A Tale of One City: Belfast

A Tale of One City: Belfast

This feature is part of A Tale of One City

Even though a meeting between the ‘Big Two’ in Northern Ireland was always a hotly-contested affair, this one had even more of an edge and tension to it. The Belfast sun was beaming on a pleasant spring afternoon when the east of the city transformed into a festival of Northern Irish footballing colours.

Flocking through the streets, it was impossible not to be bombarded with a constant sight of black and green on one side, and royal blue on the other. Impassioned supporters crammed into bars all across the east and south of the city as a titanic showdown between Glentoran and Linfield crept ever closer on a particularly charged Saturday afternoon. Glentoran’s stadium, The Oval, was absolutely heaving by the time 3pm came around. So busy, in fact, that the match officials decided to delay the game by 20 minutes as they awaited the final influx of fans.

Remarkably, the two clubs had faced each other on six previous occasions that season, but this was an entirely different beast. The atmosphere that electrified the city resembled the reigniting of an age-old rivalry that had lay dormant for years. The reality however, was that this depicted the apex of Northern Ireland’s most intense conflict.

The mathematical situation was simple. The Blues led the Northern Ireland Football League by a solitary point with two games left to play. Glentoran simply had to win. The permeations were enormous: a victory for David Jeffrey’s men would see the title remain in south Belfast. Even a draw would keep one hand on the trophy, but a defeat to their biggest rivals would spell disaster. A Glentoran victory would blow proceedings wide open, handing the momentum to Roy Coyle’s Glentoran.

Coyle was a Blues legend, incidentally, having managed them through a wonderfully decorated time in the club’s history that saw him clinch 31 trophies. This time, though, was completely different. There were no false illusions over where his allegiances lay on that fateful Saturday afternoon. His blood was a concoction of red, black and green, at a time when the blue had long left his body. Having tasted such glorious success with Linfield, Coyle’s overriding ambition was to emulate that across the city with their enemies.

So, there it was – set up for an almighty showdown the likes of which rarely came around in Northern Ireland. Two massive clubs, both guided by men whose contribution and stature in the local game could barely be measured, fought it out in the eleventh hour of a ding-dong battle for supremacy that had raged on all season. Twists and turns, thrills and spills, ecstasy and heartache.

It all boiled down to one potentially explosive 90 minutes inside The Oval. According to reports, 12,000 showed up to the ground that day to watch the game. To put that into context, when Glentoran beat Carrick Rangers 2-0 this season in what proved to be Eddie Patterson’s final game in charge, the attendance barely touched a thousand.

Of course, spectacles of this nature can always flatter to deceive, very often in the game of football. But this Glentoran-Linfield battle provided an exhilarating conclusion to an absorbing chapter in their rivalry – and a day Northern Irish football still hasn’t forgotten. For many, though, the memories that linger are laced with shame, embarrassment, regret and anger – not the emotions originally intended for this clash.

The game was played with a thrilling tempo and fluidity; you couldn’t take your eyes off it. The occasion was an arresting one, with both sides going gung-ho for glory. The breakthrough came for the home side in the 25th minute as Stephen Parkhouse erupted The Oval after competently firing home. For the big striker, who was deployed by Coyle in midfield, the emotions were powerful, having lost his mother just a few months previous.

The 23-year-old had handed the ascendancy to the hosts but their joy was about to be shattered when, less than ten minutes later, Paul McAreavey crashed home a brilliant effort from the edge of the area to pull the Blues back. 1-1 and the tension was mounting to near unbearable levels. Then came the game’s moment of magic.

Glentoran had endured a wave of Linfield attacks either side of half-time but it was the men in green who nudged themselves in front once again through Colin Nixon. His marauding run was spotted by Chris Morgan, who improvised with his back to the Linfield defence and back-heeled sumptuously into the path of Nixon, who slid the ball into the bottom corner, wheeling away in celebration. The Blues fans were fearing the worst, staring at the unthinkable – surrendering the title to the Glens.

Their pain had a twisted feel to it as the club had released Morgan the previous summer, deeming him surplus to requirements in the shadow of their prolific strikeforce consisting of Glenn Ferguson and Peter Thompson, with David Larmour a worthy man in reserve to push Morgan completely out of the picture. But if the long and storied history of Irish football has taught us anything, it’s that Linfield just can’t accept defeat.

Deploying route one in times of desperation and panic, goalkeeper Alan Mannus launched the ball into the stratosphere. Watching it like a hawk through the air, Thompson flicked it onto Larmour, who swivelled before burying the ball with a glorious snapshot and handing the jubilation back to those clad in blue in the terraces.

Pandemonium and dejection: the Glentoran players looked drained and dispirited, while their counterparts soaked up the moment knowing that they dealt a killer blow to their rival’s title aspirations. The league championship was staying at Windsor Park. That was until another beguiling twist in this memorable story of a football game.

That man Morgan felt he still had unfinished business with his employers, even though he’d provided a glimpse of what they’d let go with his improvised assist for Nixon. That wasn’t enough for him; he needed to be the hero. This was his to be his finest hour. With the Linfield nerves leaving the odd crack in the defence, Morgan crept up at the far post completely unmarked to turn in a rebound after Mannus could only parry a header away.

The match became known as ‘Morgan Day’. For fans, though, when such words are uttered, their minds are not cast back to that striker who turned out for the Glens and sunk Linfield hearts. No, Morgan Day has a much darker, shameful implication.

What should have been a joyous parade for Glentoran descended into a nightmare scenario when sections of both fan bases embroiled themselves in horrific scenes of violence. That day came so close to constructing the ultimate advertisement for Northern Irish football. Instead, the news reports would focus on the post-match events and not the intoxicating tale of redemption and revenge that occurred on it.

Following the game, Linfield and Glentoran fans began hurling missiles and bottles at each other as the excitement and love for football evaporated as the red mist trumped common sense. Commentator Adrian Logan said of it all: “Some of the fans are on the pitch not too happy and these are scenes we could do without to be honest.” He was right.

The local game in Northern Ireland has struggled its way through history at times, without over-zealous fans making it worse for everyone. As Glentoran supporters celebrated in the stands, the Linfield masses began throwing objects. The Linfield players tried to intervene, hoping that their presence and pleading would act as a deterrent. It didn’t. Of course, it was only a mindless minority that ruined the day for everyone else. Several hundred Linfield fans exited The Oval with minimal fuss that day, but were not followed calmly out the door by their comrades.

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The Big Two, being the dominant forces in local football for so long, have inevitably played out many more games with the stakes as high as Morgan Day, of course. They’ve contested several cup finals and there’s nothing better than stoking the fires of a rivalry than a cup final.

One of the most infamous Linfield-Glentoran meetings in the Irish Cup was in 1983, when the two sides fought it out at Windsor Park. After a decade of disappointment for Glentoran, they had finally managed to book a place in the final once again. Linfield had been imperious in their cup run but Glentoran had a feared strikeforce up front in Ron Manley and Gerry Mullan. Indeed, it was Mullan who had set the Glens on their way to cup triumph, only for Lindsay McKeown to level things up and force a replay a week later back at The Oval.

That game had taken place despite serious concerns over safety. Overshadowing the game at Windsor and eclipsing the level of violence on Morgan Day, the rival sets of fans proceeded to kick the living daylights out of each other on the pitch, with some even using sticks and chairs as weapons. The footage available of that day is shocking.

The fence at Windsor proved to be woefully ineffective in stopping the fans jumping over and invading the field at full-time. The day after, Billy Drennan, the chief executive of the Irish Football Association, was quizzed on the news as to how this could happen and what measures would be taken to prevent a repeat in the future – a question made all the more pertinent by the fact that the two sides would walk out on to The Oval just days later for the replay.

Among the many dubious comments from Drennan during the interview, he stated that it was a “one-off” in Irish football. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Violence and hooliganism is something that has regrettably plagued the Big Two rivalry down the years. It’s amazing to think that Northern Ireland had been hailed as heroes in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, while local football was taking a massive step backwards a year later thanks to a small group of senseless fans. Glentoran eventually won the Irish Cup – but the investigation into the violence and furore surrounding it managed to push their elation down the pecking order in the news reports.

It’s important to remember that the Big Two rivalry shouldn’t be shaped or characterised by hooligans running amok on the pitch, but it’s difficult to fully divorce the football from the tearaways. Linfield have won the Northern Irish league an incredible 51 times in their history, adding 42 Irish Cups and nine league cups along the way. They’ve achieved the league and cup double an unprecedented 23 times, making them undoubtedly the most decorated club in the history of the domestic game.

Glentoran are also hugely successful, but their haul pales in comparison to that of their rivals. Twenty-three league titles, 22 Irish Cups and 15 Gold Cups look great on the walls of The Oval’s offices, but they’re afraid of being referred to as inferior or second-best. To them, that’s unthinkable.

But despite the shower of trophies, there debacles like Morgan Day and the so-called ‘Irish League Day of Shame’ during the 1997-98 season, when rioting once again broke out after a game at Windsor that saw cars smashed up in the car park in more shameful scenes. The only refreshing comments that came after that particular episode were courtesy of Ted Brownlee, the Glentoran chairman. Acting as the official mouthpiece for the club in the wake of the incident, Brownlee was admirably forthright and apologetic. “We all have to put our hands up and take responsibility for this,” he said. Then, when asked if he had a message for the so-called Glentoran supporters who played a part in the violence, his response was a brilliantly blunt: “We don’t want ye.”

It was the perfect summation of everyone’s feelings on the hooliganism at Belfast games. It has always been something the game doesn’t need, something that’s held the league and the clubs back from projecting an image of progression and improvement, a sense of unity amid the sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Because the violence between Linfield and Glentoran fans is not one borne out of sectarianism.

Both clubs have a fan base made up majorly of Protestants. Glentoran, who benefitted from the folding of Belfast Celtic in the late 1940s in that they inherited a large amount of their supporters, do hold a small nationalist origin in a way, but the club is based in a staunchly Protestant area of east Belfast, while Linfield pride themselves on the Union Jack. There is no Catholic versus Protestant divide here; it’s hatred produced purely from a burning desire to be the greatest.

Linfield, the legendary sports journalist Malcolm Brodie once said, have always been the most hated club in Northern Ireland, simply because they have always been the best. It’s much like the lower clubs in England hating Manchester United and Liverpool for boasting a history packed with trophies.

Of course, any documentation of footballing rivalries in Belfast would be incomplete without mentioning the two other forces in the city: Crusaders and Cliftonville. The two clubs from north Belfast, who share both an intense rivalry with each other and with The Big Two, have managed to take some of the gravitas off the Linfield-Glentoran axis in Irish league football in recent years. Indeed, for the past three seasons, The Reds and Crues have ensured the league title has stayed in the north of the city.

Under Tommy Breslin, Cliftonville, the oldest club in Northern Ireland, established themselves as the unstoppable force, clinching two successive league titles in 2013 and 2014, playing some wonderful attacking football. Thanks to an attacking double-act -made in Irish football heaven – of Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley, the Reds blew everyone away with some breathtaking performances.

Crusaders, however, were building something big down on the Shore Road. At Seaview, Stephen Baxter was skillfully moulding his players into a title-contending entity. Indeed, the 2014-15 campaign was one to savour for Crusaders, winning the title comfortably by a 10-point margin and accumulating an enormous haul of 93 goals. Ripping defences open with consummate ease, Crusaders resembled the Linfield of the Coyle era, when they racked up six consecutive championships.

But it’s a sign of how the times have changed. Irish league football isn’t in the greatest health – far from it. Crusaders are still the best team in the league and occupy top spot in the current campaign but the Big Two rivalry couldn’t possibly be hyped up to the scale of Morgan Day or another titanic clash between Jeffrey and Coyle.

They were two monumentally important figures in the local game and since Jeffrey left Linfield in 2014, the club has been struggling to maintain that identity of being the best. Warren Feeney wasn’t able to win a league title in his year in charge before leaving to become the assistant of Newport.

Now they’re managed by Northern Ireland hero David Healy, who, in the early stages of his first-ever managerial role, is admittedly still adapting to being the man standing on the touchline in a suit, rather than running to it in celebration.

For Glentoran, it’s much worse. The club sacked Eddie Patterson in October after a poor run of results, a decision that was met with much criticism following back-to-back Irish Cup successes. Linfield are still in the running for the title this year, lying third and five points behind Crusaders, but Glentoran are struggling in mid-table and new manager Alan Kernaghan’s ambition to win the title by the end of next season seems overly-ambitious.

For years, the Big Two was irrefutable in being the marquee fixture in the Northern Irish calendar. But things are very different now. The other Belfast clubs have rose to prominence and challenged their city rivals to the point when a Linfield-Glentoran game traditionally played on Boxing Day just doesn’t arouse the same level of excitement and anticipation.

The rivalry has lost that managerial arms race between Coyle and Jeffrey and the games can no longer boast 12,000 like it did on Morgan Day. The ideal scenario for The Big Two would be a dramatic resurgence from Glentoran.

Oh how local football could benefit from a title showdown between Linfield and Glentoran under the floodlights at a revamped Windsor Park, minus the violence of course. Historically speaking, though, no two clubs in Northern Ireland can lay claim to having a rivalry as ferocious and extreme as Linfield and Glentoran. It remains the king of all in the history books.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11

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