It’s finally here! The brand new Carling Premiership starts today, Irish League football is back! This is the start of eight months of hope and despair, unbridled joy and total heartbreak, excitement and dread and I for one can’t wait!
The summer has seen clubs busy in the transfer market with some bringing in more players than others -Oran Kearney at Coleraine has brought in 11 (!) players, five of whom are from his previous club Limavady United. Others have been slightly more modest in their buying, Glentoran have brought in only three players but in Carson, Boyce and Hogg they have chosen wisely. The Glens have also brought through a wealth of young talent from their Academy, a decision which seems to be paying off.
Linfield boosted their hopes of winning the league for the 51st time with the signing of Rory Patterson who is home after a spell at Plymouth Argyle. Leon Knight eventually resigned for Coleraine in a saga that seemed to drag on all summer, after a trial with Swindon, Knight stated he’d like to play for Glentoran. That move looked set to happen when FIFA Goal of the Year nominee Matty Burrows left Glentoran for Spain. Knight however got a new contract at Coleraine and this week Gary Hamilton came back into the Glentoran fold after taking a wage cut, he spent last season out on loan at Glenavon.
Carrick Rangers will make their first appearance in the top league since 1995 today when they take on Cliftonville at Solitude, easy introduction it isn’t! Former Cliftonville player Tommy Breslin has taken over the reigns at the north Belfast club after the sacking of Eddie Patterson. Breslin has assembled a good squad with Martin Donnelly and John Convery among those joining the Reds. An early start for pre season, games against decent opposition and good preparation could see the Reds surpise with most having Linfield and Crusaders down as 1st and 2nd.
Both Linfield and Crusaders do have very strong squads though. It’s been a whirlwind summer for the Crues as Seaview was turned into a sparkling all seater stadium complete with new changing rooms and floodlights. The Shore Road Brazilians then drew Fulham in Europe and welcomed the London club to Seaview before travelling to Craven Cottage for the return leg. Unfortunately they were beaten 7-1 on aggregate but what an experience for an Irish League club!
With the likeable Stephen Baxter in charge you get the feeling anything is possible at Crusaders. Baxter has been sensible with the players he has brought in over the summer – Leeman, from Glentoran, Gargan, from Donegal Celtic, Adamson and O’Neill both from Dungannon Swifts are added to an already strong squad.
There hasn’t been too much transfer activity over at Portadown where it’s been pretty quiet all summer. Hogg, McCullough and Cawley all left the club with Tomelty and Kingsberry arriving at Shamrock Park. Perhaps that’s the way McFall is planning on going about the season, quietly working their way up.
Ballymena United have seen plenty of players arrive and leave. Costello, Aaron Black and Teggart are good signings. They will however miss Albert Watson and Michael Smith who got a move across the water to Bristol Rovers. Roy Walker will be hoping to make the top six before the split but it could be a struggle.
Glenavon are another club which has seen a host of players come and go. Kevin Kelbie is a great signing but they will miss Costello and Hamilton who spent last season on loan on Mournview Park. The club has signed five players from Newry City after they were relegated last season but it may not be enough to see them avoid being on the wrong end of the split.
With talk of clubs challenging for the league title come talk of clubs who could be fighting for survival. Many will point to Carrick Rangers as a newly promoted club who may struggle to stay up, especially with the costs involved in competing at the top level. Their biggest signing may well prove vital in their bid to stay up however. In Chris Keenan who signed from Crusaders they have a talented goalkeeper with plenty of experience. The club have also just signed former U19 Slovakian goalkeeper Maros Valko. Manager Stephen Small has been with the club since 2006, having led them to the premier league he’ll not want them going straight back down.
Donegal Celtic could also be involved in the fight to stay up with two of their signings being players who have come out of retirement (Robert Robinson and Paul Bradley). Other signings came from lower leagues while three of their players have retired or been released (Mark Dickson, Aiden McVeigh and Declan Brown).
Lisburn Distillery could also find themselves fighting relegation, if they’re slow to start as was the case last season they could be in trouble. The return of Gawley from Glentoran is good news but Distillery have seen more outs than ins over the summer, the retirements of Matthews and Ferguson won’t help their case.
Similarly Dungannon Swifts have seen a wealth of talent leave the club and be replaced by just two signings – McGerrigan and Campbell, both of Armagh City. Although capable of causing upsets the loss of Adamson and McIllmoyle among others could make it that bit more difficult for the Swifts this season.
I know I’ve neglected this blog recently (blame uni work) but the season has come to end and with it, sadly so has an era. Glentoran FC announced on Tuesday that their captain, legend and all round good guy Paul Leeman was being released.
A mixture of anger, sadness and disgust swept through the Glentoran support. ‘Leeper’ is a Glenman through and through and has led the team with pride and passion, the guy bleeds red, green and and given his all and more for Glentoran Football Club. He’s also one of the nicest fellas you could meet, nothing is ever too much of problem.
Leeman is the fourth generation of his family to have played for Glentoran FC. He was signed up to play for the Colts by Paul Kirk and made his first team debut in April 1996. Fast forward 15 years and Leeper has amassed 597 appearances for the club he grew up supporting not to mention an impressive collection of League, Irish Cup, League Cup, County Antrim Shield and Gold Cup winners medals.
Think of Glentoran and you think of Paul Leeman, many of us younger fans can’t remember a time when Leeper wasn’t in the team. The past 15 years have seen vast changes in the Irish league, some cracking games, memorable European adventures, fantastic Irish Cup final days, heart stopping title clinching games, Morgan Day, managers come and go, the club nearly collapsing, Leeper has been there for it all, a constant and steadying presence in times of unbelievable highs and some depressing lows so going into next season without him is going to be strange. It’s not only the end of era but the realisation that we’re growing up, for a lot of us Saturdays during our childhoods were spent watching Leeman marshall the defence at the Oval and grounds around Northern Ireland.
Sadly the club isn’t well off financially and we’re having to let go of a lot of players.
Plenty has been written about what a fine servant Paul Leeman was to Glentoran FC, this is just my own wee tribute to one of my heros. Glentoran FC won’t be the same without you Leeper but you’ve given us some fantastic memories, the Live Your Dream games at the Oval will always been one of my favourite memories and helping out at your Testimonial events was an honour. I won’t be alone in wishing him all the best for the future and hoping we still see him and his family around the Oval.
Number 5 and your captain, Paul Leeman! Pride of East Belfast
Once upon a time in East Belfast a young footballer from the Cregagh estate was turned down by his local club, Glentoran FC. He was told he was too small to ‘make it’. That young player was George Best and he went on to become one of the greatest players the world has ever seen.
George Best captivated audiences on and off the pitch. On it, he did the impossible and made it look easy, off it he was idolised by men, women and children, football supporters and those who had no interest in the game at all. Those privileged enough to have seen him play ‘live’ tell of the beauty of his football and how they’ll never forget seeing the magic he created. Most of us have to make do with grainy footage from the 1960s and 70s to see just how special this player was.
Long before the days of Beckham and Rooney, ridiculous wages, wall to wall Sky Sports footage, players living in their own little worlds surrounded by a ring of steel and going down at the slightest touch (and sometimes no touch!) there was proper football and George Best. George Best played at a time where the state of the art facilties we see in the Premiership weren’t even a distant dream, when tackles resembled GBH and when the pitches were a mess but he stood out from the rest. Imagine George Best playing in the Premiership today with all the facilities on offer!
George Best is best known for his time at Manchester United where he became an icon all over the world. Perhaps his most famous moment came in 1968 when he won the European Cup with the club and was named European Player of the Year. United played Benfica in that game and won 4-1. Earlier in the competition Best’s local club, Glentoran FC came up against Benfica. In one of the clubs most famous games the Glens drew 1-1 with Eusebio inspired Benfica at the Oval in Belfast before becoming the first team to go out of the competition based on the away goals rule when they drew 0-0 at the Estadio da Luz in the return fixture. A story I’ve heard at the Oval from some of the older guys goes that when the Glens played Benfica at the Oval George Best was in the Main Stand watching, they like to think that Manchester United winning the Cup with the help of Best was George’s revenge for them sending the Glens out of the Cup.
Best did eventually don the red, green and black of Glentoran in a friendly against Manchester United in 1982. The game at the Oval was to celebrate Glentoran’s centenary. George’s football career took him to clubs in South Africa, the USA, Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Austrailia. Best also won 37 Northern Ireland caps and produced some wonderful displays in the green shirt, unfortunatley he never got to perform on the biggest stage – the World Cup.
George Best had an unimaginable talent and character but he battled the demons of alcholism which sadly contributed to his death at just 59 on November 25th 2005, five years ago today. His off the pitch antics were much publicised and criticised but as he wanted he’s remembered for his football. George was brought home and buried in Roselawn in the Castlereagh hills which overlook the Cregagh estate where it all began for him. His funeral was held at Stormont and over 100,00 people lined the route from his home in Burren Way to Parliament buildings to say goodbye to a local legend who put our wee country on the map for a good reason.
Maradona good, Pele better, George Best.
A week ago I woke up to a text from my friend, a fellow Glentoran supporter telling me that the club were being threatened with administration. We all know the Glens have debt but news like that still leaves you with that awful punched in the stomach feeling. It’s the kind of news every football fan dreads. I haven’t written anything about it until now, probably because the thought of what could happen to our club if we do go into administration is too horrible to consider.
Formed in 1882 Glentoran is one of the oldest clubs on the island of Ireland. Glentoran football club is steeped in a rich and wonderful history, it’s knitted into the fabric of East Belfast. As important to the East as the Shipyard, Shorts, Geordie Best, Van Morrison, Billy Bingham and the Blanchflower brothers. The Oval stands proudly as part of East Belfast’s iconic skyline along with the Samson and Goliath cranes of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard where so many generations of Glenmen earned a wage building some of the finest ships ever to set sail. The Shipyard has near enough fallen silent along with the Ropeworks, once such a big part of East Belfast. And now Glentoran FC, the Pride of East Belfast, is under threat.
The thought of losing Glentoran Football Club doesn’t bear thinking about. The club has been the source of so much joy, and heartache, for generations of people from East Belfast and further afield. Too many people in Northern Ireland dismiss the Irish League without giving it a chance, prefering the glamour of the English Premiership or La Liga. Well frig that! Give me a Saturday standing on a terrace in Dungannon, Coleraine or Newry or a midweek trip to Portadown or Ballymena any day over having to sit where you’re told in a stadium with no character watching a load of overpaid egotisical brats, Wayne Rooney I mean you.
When I’m home from University, and usually it’s a trip home to watch the Glens, I sometimes walk the 15 minutes from my house down to the Oval, a walk I took every other week before I could drive. When you reach the bottom of the Belmont Road over the roofs of the terrace houses packed into the streets off Pim’s Avenue the huge green structure of the Oval’s main stand comes into sight, the towering cranes of Harland and Wolff just a bit further away. This is when the excitement starts to mount. On down Pim’s Avenue, passing a blueman who never seems to go to games but just stands ready to dish out abuse to passing Glens fans, and on to Connsbrook Avenue before turning on to Parkgate Avenue and Mersey Street. Glens fans come pouring out of the streets that surround Mersey Street, over the bridge and the songs being blasted out over the tannoy can be heard. A right turn past the church into Parkgate Drive and there it is, the Oval, red, green and black, towering over the surrounding houses and the old Mersey Street Primary School, chitter chatter from the fans making their way down the street and the clink of the turnstyles, the familiar and friendly face of Robert Hill, who sadly passed away last month, with his wee tin collecting for the Cedar Foundation. Beyond the turnstyles and over the music the programme sellers can be heard shouting “programme ‘o the match” in thick Belfast accents, the familiar voice of Gil comes over the tannoy to announce the teams. Taking my seat in the upper deck of the Main stand or on the terrace of the Sydenham end for the teams running out there is always a surge of pride. It may sound cheesy but it’s like home. The banter flows freely, hearts are frequently in mouths at close calls, the abuse at opposition players and managers knows no bounds and when the Glens score the sheer unadultered joy is a feeling that would be worth millions if it could be bottled.
Glentoran Fc have given me some of my best memories, I’m sure other fans will agree. Boxing Day 2007, live on Sky Sports, Michael Halliday popped up with the winner against Linfield at the Oval. Best birthday present ever! I was sat in the family stand with friends and will never forget Leeper and Nicky running towards us roaring in celebration, fists clenched and arms raised in victory at the sound of the final whistle. Another win over the Blues, Morgan Day, 23rd April 2005, who could forgot that game, the injury time winner and going on to lift the Gibson Cup at Seaview the week after. The 08/09 season which saw the title race go right to the wire with the Glens winning the last game of the season against Cliftonville at the Oval to claim the Gibson Cup again. The Oval was packed that day and I remember arriving to find the queue at the turnstyles stretching the length Parkgate Drive and up Mersey Street. The excitement and anticapation that day could be felt throughout East Belfast. Just about the only proper father daughter time I’ve spent with my dad has been watching the Glens. Trips to watch pre season friendlies against the likes of Killymoon Rangers. With him being born in Lurgan and having watched Glenavon as a boy before moving to the Holylands in south Belfast I’ve dragged him along to a few Glentoran v Glenavon games and I love it, just as thousands of kids have enjoyed watching the Glens their old man. The cross border trips to watch the Glens compete in the Setanta Cup have also provided some great memories. Drogheda away in the semi final in 2008 on a week night, we won that game to go through and play Cork in the Final in Cork, another great trip despite the result. Of course there’s also the Irish Cup Final days, these are always that extra bit special, remember the 1996 Cup Final and Glen Little’s winning goal? And Michael Halliday’s winning goals against Linfield in 2001 and Coleraine in 2004.One of my best memories came in 2007. It’s been a pleasure to witness some great games of football at the Oval and around the country in my 22 years. As part of Paul Leeman’s Testimonial year I played in one of the ‘Live your Dream’ games. I can honestly tell you that if I had of died the next day I would have died happy! To play alongside Leeman and John Devine and against Jim Cleary at the Oval where so many legends, not just of the Irish League but of International football, have played was unbelievable.
Glentoran FC are known as the people’s club. Above the tunnel leading out on to the pitch at the Oval is a picture of the Glentoran crest, the motto is Le Jeu Avant Tout, the game before everything. Under the crest is a quote from former player/manager John Colrain made in 1967, one of the club’s most successful years. It reads: “The secret of Glentoran’s success is sacrificing individual ability for the sake of teamwork and all round team effort.” In the week since the news came through about the threat of administration two groups, ‘Save Glentoran’ and ‘Spirit of ’41’ have been set up to try and get the club out of this situation and fundraisers have been organised. I spent manys a cold Sunday morning down at the Oval with the guys from the Glentoran Foundation who put their various skills together to do jobs around the club for free. We painted, renovated toilets, fixed leaky roofs and created a family stand. Someone even thought it would be a good idea to let me help with the roof in that stand, thankfully it hasn’t caved in yet. I loved those Sunday mornings, the crack was mighty. That’s the spirit that exists at Glentoran Football Club, everyone, coaches, players, club officials and supporters all muck in when the club is in need. It’s that spirit which will see us through this latest crisis.
Before the ‘Sunday club’ I used to go to games alone. Going to an all girls school there weren’t too many of my friends wanting to spend their Saturdays travelling the length and breadth of Northern Ireland watching Irish League football. At the Oval I used to sit in the lower deck of the Main stand with the auld fellas. I loved their stories, they’d seen it all, the night the first time a team visited in a European competition in the form of Real Zaragoza, the night we drew with a Eusebio inspired Benfica team, the exploits of the Detroit Cougars that same season, the night Juventus came to East Belfast, the day George Best finally donned the famous red, green and black in a game against Manchester United at the Oval and tales passed down to them of Vienna Cup success in 1914. They told of the old days of the Irish League, running battles in the Shed, the trips to grounds up and down the country by any means necessary at the height of the Troubles, the players who became legends for the club. They hurled the best abuse too, political correctness, what’s that?! Sadly some of those old timers are no longer with us along with others who were taken before their time but they all left their mark on the club.
In 1941 the German bombers came and destroyed Belfast and with it the Oval. Not even the playing kit survived. The Oval was full of water from the Connswater river. The Main stand a twisted wreckage, mangled beyond recognition, the terraces in pieces and records destroyed. The Oval, home to Glentoran since 1892 was in bits. A vote was taken on the future of the club and despite the fact that the club had nothing the vote was for Glentoran to carry on. Lisburn Distillery kindly allowed the use of their Grosvenor Road ground and the Glens played in kits belonging to Distillery and Crusaders. The Glens finished third that season. The ‘Back to the Oval’ fund was set up. While the Oval remained a pond, a playground for the children of East Belfast, the people of East Belfast worked hard to get the club home. On August 20th 1949 the Glens returned home to the Oval. That first game back was against Linfield in the City Cup. It’s said that women and children, some of whom hadn’t witnessed football at the Oval, came out on to the streets to watch as the men flocked back to the Oval, 25,000 of them (pre Health and Safety). After eight long years and a lot of hard work the Glens were home and this is where the newly formed ‘Spirit of ’41’ got it’s name.
This is why Glentoran Football Club will not die! There is too much history, it is too much a part of East Belfast and the supporters care too much to let it happen. Hitler and the German Luftwaffe couldn’t defeat us in 1941 and we sure as hell won’t let the taxman defeat us in 2010! Get yourselves down to the Oval early tomorrow for the rally to show your support for the club before the game against Distillery. BLESS ‘EM ALL!!
As I lay upon, my bed last night,
I fell into a dream,
I dreamt the European Cup,
Was one by a Belfast team,
And the Newtownards Road!
Like the 12th day of July,
Oh and what a sight, it was to see,
The Glens go o marching by,
Red, Green and Black, upon my neck,
The colours I know well,
And you can bet, a big rosette,
Was pinned to my lapel,
For we’ll shout and scream,
For our wee team,
Till our hearts begin to burn,
So f*** the rest, for we’re the best,
There’s only one Glentoran
There was a break from League action this weekend as teams competed in the third round of the Co-op Insurance Cup. Ards, Institute, Loughgall and Carrick Rangers, all from the Championship, were the representives from the lower leagues still in the competition.
Carrick Rangers were the visiters to Shamrock Park as they looked to shock Premiership side Portadown and it nearly happened. The Ports took the lead on 50 minutes through Tim Mouncy but just four minutes later Aaron Harmon grabbed an equaliser for Carrick. Carrick came so close to taking the game to extra-time but Richard Leckey grabbed a late winner for Portadown in the 85th minute to send them through to the next round.
Ballymena United saw off Ards at the Showgrounds with a 3-1 win over the nomads of Irish League football. Ards are still without a home ground, a sad situation for a club with so much wonderful history. An Ards own goal from Gary Spence put Ballymena ahead in the 23rd minute. United could have made it 2-0 soon after when they were awarded a penalty for Darren Devine handball but Gary McCutcheon failed to hit the back of the net. Sam Devine then equalised for Ards on 33 minutes. Ballymena had to wait until the the 80th minute for their next goal, coming through Richard Gibson before Michael Smith finished the game off in the 87th minute to make it 3-1.
Coleraine and Donegal Celtic played out an exciting tie at the Showgrounds with Coleraine coming away with a 3-2 win. Leon Knight made it three goals in two games for his new club Coleraine with the first goal in the 26th minute. Just two minutes later Ciaran Gargan struck to level the score with a fanastic free kick. Darren Boyce put the Bannsiders ahead again in the 48th minute after a bad clearance from Declan Brown but Ryan Henderson made it 2-2 with his volley hitting the back of the net a minute later. Coleraine’s Mark Mukendi was sent for an early bath in the 57th minute by referee Brian Turkington after picking up a second yellow card for a foul on Henderson. Darren Boyce made it a brace and grabbed the win for Coleraine in the 88th minute.
Crusaders took on Loughgall at Seaview and were given a game by the Championship side. Davy Rainey put the Crues ahead in the 40th minute before Loughgall were awarded a penalty in the 54th minute for David Magowan’s foul on Shay McGerrigan. Loughgall’s Dean Smith stepped up and put the ball into the back of the net for an equaliser. Martin Donnelly can claim the winning goal for Crusaders after Jordan Owens’ shot deflected into the net off him in the 74th minute.
Cliftonville got a late winner against Glenavon to go through despite playing most of the game with ten men. Glenavon took the lead at Mourneview Park in the 10th minute through Kyle Neill who was on hand to slot home a saved penalty shot. Cliftonville ‘keeper John Connelly was judged to have taken Tony Grant down in the box, Grant stepped up to take the penalty which Connelly saved but Neill was there to grab the goal. Just three minutes later Ciaran Caldwell was sent off by referee Raymond Crangle after a foul on Mark Haughey. Cliftonville were awarded a penalty in the 24th minute when Kieran O’Connor was brought down by Willo McDonagh in the box. Chris Scannell stepped up and made no mistake in hitting the back of the net to equalise. The game was heading for extra-time when the Reds were given a free kick for another foul on O’Connor. Barry Johnston whipped the ball in and it was Paul McVeigh who got the final touch to give Cliftonville the win.
Lisburn Distillery travelled to the Riverside Stadium for their cup tie against Institute and came away with a 3-0 win. Gary Browne put the visitors ahead on 18 minutes. Insitute gave Distillery a game in the first half coming close to scoring a couple of times through Eddie McIntyre and Declan Divin. However, two goals from Gary Thompson in the 54th and 56th minutes of the second half killed the game off.
There was a bit of a shock at Newry Showgrounds as the home team put League leaders Linfield out after the game went to penalties. Linfield took the lead on 19 minutes after Michael Gault connected with Curtis Allen’s corner. Newry equalised just before half time when Alan Davidson slotted home in the 39th minute after Cullen Feeney’s shot had been saved. After extra-time failed to bring anymore goals Newry won 4-3 on penalties.
All is not well off the pitch for Glentoran with the East Belfast club threatened with adminstration but on it they continue to impress. A 5-1 win over Dungannon Swifts saw the Glens sail through to the quarter finals of the CIS Cup. Matty Burrows got his name on the scoresheet again on 37 minutes from close range after a shot from Andy Waterworth was saved, the only goal in a slow first half. The second half saw the Glens make it 2-0 in the 69th minute after Swifts defender Adam McMinn messed up an attempted clearance from another Burrows shot. Glentoran substitute Johnny Black made it 3-0 on 78 minutes before Conor Forker grabbed a goal for the Swifts in the 83rd minute. Glentoran sealed the win with goals from Daryl Fordyce in the 87th minute and Neal Gawley a minute later.
Coleraine’s newest signing, the much travelled Leon Knight, 28, is set to make his debut for the Bannsiders today against Glenavon at Mourneview Park.
London born Knight started his football career at Chelsea where he signed as a trainee, making one appearance in the UEFA Cup against Levski Sofia. He then spent time on loan at QPR, Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton and Hove Albion before joining Brighton on a permanent deal in 2003. Since then has Knight played for various English and Scottish teams, the most recent being Queen of the South. After a move to Conference side Darlington fell through Knight received international clearance to play for Coleraine in the Irish League.
With a wealth of experience the former England U19 and U20 international is bound to be a great addition to the Coleraine squad.
Read what Leon Knight has to say about the move here Coleraine FC