach his country to 3rd place at the 1994 World Cup. 

Tromso's Alfheim Stadion
He made his debut on May 1st for the club, away to Djerv 1919, a match that ended 1-1. His first goal came later that month when he scored in a 2-2 draw with Vålerenga. He also received a yellow card in that game. His next goal came in mid-June to help Tromsø to a 4-2 win over Nor Narvik in the Cup.

At the end of the season, Tromsø finished in 5th, a good 14 points behind winners Rosenborg. In the Cup they fared no better than the last 16.

In his second season with the club, Tromsø finished in 3rd. The Irishman had scored 10 goals, just eight behind the league's top scorer. This made him the club's top scorer, a feat he would repeat the next season. In McCabe's last season at Tromsø, they finished a remarkable 2nd in the 1. divisjon with the Irishman netting 13 goals.

It had been an amazing turnaround for a club that just 7 years before; had been playing in the Third Division. In all he made 71 appearances and scored 35 goals in four years at the club.

In 1991 he made the final move of his career when he signed with Viking FK. 

This is one of Norway's most successful clubs with 8 League titles and 5 Cups to their name. They are also, alongside Rosenborg, one of the country's most prestigious name throughout Europe. The man that signed McCabe was ex-Fulham player Benny Lennartsson. The club are from Stavanger, Norway's third largest settlement in the south of the country. Founded in 1899, they play home matches at the 16000 capacity Viking Stadion, but in McCabe's time Viking played at the 18000 capacity Stavanger Stadion.

Although he managed to make 63 appearances for De mørkeblå (The Dark Blues) McCabe's time in Stavanger was riddled with back injuries that he had picked up while with Tromsø. This greatly affected his playing ability, and he only scored 9 goals in 2 years with the club before his back caught up to him, and he collapsed during a match. As a result he had to retire at the age of just 28. He did importantly however, play a key role in Viking's league title win in 1991, scoring some crucial goals at the tail-end of the season. This was his only major winners medal from his short but eventful career.

Today he still lives in the country, working as an English and P.E. teacher in Sandnes. He is still remembered in Norway for his technicality and speed, as well as his good attitude and good understanding of the other players' patterns and movements.

Although Mike McCabe is a name that will not be well known to Irish fans, he is one of those rare footballers who is better known in a foreign land. Bizzarely, McCabe's name still commands respect and admiration in Norway. Tromsø regularly describe him as a hero, and he retains a close relationship with the club today.

In 2008, McCabe was named as one of the 50 Best Foreigners to ever play in Norway. This is a huge honour, and places in him in a category with the likes of Magnus Svensson, Tobias Linderoth, Christian Wilhelmsson and Joachim Bjorklund. Players eligible for this list were those deemed to have "impacted importantly to their teams pursuit of success and played at a high and stable level over several seasons". For the Irishman's entry, it simply says :

"Important, loyal cog in the offensive part of Viking's last triumph"

Quite an honour for a man that many Irish soccer fans will never have heard of. 

To Mike McCabe, a respected Wild Goose...