clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Night La Vecchia Signora Came to Belfast

43 years to the day Paul Vance recalls his memories of one of finest-ever performances by an Irish League club.

Not too many clear colour pictures exist of the occasion. Here Glentoran captain Alex Robson (left) exchanges pennants with Juve captain Giuseppe Furino, with Dutch referee Frans Derks looking on.

October 19, 2020 - it popped up in my facebook feed this morning, as I suppose it must do every year on this date.

The bench seat match ticket at £2.50 wasn’t mine. Could never have afforded that. I picked it up from behind the old stand on my way out of the stadium, a discard from someone more affluent.

What a night it was!

As a boy in trouble-torn Belfast, I was living the dream. The previous week I’d been to Windsor Park to watch Northern Ireland play the Dutch in a World Cup qualifier, Cruyff, Neeskens, Rep, Krol, the van der Kerkhofs and all.

And now one of the greatest club sides on the planet was descending on our doorstep to play the team I watched week in, week out.

Glentoran had reached the second round of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time ever, defeating Valur Reykjavik, the champions of Iceland in the previous round, and pulled the plum draw from the hat for round two.

Juventus Turin. Just say that again... Juventus Turin. We could barely believe it!

The buzz of sporting anticipation for once, but all to briefly, eclipsed the news of bomb and bullet. Northern Ireland, normalized somewhat since the early part of the decade, was still in the grip of nightly terrorist activity.

Juventus the Italian giant had defeated both Manchester clubs in the previous season’s UEFA Cup in their run to the final in which they defeated Athletic Bilbao on away goals.

They formed the backbone of the Azzurri, the Italian national team, which had a disappointing 1974 World Cup, but had eliminated England and built up a head of steam, heading towards Argentina for the 1978 edition. In fact they were installed as favourites as the competition progressed and included no fewer than nine players from the side which faced Glentoran 43 years ago in Belfast, as the Azzurri finished fourth in the world.

A tenth was Paolo Pietro Virdis, a new arrival from the Sardinian club, Calgliari, who cost a cool USD$1.3m. In 1978! (for perspective the record transfer fee involving an English player at the time was the £500k (USD$650k) Hamburg paid to Liverpool for Kevin Keegan)

He was struggling for game time and was only a sub when the Bianconeri visited Glentoran’s Oval stadium. Virdis’ transfer fee alone would’ve bought the entire Glentoran side fifteen times over.

The other three Juve players were Giuseppe Furino, the captain, blond centre-back Francesco Morini, and striker Roberto Bonninsegna, all former Italian internationals.

The Juventus team acknowledge the Belfast crowd before the game.

None of those who wore the red, green and black were full-time, only part-time professionals, all had day jobs, some across the dual-carriageway from the stadium in either the aircraft factory (which became Bombardier Aerospace) or the shipyard, most famous for creation of the Titanic many years previously.

There was a rare treat for the part-timers as they spent the eve of the game at a County Down seaside hotel and prepared on a local pitch a stone’s throw from this writer’s school on the morning of the match. Schoolwork never seemed so dull and unimportant, sat there knowing I could be watching training, engulfed in thought about the evening’s events to come.

I’d been to some big international games in Belfast against England and the Dutch, but never had I known such raw fervour for a club game in Belfast. This was different, everyone wanted a piece of the action. I was used getting the #7 Ulsterbus to Belfast for the game. It was rarely more than half-full. This night despite departing an hour earlier, there were quite a few extras on board; you know, those that turn out only when a big occasion presents itself.

The Glens had pushed the boat out. There was a band playing on the pitch, not of the brass, pipe or marching variety, but a local pop group, they may have been called Flash, although my mind for musical detail is rarely close to paramount.

Fans streamed into the ground, darkness hadn’t yet descended, we were early enough to comfortably find a decent vantage point on the unreserved terracing, a covered section facing the main stand. Not long after, the bell-ringer arrived. Noise pollution at its finest, the dull, clanging, non-melodic tones adding to the sense of occasion.

Glentoran fans can be mightily original but this was blatant plagiarism, mimicking the Manchester City fan from the previous weekend who perforated Match of the Day’s main match with his own brand of unrhythmic bell-tolling.

Teenagers and pretty penniless, all pledged we’d definitely go to the Final regardless.... if the Glens got there, knowing full well there was more chance the Pope would turn protestant. Cheap bravado if there ever was. We’d no hope, not against Juventus!

I recall laughing a week before when reading Dave Craig’s Football Page in Thompson’s Weekly News, a paper my grandmother loyally favoured. Dave Craig, I believe was local sports journalist, Paddy Toner and Paddy had managed to get a word with Tony Book, who was manager of Manchester City. City, as mentioned earlier, had lost to Juve the previous season.

Book was suggesting, “You just never know....” He’d mentioned something about how Glentoran, despite being huge underdogs, might get the rub of the green, going on to say the Italians had this saying, “The ball is round and anything can happen.”

I’ve never forgotten that phrase, although I’ve still no idea if it’s something bequeathed to Italian football fans.

Back to the evening, the Oval was packed to the rafters and people were still coming in as the teams emerged from the tunnel. I’d never seen so many in the ground, and with Health and Safety what it is these days, never will again. The lowest estimate, and generally accepted crowd figure was 25,000, but who knows, there certainly could’ve been more.

It was a tight squeeze. Side by side the players entered the arena. Glentoran, pasty white-limbed in smart, new green shirts with red Umbro diamonds down the sleeves, Juventus players in their immaculate slim black and white verticals looking tanned and all the world like some place where moustaches go to die.

The Glentoran team wave to the crowd prior to kick-off against Juventus at their Oval ground in Belfast.

Strangely there wasn’t a pervasive feeling that Glentoran were lambs being lead to the slaughter. The east Belfast outfit were a decent side, one that oozed confidence and swagger locally, had leaders in McCreery, Ronnie McFall, Robson, Jamison, Moreland and Caskey, and had become Irish League champions the previous season with a small squad, managed by celebrated physiotherapist, Bobby McGregor.

Still, anticipation turned to anxiety as Mr Derks from Holland set the tie in motion.

Those expecting the home side to begin in rip-roaring style with a special Belfast welcome, generally reserved for illustrious opponents, couldn’t have been further wrong.

Domestically the Glens would play neat, fast-flowing football. Tonight the approach was entirely different. Controlled, the build-up was slower, more deliberate, but just as neat. They were getting plenty of touches, little Johnny Jamison, midfield artist supreme, demanding the ball and dictating tempo. Johnny was a shipyard worker. Facing him was Tardelli, Benetti, Causio and Furino. If anyone settled his team-mates down quickly, it was the little maestro.

The game’s early stages were remarkable. Glentoran were playing Juventus at their own game and on two occasions came incredibly close to scoring. Billy Caskey, then a centre-forward, had already taken a few hard knocks from Morini, a buffeting that continued throughout, but Caskey was giving it back, helping to create pockets of space.

Jamison moved into one, accepted a short pass and let fly from 18 yards. The great Dino Zoff, then at the very peak of his career, wasn’t getting there, but was saved by the underside of a very benevolent cross-bar, and his team-mates ferried the ball to safety.

Jamison was at it again a short time later, putting top-scorer Feeney through one-on-one with Zoff. The goalkeeper’s left boot this time coming to Juve’s rescue, as the bar-owner’s low drive went goal-wards.

Rab McCreery, that toughest of Irish League full-backs had already raised the decibel level with a crunching challenge on Juventus hard man Claudio Gentile. Gentile was no ordinary tough guy. The London Times listed him at #8 in their list of the Top 50 hardest footballers of all time, and he carried the nickname Gaddafi with him, due to his robust playing style and country of birth. Rab was pretty handy too, of course...

The crowd, buzzing from the first shrill of Mr Derks’ whistle, was becoming rapturous, even expectant, but then the sucker punch arrived. A long ball arrived beyond the back post at the City End of the ground. Ronnie McFall would want this one back all day long. Safety first, it was a simple header behind, and the concession of a corner. But such was the adrenalin and confidence flowing through Glentoran veins, McFall tried to be smart, placing his header in the opposite direction and keeping the ball alive.

But it landed at the feet of Franco Causio. The Baron, 12 yards out couldn’t believe his luck, but was prepared to put his foot through the ball, rifling an unstoppable shot past Matthews who had little chance. Thirty-eight minutes had elapsed, euphoria turned to groans.

The silver-topped Bettega was replaced by Virdis after the goal. He nor Bonninsegna had not had much change from Glentoran’s outstanding captain Alex Robson and his central defensive partner Walsh.

Roberto Bettega lies prostrate in the Glentoran goal-mouth. Bonninsegna (9) goes over to investigate.

The feared opening of the floodgates did not materialize. Glentoran tried all they could to get back into the game, knowing they simply had to keep the back door bolted too. The part-timers somehow found the right balance and with time running short looked about to claim their just reward.

Manager Arthur Stewart, a 70th minute replacement for Andy Dougan, advanced towards the corner of the box. Attempting to poke the ball through into the danger area, the ball struck the Italian captain. The crowd screamed, ‘Handball !!!’. I recall thinking there’s a case, but he’s not going to give it, they never do.

But the Dutch referee pointed to the spot. Pandemonium. Finally Glentoran had their chance to seal some glory. Their’s would be the shock result of the night across the continent and technically at least, keep the contest alive until they stepped out at Stadio Communale.

Six minutes left, Feeney, Glentoran’s regular penalty taker was still on the field. There was no debate. He despatched penalty kicks past ‘keepers as he would serve pints in his Farmer’s Rest pub... nonchalantly. 192 goals in 236 games for Glentoran, up he stepped, left-footed, shot to Zoff’s left, the crowd held its collective breath ready to acclaim the equalizer.

Feeney’s strike wasn’t his usual trademark, not firm enough, too close to arguably the best goalkeeper in world football. The Glentoran man spooked, Dino Zoff had won the battle of wits, got inside the striker’s head. Maybe it was just his immense presence that put the Irish side’s ace marksman off. Either way, the sense of deflation was palpable.

Walking back in the darkness for my bus, the feeling of regret overwhelming, so near, yet so far against one of the absolute best teams on the planet. My world at that moment seemed so incredibly unjust. Couldn’t get it out of my head for quite a few days. Punished myself by watching the highlights after getting home. At least they rubber-stamped how great Glentoran’s performance had been.

Had they drawn the game, no-one could have claimed they were lucky. Glentoran were that good on the night.

You knew... you just knew, that the chances of getting a positive result on another huge night like this, would be a long time coming...

And indeed, we’re still waiting...

The teams who lined-up up for this momentous occasion were -

Glentoran - Matthews - McCreery, Walsh, Robson (c), McFall; R - Dougan (Stewart, 70), Jamison, Moreland, McFall; Q - Caskey, Feeney.

Juventus - Zoff - Cuccureddu (Cabrini, 46), Morini, Scirea, Gentile - Causio, Furino (c), Benetti, Tardelli - Bettega (Virdis, 40), Boninsegna

Footnote - No fewer than six Juventus players who faced Glentoran on 19 October 1977, became World Champions with Italy in 1982: Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea, Franco Causio, Marco Tardelli and Antonio Cabrini.

Footnote - Juventus, who won the second-leg against Glentoran 5-0, were knocked out in that season’s semi-final by FC Bruges (1-2 on aggregate) after losing Claudio Gentile to the only red card of his career in the 21st minute of extra-time in the 2nd Leg. Five minutes later Rene Vandereycken scored Bruges’ second and decisive goal.