Alex Gulrajani looks at Portadown boss Ronnie McFall, another manager celebrating 25 successful years at one club
Ronnie McFall became the manager of Portadown in December 1986. He is still there 25 years later. A title-winner as a player and manager with Glentoran, the 38-year-old arrived with his hometown club bottom of the Irish League. A quarter of a century on, everything has changed. "I remember that first day well," McFall recalls. "When I arrived at training, there was only about six or seven lads there. The first thought I had was 'What have I done?’ The club needed restructuring from head to toe. We had no youth set-up and were rock bottom of the league. Everything had to be rebuilt."
Portadown finished second bottom that season but rapidly improved. Without a senior league title in their 66-year history, McFall delivered within four years, beating local rivals Glenavon by a point in 1989-90. The team narrowly missed out on a first ever league and cup double after defeat in the Irish Cup final to Glentoran, but they would only have to wait 12 months. Back at Windsor Park as champions once again, a double was sealed with a 2-1 derby victory over Glenavon with both goals from one of McFall’s key signings, Scottish striker Stevie Cowan. "Many people will look at the double and especially the way we won it, but for me, the first title will always be something special," McFall says. "The club had gone so long without winning anything so that will always be my favourite – especially as we’d just beaten Glenavon to it."
Another title followed five years later, before their last success to date in 2001. "Every few years, the team hits the top. We don’t have the resources of Linfield and Glentoran. We constantly have to reinvent ourselves. We always managed to attract top players from outside Northern Ireland as well, which has helped. Stevie Cowan [a former SPL winner at Aberdeen] brought some real professionalism to the club for the first time and it influenced everyone. He was the best finisher I have ever seen in the Irish League and the kind of player we couldn’t have won anything without."
A year after McFall was awarded an MBE for services to football in 2007, Portadown were demoted in a shake-up of the Irish League. They missed the application deadline for the new 12-team Premiership by 15 minutes and, as a result, lost their senior status. Even then, they made history by becoming the first second-level club to win the League Cup. They added the divisional title to seal promotion and, two years on, McFall is back in the hunt for the top prize. Portadown are currently second in the Irish League, two points behind Linfield. "It is great to be challenging again," says McFall. "That first title was special for me and for the club but we’re playing in a different era now. If we can do it again this year, it will show how strong our attitude and desire is."
In his 25 years, McFall has even had a spell on the board at Portadown but he will not be swapping the dugout for the directors’ box anytime soon. His passion and determination are still there, just like a certain Manchester United manager. "There is only a month between me and Sir Alex, and while he has been working on a different level, he still demonstrates all the attributes you need to succeed," McFall says. "If you want to stay in the management game as long as we have, you need hunger and desire, and his are still the same as they were 25 years ago and you have to admire him for that. Football is in my blood, just as it is with Sir Alex, and I still enjoy it, just like it is my first day on the job."
From WSC 299 January 2012