Thursday 23 January 2020

Jaunt to Gaddafi's Libya was the trip of a lifetime for a combined St Pat's-Bohs side

A screen-grab of action from the 1989 game in Benghazi when a Libyan club faced a combined Bohs/St Pat’s XI.
A screen-grab of action from the 1989 game in Benghazi when a Libyan club faced a combined Bohs/St Pat’s XI.

Aidan Fitzmaurice

A group of Irish sports people frantically trying to change a bag full of Libyan currency into something more usable was a fittingly crazy end to one of the most bizarre chapters in League of Ireland history.

And the story of a trip by a combined Bohemians/St Patrick's Athletic side to Libya in 1989 has made it to the small screen, a documentary, In League With Gaddafi, being shown on RTÉ1 tonight.

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At the heart of the gripping tale was a simple game of football, a 1-1 draw between that Bohs/Pats XI and club side Al Ahly in Benghazi played in front of a crowd estimated at 50,000.

But around the trip there was a political row over the visit due to Libya's funding of the IRA, a link with the beef industry, a run-in (and near arrest) with the Libyan police over a late-night drinking den, that bag full of cash, and confusion, a lot of confusion.

One of the most confused parties were the Libyans themselves as they, somehow, thought the game was against the senior Ireland side which had played at Euro '88 just months earlier, and instead they got a squad combined of little-known League of Ireland footballers.

Some of the Irish party are convinced they met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at the game, even though that didn't happen.

Kevin Brannigan, the documentary maker, recalls how local media there wondered why Ronnie Whelan wasn't a member of the party which landed in Libya.

The game had its roots in the FAI Cup, as both of the clubs were knocked out at the first-round stage. With a free weekend, the clubs were approached about a trip to Libya, a chance to boost their coffers.

"We were offered a fee which was quite attractive because it was going to pay a couple of weeks' wages which was really important to us," Brian Kerr, joint manager of the side, along with Billy Young, recalls.

"But it also gave the players the opportunity to get some international experience in a totally different environment."

Getting paid was a problem: the Bohs/Pats party were given cash as they were about to leave but instead of payment in dollars they received Libyan dinars, effectively worthless outside of the country.

The money was, eventually, changed, in the short-term Bohs and Pats were able to pay wages, but long-term, memories of a trip of a lifetime were built.

In League With Gaddafi, RTÉ 1, tonight, 9.35.

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