The plane that didn't arrive, the stands that did - The story of Longford Town's maiden European voyage of 2001

Sat, Mar 28 2020

The programme cover of Longford Town's preliminary round home UEFA Cup tie against Litex Lovech in 2001 Credit: Gary Reilly

A new all-seater ground built from scratch, a plane that never showed up and a splinter group of supporters that ended up on the Aran Islands – Longford Town’s maiden European odyssey in 2001 was eventful to say the least.

Match pennants and a litany of images are dotted around the stadium to this day – and the memories of the adventure from players, staff and supporters have remained.

A book could probably be written on the tie itself (which may yet still be an option) given the number of stories that remain to this day.

Such was the story behind getting the tie played, this trip was never really about the result such was the massive community effort to get things ready.

 The Stephen Kenny era

The Red and Black – who were then led by future Republic of Ireland senior manager Stephen Kenny – qualified for Europe for the very first time at the conclusion of the 2000/01 season.

That campaign saw Longford reach the FAI Cup final, where they lost out to league winners Bohemians in the Tolka Park decider.

However, as the Gypsies had already secured European qualification by virtue of their league position, Longford Town earned the right to play in the UEFA Cup which allowed them to embark on their maiden European voyage in the late summer of 2001.

This was all after a number of incredible years of the Kenny regime, which saw the midlanders go from being the second tier’s whipping boys to a mid-table top-flight side.

The Dubliner took charge of Longford in 1998 and he brought about the change required at the club to bring them to the next level.

Five-time FAI Intermediate Cup winners and a four-time Metropolitan Cup champions Longford Town were one of the leading lights in junior football prior to their election to the League of Ireland in 1984.

Their opening few years as a senior League of Ireland club were relatively successful, but they were to soon struggle at the turn of the 1990s.

Languishing at the foot of the First Division table during a barren spell, Kenny soon came in to make his mark on the club after managing St Patrick’s Athletic’s under-21 side.

His introduction as manager came alongside the arrival of new chairman Adrian Duncan and Longford were soon on the up.

Promotion from the second tier was achieved in 2000 after a near-miss the year before, and it was then when Longford made the rest of the League of Ireland sit up and take notice of their blossoming side.

The cup final against Bohemians at Tolka followed in 2001 and, from then on, it was an ascent into uncharted waters for the Red and Black.

They reached four cup finals during a remarkable eight-year stay in the top-flight, winning two, and they also secured a League Cup win during the 2004 campaign.

But it was after the 2000/01 FAI Cup final that things really took off in the midlands – as their first ever European trip lay in waiting in August of that year.

The summer of hope

While the challenge looked to be one that would test all at the club, there was little to suggest there was a fear of the Bulgarians.

“I had just joined the club,” said Alan Kirby, who went on to make 264 appearances for Longford, when he spoke with extratime.ie

“The Lovech game was my first competitive game for the club. I remember the build-up that summer because it was their first time being in Europe.

“There was a great sense of occasion. I remember the scramble to get the ground ready and the seats in place.”

Lissanurlan – as it was then known as prior to its name change to Flancare Park – at the turn of the century had little more than four grass embankments that housed supporters.

Fast forward to 9 August 2001 and an impressive stadium under the new name of Flancare Park had just been built, a ground that the people of Longford came together to construct themselves. 

“The camaraderie around the club struck me,” added Kirby.

“The relationship they had with the people in the town and how everyone came together – whether it was painting or screwing in seats to make sure the home game would be played in Flancare.”

And fellow new recruit Stuart Byrne added. “We had to literally get a ground built within the space of what felt like a few days.

“It was inspiring – and it probably gave us a 20 or 30 percent lift going into the game.”

While players were in awe of the efforts by volunteers, die-hard supporter Martin Stapleton retains the twinkling in his eye thinking about the rush to get the ground ready.

“It’s a long time ago thinking about it now. There was a great buzz around the place a week before the game and it was the first time the ground was properly done up (since moving in).

“There was a great build up in the local media on the game.”

Litex Lovech

Handed a draw against Bulgarian side Litex Lovech, there was plenty of excitement at the time regarding their upcoming continental debut

By no means were Longford Town handed an easy European tie in 2001. To put it frankly, they could not have had it any tougher.

De Town’s opponents Litex Lovech had, like Longford, qualified for the UEFA by virtue of their domestic cup campaign.

However, unlike their Irish opposition, they won their version of the cup – defeating Velbazhd Kyustendil in the Bulgarian Cup final.

This was just after they won back to back league titles in the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons when they edged out Bulgarian powerhouses Levski Sofia to the honours and Champions League football.

Given their recent success and blossoming list of honours, their side had a number of up and coming international players. Rasen Kirilov and Zoran Yankovich went on to feature at the 2004 European Championships with Bulgaria.

In addition, midfielder Mourad Hdiouad went to play for his native Morocco in the 2004 African Cup of Nations – where they finished runners-up.

Ivaylo Petev would later become the Bulgarian national side’s Head Coach in 2014.

In total, there were seven internationals who started against Longford Town in both games with a combined total of 138 eventual appearances for their respective nations.

One man who Dundalk fan’s might remember is forward Hristo Yovov who played against Dundalk in the 2010 Europa League qualifiers for Levski Sofia and netted in a 6-0 first-leg win in a second-round qualifier.

Preparing

While preparations on the ground were going all steam ahead – the opposition work was not as clear cut as it may have been.

Concrete knowledge on the Bulgarians was scarce, with only a video sourced from football writer and reporter Paul Buttner available to Town boss Kenny.

Buttner gained access to a video of Lovech via his wife’s friend who worked in a Bulgarian TV station at the time.

Apart from that, there was very little opposition video and scouting work that could be looked at.

“It was very much going into the unknown, and the manager would have been fairly limited in terms of the information that he could get,” Kirby said. 

“We knew that they were good, and they would be quite a physical side while also being able to keep the ball well.

“We knew that we would have our work cut out, but it was all about getting us into the best shape that we could get into.”

But despite the on-pitch concerns, the volunteer effort continued to get the ground by the Strokestown Road ready.

“I was helping in the evening time to help installing the seats. There was a lot of volunteer effort going into it to get the ground ready,” Stapleton added.

“There was a steady flow of people that were helping out in the evening time or during the day.”

This in turn, had a galvanizing effect in the dressing room.

“That’s the kind of stuff Stephen (Kenny) would leverage an awful lot of stuff on,” former Shelbourne league winning midfielder Byrne admits. 

“He would constantly reference everyday things to football, and he would always be grounded when it came to those kinds of things. 

“He would constantly mention that in any game we played, not just that game for Longford.

“But for that game I’m sure he would’ve stressed sheer work ethic with all the effort that was put into getting game underway.

“It was incredible, I still can’t get over the amount of effort that went into it even today.”

First-leg

With 3,000 fans packed into the ground, De Town took the game to their highly-rated opposition – and went close early through Eric Lavine and Kirby.

“I remember doing a lot of chasing,” Waterford native Kirby recalls.

Then, there was lift off. “It was almost a bit of a shock when we took the lead,” he adds

Sean Prunty’s corner from the right-hand found the unmarked Keith O’Connor who slotted home at the back post to give Kenny’s charges an unlikely lead.

The visitors however soon awoke from their slumber – and despite knocking on the door for an equaliser – it was Longford who almost grabbed a second through defender Paul McNally.

McNally’s header looked set for the top-right hand corner of the net, but Lovech ‘keeper Vitomir Vutov was able to claw the ball away from nestling into the net.  

“We were on adrenaline – the noise and size of the crowd was incredible.”

However, Lovech grabbed an 84th minute equaliser through forward Stefan Yurukov – a Bulgarian international – as Town keeper Stephen ‘Digger’ O’Brien was finally undone.

“It (the adrenaline and atmosphere) was enough to get us a scrappy enough goal, but we couldn’t hold out in the end.”

Byrne added: “I remember Stephen O’Brien saying at the time they were as good as any mid-table Premiership side and I would probably agree with him.

“It took us a little while to get used to them and we had a good game plan, but we did get to grips with them.

“They were probably the better side to be fair, but it was great to get a draw out of it. It gave something back to the crowd who had put such a huge effort in to getting the stadium ready for the game.”

The airport

While you could write a book on the circumstances of the first leg itself, many of its most memorable events took place inside the departure halls of Dublin Airport.

“The main memory from the second leg would have to be the whole flight saga,” Kirby reflects.

The Balkan Airline’s flight that was due to fly Longford Town’s travelling party to Bulgaria failed to show up, leaving 122 stranded in the airport.

“We turned up at the airport and we were waiting around for a couple of hours and later on a person came along to tell us the plane wasn’t coming,” Byrne looks back. 

Longford were due to depart at 8am on the Tuesday morning before the game, and they were soon told that it would be 10pm before they would soon fly out.

However, at 7pm that evening – the club were informed that the flight had been cancelled, leaving club officials left scrambling for an alternative travel arrangement.

At the time of the unfolding drama – Stephen Kenny remained quite calm. “It's far from ideal, but there is nothing we can do about it,” he told the Irish Times.

“I can't fault the club. They have tried to do things the right way.”

As news of a back-up option began to surface to get those to the Eastern European state before the UEFA deadline, one half of the travelling party were told to wait in Dublin for a flight out the following morning as the other half went ahead separately.

“There’s a picture of me on Sportsfile completely dismayed leaning against a metal column,” Byrne recalls. 

“Half of us were told to go back to the airport hotel and then come back early in the morning because they had a British Airways flight to get us to Bulgaria.

“The upside of that was that myself (and a few others) got a first-class trip – so half of us went out on one flight and the others went out on another!”

But for some – like supporter Martin Stapleton – that was to be the end of one’s hopes of making the trip.

“There could have been 30 or 40 [supporters] who made it over in the end, but they lost half of the support base,” he said.

“The players just about made it over in time before their deadline with UEFA and if they didn’t make it over, they wouldn’t have seen the game go ahead.

“We [myself and few other supporters] ended up in the Aran Islands, but we didn’t keep in touch with the game really. We were so fed up with the whole situation we just went off.

“It was only after the game when one of the lads went to an internet café to discover what happened (in the game) but we didn’t really keep in touch with it.”

The second leg

For those who made it to Bulgaria – the players and the handful of fans what remain are memories to last a lifetime.

“It wasn’t my intention to look back on it thinking what if this happened and if we got out a day before,” two-time FAI Cup winner with Longford Alan Kirby notes.

Dubliner Byrne added: “We had a very good team. We were probably a little bit underrated back then. We had a lot of good players, but we had a lot of inexperience when it came to European games.

“We were all very eager and even though the flight over was a disaster we were able to take it in our stride.

“There was a good group who would find the positives in the situation where they would slag off Jim Hanley [now current chairman] and Stephen [Kenny].”

The match venue had been renovated in 1999 after its initial construction the early 1960s. Located 160km from Sofia in the foothills of the Balkan Mountains, it could house 8,000 supporters.

“It was a really typical European venue with a track around it, but it was in the back arse of nowhere. It was a difficult place to get to, it was two or three hours from Sofia.

“A lot of their players would have gone on to play in higher levels of European football but the experience we got was invaluable.”

What might have been…

The second leg game itself saw Lovech go close on a number of occasions, with Town ‘keeper Stephen O’Brien being forced into six incredible saves from 29-time Bulgarian international Yovov during the game.

But that wasn’t to say Longford did not have chances. Stuart Byrne went mightily close with a long-range free-kick in the second half after forward Keith O’Connor went close in the opening period from a corner.

Roscommon native Henry Kenny somehow missed a guilt-edged chance in the 86th minute after being found by a Stephen Gavin pass across the box – and the resulting counter-attack saw ‘Digger’ O’Brien finally undone.

Zoran Yankovich got on the end of a sweeping break to fire home – with the aid of the post – past O’Brien.

Longford were then ‘harshly’, as reported at the time, finished off at the death by a soft penalty kick that Yankovich converted.

It was then that the incredible journey from the bottom of the First Division table to the cusp of the first-round of the UEFA Cup came to an end.

Looking back

Were Longford Town to have secured an unlikely passage through to the first-round proper of the UEFA Cup, a clash lay in waiting against German side Union Berlin.

And while a trip to the German capital would have added another chapter to a storied collection of memories, it wasn’t to be in the end.

“You always look back on the small things thinking if I scored this chance or that chance,” Kirby said. 

“At the end of the day the second we were being put under real pressure, they carved us open with numerous chances.

“It could’ve been 5-1 on aggregate or 2-0 on the night, but it [the flight issue] was never an excuse for me anyway.

“Over the two legs I think we can say we were beaten by a better side. There was a lot of learning involved in that game for us, how to keep the ball and all.

“We could’ve got through, but we would’ve lost the next game. It would have been another great experience in another country, but we were never going to go far in it anyway.”

A reflective Byrne concluded: “It was very new to everyone at the time. We weren’t really thinking about the follow-on game at the time as there was a lot of respect for them from us.

“Stephen would have obviously learned a lot with him being a very young manager at the time,” Byrne adds.

“What people don’t get is that there’s such quality in Europe. The sides with the lesser names are just as good as the bigger names and I’ve experienced that throughout my European career.

“In 2004 the best team we played (with Shelbourne) was Lille, not Deportivo – Lille were better. I think that was just a reminder of the sheer quality that’s out there.”

 

With thanks to Martin Stapleton, Gary Reilly, Alan Kirby, Stuart Byrne, Deniese O’Flaherty, Paul Buttner, Ethan Fitzpatrick, Dave Donnelly, Tom O’Connor and Macdara Ferris for their help in compiling this article.