Today marks 23 years since Cliftonville welcomed South Korea to Solitude for one of the most memorable – and unlikely – encounters in the Club’s modern history.
As anyone who follows the Reds’ Official Twitter account will be well aware, one of the most interesting aspects of our social media output is the ‘On This Day’ feature which chronicles events significant or otherwise from the archives since 1879.
One notable event which merits further examination was this very day in 1996 when Cliftonville, seeking quality opposition as they prepared for their first European foray since 1979, played host to a Korean side that was first and foremost gearing up for the Olympic Games in the United States but also had one eye on shaping their squad for the World Cup they would host alongside Japan six years later.
Organised with the assistance of Chairman Jim Boyce, the game attracted a healthy crowd of supporters from both sides, with boss Marty Quinn – whose men were little more than a week away from welcoming Belgian giants Standard Liege in the InterToto Cup – explaining at the time: “I recently contacted Sligo Rovers, who are also in the InterToto, about the possibility of a game but they were unable to accommodate us because they have lost a lot of players during the close season.
“The match is an exciting challenge for myself and the players. This will be a new ball game for us in many ways, but I see it as ideal preparation for our forthcoming InterToto Cup games.
“The South Koreans will be formidable opposition, who will be out to impress before next month’s Olympic Games, but it will be an insight into what level of opposition we can expect in our European games.”
The Reds, playing in their navy-green away strip, got off to a disastrous start when, with just seven minutes on the clock, midfielder Shaun Strang diverted a cross into his own net. The Scotsman almost atoned shortly afterwards, however, when he provided the delivery from which new signing Barry O’Connor blazed a shot wildly off target.
The friendly nature of the occasion counted for little just before the interval when, after trading punches with James McDonagh, striker Son Hong Hwang was sent off for spitting at referee Herbie Barr – who had previously been content to let the sparring pair off with a mere warning but, to avoid tensions escalating, suggested that McDonagh be substituted, with Seamus Heath coming on in his stead.
The half-time break heralded a raft of changes by the visitors, whose superior fitness saw them begin to exert control over proceedings, with Cliftonville goalkeeper Dean Smyth keeping the score down with an inspired performance.
He could do nothing on 64 minutes, however, when the Koreans doubled their lead courtesy of Ki Nam Kim’s well-executed half-volley.
Soon later, a Sang Chul Yoo strike was well saved by Smyth, only for Yoon Yeol Choi to follow up and make it 3-0 with the rebound.
Kim claimed his second of the night with two minutes left on the clock ahead of Choong Kyoon Park completing the scoring with the fifth in injury-time.
South Korea – who had in the previous weeks defeated Juventus 4-0, AC Milan 3-2 (when the decisive goal was scored by none other than McDonagh’s foe Hwang, the current Manager of FC Seoul) and lost 4-3 to Cliftonville’s Euro opponents Stuttgart – went on to finish third in Group C at the Summer Olympics, missing out on qualification for the knockout stages on goal difference to Ghana, whom they had defeated 1-0 prior to a scoreless draw with group winners Mexico and a 2-1 loss to bottom-placed Italy.
The Reds, meanwhile, were overcome 3-0 at home by Standard Liege, drew 1-1 with Hapoel Haifa (when Strang became the Club’s first ever Euro goalscorer), were defeated 4-1 by Stuttgart at Solitude and fell to a 4-0 loss against Aalborg in Denmark.
Cliftonville: Smyth, Hill, McDonagh, Tabb, Strang, Collins, McCann, O’Neill, O’Connor, Stokes, Donnelly. Subs: Heath (for McDonagh, 40 mins), Davey (for Tabb, 75 mins), McNamara (for McCann, 75 mins), Cavanagh (for O’Connor, 79 mins), McGlinchey (for O’Neill, 75 mins), Feehan (for Stokes, 79 mins)