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A Love Affair With The Irish Cup...

Irish Cup finals went from being oblivious events to eagerly anticipated dates on the east Belfast calendar...

Glentoran players in the centre circle during Monday’s tense semi-final penalty shoot-out against Cliftonville.

As I lay upon my bed last night, I fell into a dream...

Well the European Cup is unlikely ever to be won by a Belfast team, as the old song goes, but last night’s dream for Glen-men near and far has less lofty, but equally critical, implications.

They said the club’s days were numbered before its penultimate success in modern Glentoran’s favourite competition, a 3-1 success over league champions Cliftonville in 2013. It was still the cry two years later when they defeated fancied Portadown in the 2015 final, as the club struggled on.

Attempting to pay down unmanageable debt and remain competitive eventually proved unsurmountable and the famous old east Belfast club took on the mantle of also-rans.

Now a year after investment by UK-based Iranian businessman Ali Pour, Glentoran stand on the brink of their 23rd Irish Cup success. Ballymena United, five times winners, stand between them and what could prove to be their most significant Irish Cup win of all.

Not only will it confirm they are back in local football’s big-time, it propels them towards European riches previously unheard of back in the days when Glentoran made European qualification year on year. Back then unless you pulled out a glamour tie, it was a loss-maker and only a matter of prestige playing amongst the continent’s finest.

Nowadays prize-money can be significant enough to help a local club sustain a full-time playing staff.

But the club’s relationship with the Irish Cup has been truly remarkable in the modern-era. Should they prevail this afternoon it will be their 15th success in the last 38 years, the next most successful club in that period is stuck on 10.

But it wasn’t always so. In fact for ten years before that 1983 success, Oval fans watched on jealously, as Irish football’s blue riband event was carried off by Ards, Coleraine, Linfield, and Ballymena United. Cliftonville also won it... for the first time in almost 70 years and even ‘B’ Division Carrick Rangers triumphed in a season when Glentoran were defeated by another club from the second tier, Brantwood.

It was beginning to look like Glentoran’s 1973 triumph over old enemy Linfield would never be repeated.

In fact their losing run in the intervening decade included four exits to those bitter-Blue rivals, and one each to Crusaders, afore-mentioned Brantwood, Larne, Ballymena United and Cliftonville, whom they defeated in last Monday’s semi-final. In those 10 years, Glentoran won only seven Irish Cup ties and one of those was against the local police force.

But then everything changed. They defeated Linfield in replays in two of the next three finals (‘83 & ‘85), the second of which was to lead to four consecutive Irish Cup triumphs, an unprecedented feat, never again repeated. They also tagged on another success in 1990 after losing as ‘nailed-on’ favourites to Carrick Rangers in the 1989 semi-final, and four more in the 8 years between 1996 and 2004.

The ‘83 Cup winners which started off Glentoran’s remarkable love affair with the Irish Cup.

It had almost become a ritual, especially in the eighties. A given, that only one Cup Final spot was up for grabs, because naturally, Glentoran would be in the other.

There were Cup Final discos arranged by the Ballymacarrett club on the morning of the big game. These became a staple (liquid) diet for diehard Glen-men. So did scenes of frightened cockerels (the club’s symbol) strutting the pitch and even once a blue-painted pig, also symbolic, which made an appearance in a final replay against hated rivals Linfield.

Wonderful memories, and although you felt for the animals, I had the pleasure of attending eleven of those winning finals, the last in 2015, when I travelled from Canada to be there.

The lasting memory of that 1-0 victory however is not David Scullion’s goal or the controversial incident where Ports boss Ronnie McFaul thought Willie Garrett had upended his striker bearing down on goal, but the weather.

So often Irish Cup finals were played out in late April/early May sunshine, but not this one. We were out in the open behind the goal and it rained down all day. Everyone staying on until the bitter but successful end, took on the complexion of drowned rats. Once the cup was presented, the wretched rodents jumped ship, ‘prompto’.

The author before the semi-final win over Cliftonville in his Montreal apartment. “The back of the couch came in handy during the penalty shoot-out.”

But the final that brought out most emotion personally was one I wasn’t even at. Cliftonville arrived at the National Stadium as League Champions, they were hot favourites to topple the Glens and claim their second Irish Cup in 104 years and their first since 1979.

Glentoran made headlines that season for all the wrong reasons, mainly not having the money to pay player wages. But the foregone conclusion was reckoned upon without considering the Glens’ great, recent Irish Cup tradition.

I was painting my apartment at Notre-Dame and de la Montagne in Montreal’s Griffintown, eagerly anticipating the game, relaying by Radio Ulster via the BBC website. This was new-fangled. I couldn’t believe I was about to hear commentary from the Irish Cup Final with my team in it. What a treat! So unlike now, as I prepare to watch this evening’s final live on my lap-top, those things were a little bit futuristic for the Irish Cup in 2013.

It was a truly moving experience. Being far away and able to hear all the action was one thing, the sense of just wanting to wave a magic wand and be there quite another. A pair of elements each one as frustrating as the other.

May 2013 was twelve years since I had regularly watched the Glens - I moved to Canada in 2001 - and you wonder sometimes how much of ‘it’ is still there. Radio Ulster’s commentary was about to reaffirm to me, that YOU NEVER LOSE IT.

Painting around an appliance on the ceiling, I almost fell from the chair when Waterworth’s equalizer went in that day. Pausing just enough to hear confirmation, I more carefully stepped down, secured the paintbrush and went running round the apartment like a madman.

There was no-one else present, which was just as well, because Canadians just wouldn’t get this, especially a female Canadian.

By the arrival of extra time, painting activity had been suspended. It was clear we were very much in this game. I was as gripped as I had been many years before when Feeney stepped up to take THAT penalty against Dino Zoff, or when Manley and Cleary ripped the net against CSKA Sofia, or when Trevor Smyth scored that penalty at Seaview to preserve top-tier football during another time of struggle for the club.

As everyone knows, Callacher and Waterworth (again) won the day for the Glens in extra-time. A lifetime following a club ebbed from my tear-ducts. ‘IT’ was still there in abundance. I was as emotional as I had ever been watching (or listening to) football and for a moment I was glad I was alone. Solo time just to think of all the good people I knew over there, knowing exactly how much they were enjoying these moments.

I was over 3,000 miles away, but my mind was firmly within their midst. Something those attached to my new life would never understand in million years.

The commentators waxing lyrical about how good the underdog Glens had been kept the tears flowing. How I wanted to be in Belfast.

Admittedly I was surprised how deeply I felt it all, and last Monday’s 7-6 penalty shoot-out win was as unbearable as the Cup win over the same opposition seven years ago was emotional.

Elliott Morris - semi-final hero...

Morris’s critical and brilliant save down to his left when McMenamin’s kick would have won it for Cliftonville was the moment of the game. We were out at that stage, as far as I was concerned, but the miracle happened.

I missed a critical meeting as Monday evening’s shoot-out became a saga, but didn’t care.

The Glens are back... almost.

But before that can be rubber-stamped, they must complete the job tonight...