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Back to My Roots, An Afternoon of Irish League Football

Last Saturday Paul Vance reconnected with a once familiar soccer out-post.

Action from Saturday afternoon’s Danske Bank Irish Premiership match between Coleraine and Glentoran.

Coleraine Showgrounds. It had been a long time. Twenty years or more since I’d been to the tight little Bann-side venue. For no other reason than that it held appeal, a place well-suited to helping me embark on the latest in a lengthy chronicle of Glentoran-watching.

Just as well it gripped me. The grey skies necessitating floodlights right from the 3pm kick-off, were less welcoming, but at least it was dry.

The neat County Londonderry town was the destination on my first-ever train ride, back when young families vacationed in Portrush rather than the Costa del wherever. Never before had I travelled there by train from Bangor to watch a game of football.

But, today was the day. Trading Ulsterbus and the car for that matter, for the comparative luxury of Northern Ireland Railways and a little more leg-room proved to be a civilized decision made all the sweeter by the modern off-peak fare structure. Not even after the realization that my three travel companions, all 60+ and benefitting from free public transport countrywide, could dampen my satisfaction at NIR’s reasonable generosity.

There was even time to alight from the train at Lanyon Place (still Belfast Central to those at our stage of life) and nip into the station bar, where the menu on offer was Heineken, Heineken or Heineken, as the train trundled onto Great Victoria Street and back again to pick us up.

Surprisingly Tucker and I wouldn’t have known this little perk, but for the opportune meeting with Prince Marty of Ballymacarrett, now the King of Helen’s Bay, on the initial train-leg from Bangor.

Was a busy train from the seaside, as I suppose it must always be when Ulster Rugby has a home tie in the Heineken Cup, Harlequins the day’s visitors to Ravenhill.

Glentoran fans standing on covered terracing behind the goal watch their team on the attack.

It’s always been a tough one for the Glens up on the Causeway Coast, the venue once again the second-longest away league trip on the calendar, since Ballinamallard United’s relegation in 2018.

Not only in the days when the Bannsiders were mighty throughout much of the seventies with Dessie Dickson knocking them in for fun, Ivan Murray pulling the strings and Davy Jackson letting opposing centre-forwards know he was there, did the Glens and everyone else find the venue a difficult one to win points at. Coleraine were always capable at Ballycastle Road, even after their glory days had disappeared.

They’ve been resurgent, in recent times, mainly thanks to manager, Oran Kearney, whose minor miracle kept St Mirren in the Scottish Premier League last season.

Today however, the blue and white stripes looked like the sky, off-colour, grey, hungover perhaps after their 3-0 drubbing of Linfield in the midweek League Cup semi-final.

The white-shirted visitors were stealing the show, their football as alluring as their bright attire. As for the hosts, after all I’d heard about this great passing Coleraine team, I was surprised how the game was developing.

It was no surprise however when Glentoran starlet Paul O’Neill added a second to McDaid’s opener, the passion of a young lady behind us reaching high-pitched levels of hysteria. There were some harsh, none-too-feminine expletives. All directed at her favourites. Tough love in these parts apparently.

Her husband may not ever know this, but he was probably the luckiest man in Ireland on Saturday evening, for if Glentoran’s half-time lead had prevailed…

Anyhow the young would-be murderess’ passion was shared by those around us, minus the hysterics. A decent bunch, there was time for humour too…

“Who’s takin’ this free-kick?”

“McConaghie.”

“Ahhh. That’ll be a point for Galway then.” (as country drowl as you like).

Then there was the short fellow in the blue and white knitted hat who risked ridicule even from his own, as Coleraine won a set-piece in added time at the end of the first-half.

“C’mon Coleraine. This would be a great time to equalize.”

Except his team were two-down at the time, not one.

Robbie McDiad slots home to give Glentoran a 12th minute lead.

The last time I’d been to the Showgrounds, there was ramshackle covering on the terracing opposite the main stand, and none at either end. In a complete role reversal, now the ends were covered and the opposite reserved terracing not.

Thoughts cast back to a couple of memorable occasions at the ground, one involving Glentoran, one not.

A huge crowd had followed the Glens north up the A26 back in April ’88. No title for six years, a win this sunny spring day, the final round of the championship, would wrest the title away from eternal rivals, Linfield.

Young John Devine, a centre-back who would see service later in his career with Coleraine too, calmed Glentoran nerves, scoring from a first-half corner. Coleraine true to form were not just there to make up the numbers and did their best for the league’s integrity by pushing the Belfast side all the way. They had the temerity to equalize. The Gibson Cup could after all be heading back to Windsor Park.

That was without reckoning on Raymond Morrison, a dyed-in-the-wool Glenman, tough as teak in his team’s engine-room, a berth from where he contributed way more than his fair share of goals. None would ever be as important as the one he flicked in with his head at the near post that day. After a long six-year wait, Glentoran at last, were Irish League Champions again!

Another vivid Showgrounds memory came in the summertime Milk Cup youth competition. Glasgow Rangers had made the senior final, guaranteeing a big Friday night crowd for the decider. In opposition was Dublin junior club, Cherry Orchard, famed down through the years for the youth teams and players produced from their academy.

The Dublin lads refused to be intimidated and upset the applecart stunning the somewhat partisan 10,000 crowd by taking the title 4-2 on pens after a 1-1 draw.

Coleraine’s revered manager Oran Kearney, back with the club after steering St Mirren to safety in last season’s Scottish Premiership, worked his magic at half-time to lift the Bann-siders back into the contest.

Back to the present, at the interval I’d mentioned to Tucker that Coleraine simply couldn’t be as bad in the second-half as they were in the first. Surely Kearney and assistant Winkie Murphy would give them a rocket at half-time.

From the way they approached the restart, Coleraine’s flailing first-half failures hadn’t met just one rocket during the interval, but several, along with a weapon or six of mass destruction.

The initiative was seized immediately and when Jarvis launched a 25-yard screamer into the top corner, too soon after the resumption of play for Glentoran’s liking, initiative, aggression and intensity now had belief for company.

The same player headed Coleraine back on level terms, and they went for the jugular. The visitors, by now on the proverbial ropes, were having their character, vouched for by seven previously unbeaten matches, rigorously tested.

Those dejected first-half souls around us smelled blood. Momentum was with the blue and white stripes. It became a battle, they were doing most of the attacking, the intensity levels raised, you sensed the Bannsiders would complete the perfect comeback, a late winner to break Glentoran hearts.

Then substitute Navid Nasseri, an Englishman of Iranian descent, broke quickly leaving Coleraine defenders in his wake. One on one with Johns in the Bannsiders goal, the attacker opened his body to set up the final execution. It was more than enough to beat the custodian, but Nasseri’s delay in pulling the trigger allowed a home defender to get back and block the effort.

Parity was maintained, 2-2, a fair outcome given the tale of two halves just played out in front of a lively and passionate crowd.

We took the short walk back to the railway station, a good point won. A visit to Patsy’s Bar on the corner will have to wait for next time. So too the statue of Bertie Peacock, Northern Ireland hero from Sweden ’58, a player who served both this afternoon’s clubs and the only man ever to lead Coleraine to an Irish League title.

The Viewing Lounge and Main Grandstand at Coleraine’s compact little Showgrounds stadium. The scene on Saturday was much duller, low cloud and grey skies, necessitating floodlighting from the kick-off.