When John Neal’s Middlesbrough won the Kirin Cup
By Daniel Cochran
As Bolo Zenden’s semi-fluffed penalty hit the back of the net in the 2004 Carling Cup final, Middlesbrough‘s long-suffering supporters began to dream. A run of 128 long years without a major trophy was about to come to an end, and a previously unshakeable monkey was hurled from our collective backs.
Before this triumph, Boro fans had to make do with a small collection of minor cup trophies. And when I say small collection, I mean two. And one of them was very random indeed.
The Kirin Cup (formerly known as the Japan Cup) is an invitational tournament organised by the Japanese beer company since 1978. Now a fairly standard international competition, it was a strange old beast in its early days with national and club teams pitted against each other, throwing up unique match combinations such as Tottenham vs. Thailand (Spurs squeaking through 2-1), Newcastle vs. Syria (1-1, Dave McCreery with a rare goal for the Mags), and West Ham vs. two-time World Cup winners Uruguay (also 1-1).
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Middlesbrough were invited to the 1980 edition, soon after finishing 9th in Division 1. Despite a long season just ended, manager John Neil took a full-strength squad over to Japan, with players such as David Armstrong, Craig Johnston and Boško Janković making the trip. What the Japanese public thought of a grizzled Tony McAndrew ambling through customs is not recorded.
Two Boro players had already won a cup that month. Terry Cochrane and goalkeeper Jim Platt were on international duty for Northern Ireland at the British Home Championship, and were integral to Northern Ireland winning the tournament outright for the first time. They followed rest of the team on the long flight to Tokyo a few days later.
Boro kicked off their tournament against the Japanese national team. Japan were not yet the regional powerhouse they would become (and yet to qualify for an international tournament), so it was somewhat surprising when striker Nobutoshi Kaneda (who played for the Sunday-League-sounding Nissan Motors) gave the hosts the lead.
This setback was short-lived. Up stepped David Hodgson – whose goalscoring exploits never really set Teesside alight – who struck twice, including a stunning winner which cannoned off the underside of the bar to give Boro a 2-1 win and a perfect start to the competition.
This meant that Middlesbrough needed just a point against Argentinos Juniors to win their group. Instead they contented themselves with walloping the South American side 4-0. Goals came from the Yugoslavian forward Janković (beginning a rich vein of form which would see him top score for Boro the next season), another from Hodgson, Billy Ashcroft, and dogged forward Billy Woof (sorry).
To be fair to the Argentinians, they were smack bang in the middle of their league season and likely sent a reserve team, but I’m guessing the Boro players kept that quiet when relaying their heroics on the phone to loved ones that evening.
On to Nagoya by bullet train for the semi-final against China, who’d recently re-emerged onto the international fray after years of boycotting FIFA for Taiwan-related reasons. They were no match for a battle-hardened Boro side fresh from a top-flight season. I’m sure local lad Mark Proctor always dreamed about scoring in the Kirin Cup as a boy, and he achieved this dream to put the hosts ahead. Boro completed a comfortable 3-1 win with goals from Graeme Hedley and David Shearer.
It was back to Tokyo’s National Stadium for the final, and a chance for Middlesbrough to get their hands on their second trophy in five years (after their 1975 Anglo-Scottish Cup triumph). In their way stood Espanyol of Spain, a team which included former Madrid and Spain forward Marañón, as well as the talented Paraguayan international Morel.
Boro played a high-tempo game, repeatedly nicking the ball from the dallying Spaniards, and it was through one of these dispossessions that the Teessiders took the lead. Shearer harried the Espanyol right-back into a mistake before drilling a ball across for the onrushing Craig Johnston to belt past the keeper to make it 1-0.
Both teams were creating plenty of chances, but as the game progressed it was Boro hanging on; only Jim Platt’s goalkeeping heroics denied the waves of Spanish attacks. He could do nothing about the equaliser though; a fine flowing move from the left, tapped in by Marañón. 1-1.
There was high drama in the dying moments of the game. A diving header from Espanyol bounced off the post and was smothered by a grateful Platt. “I think it might’ve crossed the line,” he sheepishly told me. “I grabbed it quick and kicked it down the the field. They were claiming it was a goal.”
The referee was having none of it. It’s hard to tell on the replay, but Boro were riding their luck.
In the end it came down to penalties. Boro have built up an unusually good shootout record over the years (7-2 by my reckoning), perhaps kick-started by winning a cup on their first one. The veteran Jim Platt was the hero again, saving two of the Espanyol spot-kicks. This left captain Tony McAndrew to slot home the winner and pick up Middlesbrough’s only overseas trophy.
Interesting fact: 66.6% of the cups Middlesbrough have won since turning professional have been named after beers.