Former Cork City player and manager John Caulfield. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Cork City player and manager John Caulfield. Photo: Sportsfile

It sound like a bad joke.

The one about the defender who was good enough to win a batch of caps for his country, including a European Championship qualifier win over a Southall/Rush era Wales side, but wasn’t good enough to play in the League of Ireland.

But that is just one element of the story that was Irish football’s brief, and unsuccessful, flirtation with Bulgarian soccer, a one-month wonder which saw four players from Bulgaria land at Cork City 30 years ago but leave, within a month, with no fond memories.

“It was a farce, a disaster,” says John Caulfield, Cork City manager until earlier this season and a City player back in 1989.

Sasho Borisov is now a top coach in Bulgaria

Sasho Borisov is now a top coach in Bulgaria

“There was a lot of hype in Cork when they signed, we were told that this was a real coup, signing four Bulgarian internationals. It didn’t work out that way.”

The seeds for the move were sown in September 1989, when Cork went behind the Iron Curtain to play Torpedo Moscow in the Cup Winners’ Cup.

A chat with their translator George Scanlan (a key figure in Andrei Kanchelskis’ career) and a meeting with some agents opened the door on a move to Ireland for some players from the eastern bloc.

And so in October ’89, four Bulgarians arrived in Cork: Sasho Borisov, Ilya Velichkov, Mario Vulikov and Stefan Vasiliev.

The move was unusual: while Hungary and Poland had opened up by October ’89 with major gaps in that Iron Curtain, Bulgaria was still stable and ruled by the dictator Todor Zhivkov, in charge of Bulgaria for 35 years, so the country was still under communism’s firm grip when the footballers left for Ireland.

The four did well in a trial game against UCC but they had a tough introduction to the real stuff, all four making their debuts in a game at home to Shelbourne, a 1-0  defeat for a Cork side who were in danger of relegation at the time.

Even worse, Cork were beaten by an own goal from debutant Borisov.

Three days later Cork were in Dublin, away to UCD, an unusually exotic game for a very beige League of Ireland, with three Hungarians in the UCD side and three of the four Bulgarian imports with City.

A clipping from the Irish Independent, back in 1989.

A clipping from the Irish Independent, back in 1989.

But the UCD trip was another defeat for Cork, who lost 2-1, and the experiment was soon over.

Doubts had emerged about the imports’ ability.

Upon arrival, the Cork Examiner reported that the quartet “had over 100 international caps between them” but only one, defender Borisov, was indeed an international.

“Borisov was a really good player, one of the other lads was ok, but the other two were very poor,” recalls Caulfield.

“We knew there was trouble when we met up to travel to Dundalk for a game. We met at the Imperial Hotel in Cork, the four Bulgarians were there but Noel O’Mahony, the manager, said he only wanted two to travel, the other two were to stay in Cork and they weren’t allowed on the bus.” 

O’Mahony had already voiced his concerns. “I am not too sure they like the physical side of the game but that’s the type of league the Premier Division in Ireland is and you have to be able to mix it to survive,” O’Mahony told the Cork Examiner before the Dundalk match.

“While I wouldn’t say that the whole experiment has backfired I must question the whole idea of bringing in total strangers to try and sort out our difficulties.”

John Caulfield, pictured in action (c) for Cork City against Dundalk's James Coll at Turner's Cross back in 1991.

John Caulfield, pictured in action (c) for Cork City against Dundalk’s James Coll at Turner’s Cross back in 1991.

The Bulgarian experiment finished after a 1-0 win at home to Drogheda in mid-November, and within days the four were gone, back to Bulgaria.

“They were not prepared to mix it and get involved in the physical side of the League of Ireland and that’s where things went wrong for us,” O’Mahony said at the time.

Three decades on, Caulfield accepts that the idea was not a success but he feels that blame is not one-way.

“First off, they had no English so there was no way of communicating with us,” says Caulfield.

“But also, the facilities here for training and matches were poor, at Cork City we were training out by the airport, under street lights, three evenings a week as we were part-time,” he said.

“These lads all came from a professional set-up in Bulgaria and the facilities here were below what they were used to. I am sure it was a nightmare for them. And it didn’t help that we were struggling at the time, we were a poor side, down the bottom of the table.

“I also think they were too old by the time they came here, from memory they were all in their 30s.

“If they had been in the right environment, with proper training facilities and a bit of help with the language it might have worked out.

“It was a bad time back in their home country, in October ’89 I am sure they just wanted to get out of Bulgaria and Ireland was a chance to get away.”

Online Editors

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