In the fall of 1997, the University of Chicago men's soccer team completed its first ever pre-season trip abroad to Scotland. The team toured for a total of thirteen days which included six matches against semi-professional and amateur teams in and around the cities of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The idea for the tour had come from Coach O'Connor's days at Dartmouth where he had gone over twice with then Coach Bobby Clark, a former Aberdeen and Scottish International Goalkeeper. The Chicago team decided this was something they wanted to do and why not on a year following their NCAA Final Four appearance the best season in their history. Fund raising ensued which included a raffle in which the grand prize was $10,000! The players ended up paying approximately $600 per person which covered airfare, accommodations, local transportation, food and a few other things like tickets to professional games and assorted necessities.
The team began the pre-season in Chicago, training for three days on campus prior to their departure. After getting themselves prepared for their adventure, the players boarded an British Airways flight for Scotland via Heathrow Airport in England. At the end of a long flight from Chicago to Glasgow and then a bus ride to Aberdeen, the team settled in an experience they had been planning over a period of two years.
Based at the Hillhead Halls of Residence on the campus of Aberdeen University, the team trained in nearby Seton Park which was also one of the practice grounds for Scottish Premier team Aberdeen Football Club. The "Maroons" would get up, eat and practice in the mornings from 9:00 am - 11:00 am while at 10:00 am Aberdeens young "apprentice" professionals, some just 16 years old, would arrive early and set up training in preparation for AFC's practice from 10:30 am to noon. It was a fantastic opportunity for the UC boy's to watch the young and full time pros, some Scottish Internationals, train in the exact same environment as they were practicing in. many of the players stayed behind to watch and learn.
Of course one of the main reasons for the tour was to play, and play the "Maroons" did! The first match versus Highland League team Hall Russel United got the team off on a good foot as Neil Gordon '00 (Rye, NY) started his first career game in goal for Chicago in replacement of David Collar '00 (St. Charles, IL) who was suffering from a case of the stomach flu. Behind goals from Israel Roberts '99 (Cincinnati, OH) and Ben Dickey '98 (Sauk City, WI) the team won 2-1.
The second match of the tour was against Cove Rangers FC which was coached by Gary Welsh and Ian "Winkle" Taylor, friends of Coach O'Connors who helped to arrange the tour from their end. The game was played on a field in the country that was once an cow pasture after club officials made the decision to move the match out their 3,000 person stadium in order to protect it for upcoming Scottish Cup play. The game ended in a 2-2 draw on Israel Roberts second goal of the tour off a corner kick and friendly "own goal" from the hosts.
The very next day the team was out on the field again preparing for the toughest match of the tour versus Aberdeen FC's Under 18 squad. It was an eye opening experience and one which the team would not forget. The young "Dons" were playing their first match of the year versus an outside team and were composed of apprentice professionals, most of whom had signed professional contracts following their graduation from high school. Their team also included three Under 18 Scottish Internationals who would make a big impact. Although the score was only 1-0 Aberdeen at the interval, a second half barrage ensued and the "Maroons" saw the beauty and skill of a well oiled professional team. At the end of the day a 6-0 result did not do justice to the game Chicago played and experienced. There were many good lessons to be taken away and plenty to build on.
The team turned it around in the next game, beating the reserves of Second Division club Brechin City FC 2-1 on a late goal by Blake Eldridge '00 (Pennington, NJ). David Driscoll '99 (Helena, MT) had opened the scoring only to see BCFC equalize and set up Eldridge's dramatic winner. A disappointing 1-0 loss to Aberdeen's Lewis United precluded the final game of the tour which was being played against Queens Park Rangers, the oldest amateur club in Scotland. Glasgow is also the home of two of the oldest rival clubs in Europe, Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers. Originally scheduled to be played in the national ground, Hampden Stadium, the match was moved to the adjacent "Lesser Hampden" because of heavy rain in the morning. Prior to the match the team was treated to a tour or Hampden (pictured below) by Tommy Wilson, the organizer of the game, a friend of Coach O'Connors and member of the Scottish Football Association Developmental Staff. It was quite a thrill to hear the stories from Tommy, not only of the history of the stadium but also of his playing days in the Scottish Premier League and as a Scottish International.
"Lesser Hampden" turned out to be one of the best fields the UC players would ever see nor play on in their soccer lives. Against QPR the squad played its best game of the tour, tying 2-2 on goals by 1997 University of Chicago Team MVP Jon Malinoski '98 (Arlington Heights, IL) and Evan Persky '00 (Hanover, NH). It was a game that most observers believed Chicago should have won if not for a dubious late goal by the home team on penalty shot. Chicago finished with a respectable record of two wins, two losses and two ties.
The tour was not all about soccer as the players can attest. During the nearly two weeks in Scotland, the team had time to tour the seaside port of Aberdeen, take in the sights of the Scottish Highlands, eat a fish & chips dinner and even take a dip in the North Sea. In between the squad attended a Scottish Premier league game between Aberdeen and Dundee United. While at the game the team even had their photo taken for the following weeks game day program.
Having Aberdeen FC training just 200 yards away in Seton Park was a thrill as the team got a chance to observe the "young professionals" (many of whom they had played against during the tour) live the life of an apprentice. The young pros would come in in early, carrying the equipment and setting up the training field. The older full-time pro's followed sometime later in a bus and joined in on the session.
Rain canceled a scheduled best ball foursome golf tournament but "soccer golf" replaced the game that was created in Scotland. An end of the tour buffet dinner topped off the players stay in Aberdeen and they said goodbye to the Granite City.
At the end of the tour following the final game versus Queens Park, the team traveled to Edinburgh and stayed at the Universities halls of residence. After a much needed night of rest, the team awoke and took made a leisurely climb up "Arthur's Seat" a Edinburgh landmark located next to the University. The day was filled with a walk to the city and a tour of Edinburgh's famous castle. Finally, one of the most interesting and educational experiences of the tour occurred with the death of Britain's Princess Diana. The tragedy in Paris had occurred while the team was in the midst of the tour and stunned the people of Scotland. The UC student-athletes lived through a personal and political event which demonstrated the impact a monarchy can still have on it's people in today's political climate.
All in all the tour was a tremendous success. The experiences the players had both on and off the field will live with them for the rest of their lives.