A North v South all-Irish encounter offers a rare and welcome point of Champions League intrigue in Belfast writes Robbie Meredith, but the slicker, more professional visitors win the day
Nestled alongside the Belfast docks and airport, the Oval, home of Northern Irish champions Glentoran, immediately transports the visitor back into history. The antiquated Main Stand is 50 years old and seems to have changed little over the years, while both ends of the ground are bracketed by crumbling semi-circular concrete terraces, where supporters are hemmed in by high steel fencing. Sitting in the Main Stand, I’m confronted by the sight of Sampson and Goliath, two huge and distinctive shipyard cranes which offer a glimpse into Belfast’s fading maritime past. When UEFA and the G14 dreamt up the Champions League to bring even more cash and glamour to Europe’s elite clubs, part of their rationale was to ensure that grounds like the Oval, and teams like Glentoran, were weeded out of the competition long before the armchair millions tuned in to see Milan or Manchester United.
I can understand their impulse. As a stadium, the Oval is patently unfit to host European football. For tonight’s first round Champions League qualifying match capacity has been reduced to a mere 3,000, due to UEFA’s prohibition of terracing. Consequently, both ends of the ground are empty, save for a large hoarding proclaiming “Jesus” on the City side, and a few Shelbourne fans making their way from their seating in the Railway side to urinate on the grass verge nearby. It’s difficult to imagine Roman Abramovich or Silvio Berlusconi’s Gucci-clad behinds resting comfortably in such surroundings.
The Oval also seems increasingly out of step with its locality. A few of the neighbouring streets are still full of dilapidated council flats, decorated with a variety of loyalist paramilitary murals, but the drive to the ground along Parkgate Avenue from the Dee Street bridge reveals substantial redevelopment, as old two-up, two-downs have been replaced by attractive modern housing. Like most British cities, Belfast is in the grip of selective gentrification, making the Oval appear even more dated, a fact recognised by the Glentoran board, who have spent the last five years attempting to find a site for a new stadium in the city.
Yet, contrary to what you might expect, the Oval is actually a great place to watch football on a summer evening. Tonight the Main Stand is full and, even from my seat in the upper tiers, I feel close to the action. The pitch, long regarded as one of the finest in the Irish league, looks immaculate, and, as the stand is tight against the touchline, it’s possible to hear every word uttered by the managers and the shouts of the players. Ten minutes into the game, two of the men on my left bellow “man on” as Glentoran’s Sean Holmes is closed down. Having passed the ball, he glances up as if to say “thanks”.
This feeling of intimacy is one of the strengths of Irish league football, and is fortified by the bond between the crowd and the local team. Earlier, on finishing their warm up, many of the players called out and waved to watching friends and neighbours. I recognised two in particular. As a student, I caught an early bus into Belfast a couple of mornings a week. Chris Walker, Glentoran’s Alexei Lalas lookalike, jumped on a few stops after me on his way to work as a window cleaner, and I went to school with full-back Colin Nixon’s big brother. The fact that players often live and work alongside supporters is one of the few advantages that part-time Northern Irish football holds over the Premiership juggernaut.
Otherwise, things look bleak. The previous major game held at the Oval was a league decider against bitter local rivals Linfield, and attracted almost 14,000 spectators, many on the open terracing. At the end of the game, won by Glentoran with a last-minute goal, a few Linfield supporters forced a gate to the pitch and attacked rival fans with bottles and chunks of concrete. Retaliation was automatic, and pictures of the ensuing “riot” were plastered across the local media. That weekend in April, thousands of Ulster parents probably began to plan a trip to Anfield or Old Trafford rather than contemplate letting their offspring visit an Irish league ground.
Ironically, given the wider historical antipathy between the North and South of Ireland, many local fans and pundits regard tonight’s Eircom League visitors Shelbourne, from Dublin’s north side, as a model of how to run an Irish football club. In 1992, the second year of the Champions League, Glentoran hosted Marseille in the competition before a packed, mainly standing, Oval. Having despatched the Glens 8-0 on aggregate, Marseille, “assisted” by the cunning of Bernard Tapie, later overcame Milan in the final. Since then the chances of an Irish minnow drawing a European superpower have been slimmer than Ian Paisley’s of becoming Pope. Therefore, tonight’s tie is good for both teams. In recent years, the preliminary round system has ensured that Irish clubs routinely embark on expensive and arduous trips to Georgia, Denmark or Russia to be thumped well before ITV or Sky become interested.
Until last season, when Shelbourne dispatched Hajduk Split before finding themselves level with Deportivo La Coruña at half-time in the second leg of the third qualifying round. Three late goals at the Riazor ended Shelbourne’s hopes of taking their place in a group with Liverpool, Olympiakos and Monaco, but the fact that an Irish club had come so close to such unimaginable territory was noted across the island, along with the fact that the club earned almost a quarter of a million pounds from their European adventure, a massive sum in Irish football.
Shels’ relative success was viewed as a vindication of the Eircom League’s decision to move to summer soccer a couple of years ago. The season in the South runs almost parallel to the British rugby league season, and means that clubs are in the midst of the campaign, and match-fit, when European competitions begin. The change prompted increased television interest and led a few clubs, including Shelbourne, to go full-time, a brave move on average gates of around 2,500. All is not rosy – Shels were around £1 million in debt at the close of the 2004 season – but they remain set on their course. Players don’t earn fortunes – around £35,000 a year is normal – but they now train full-time, and the revamped set-up has attracted players such as Alan Moore, who suffered the “Captain Marvel” years at Middlesbrough, and Bohemians’ Gareth Farrelly, formerly of Aston Villa, Everton and Bolton, back to Ireland while still in their twenties.
Tonight, the benefits are apparent. By contrast, Glentoran have lost some of their best players of recent years to England, including Hull City’s Stuart Elliott and Andy Kirk of Northampton, and the team are only three weeks into pre-season training. In addition, two key defenders, Mark Glendinning and ex-Manchester United reserve Pat McGibbon, are on holiday.
After a scrappy opening, Shelbourne take control. Most of their players look very fit. The likes of Glen Crowe, Colin Hawkins, David Crawley and Dave Rogers seem like body-builders beside their Glentoran opponents, of whom only captain Paul Leeman has a similar stature. Kevin Keegan may be playing for the Glens, but he’s a wispy, ineffective winger rather than a stocky, permed playmaker. Shelbourne also knock the ball around neatly, and begin to create numerous chances. Glentoran appear ponderous by comparison, hammering hopeful long balls to Stephen Parkhouse, a bulky, immobile target man. He battles hard, but is incapable of holding the ball up. It isn’t long before chants of “G-L-E-N-T-O-R-A-N” give way to shouts of “Keep the bloody thing, Parkhouse”.
Glentoran players catch the mood. Tommy McCallion, normally a creative midfielder, is booked for a late and lunging tackle, and the game is scoreless at the break thanks only to two superb blocks by Leeman and three good saves by Glens keeper Elliot Morris, once of West Bromwich Albion. At the sound of the whistle the bloke beside me sighs “Thank fuck for that” before squeezing past on his way for a pee. About half the stand sets off with him while, on the far side of the pitch, the 300 or so Shelbourne supporters drown out Aerosmith on the PA with chants of “There’s only one team in Ireland”. The game is taking place at the height of the Protestant marching season, but tonight’s drum belongs to a Shels fan, and the visitors from Dublin seem to be enjoying themselves, comfortably outsinging the home support.
Ten minutes into the second half their team take the lead, as Glen Crowe robs Leeman before squaring for Jason Byrne to score. Soon it’s 2-0, Byrne scoring a penalty after Leeman brings down Crowe, who is good enough to be a regular squad member for the Republic of Ireland. Two and half thousand Glentoran supporters grumble in unison, but are reluctant to barrack Leeman, usually an outstanding and reliable player, so they pick on the unfortunate Parkhouse instead as Shelbourne press on in search of a third goal.
At this stage, Shels’ young manager Pat Fenlon, one of the first Southern Catholics to play for Linfield in the North and a deeply impressive figure, is the dominant voice in the stadium, constantly exhorting his players. Glentoran’s Roy Coyle, older, more taciturn, the local equivalent of Alex Ferguson – incredibly successful, but admired rather than liked – appears periodically beneath us on the touchline, seemingly helpless.
With a quarter of an hour to go, Coyle finally acts, replacing Parkhouse and his waspish partner Jody Tolan with Chris Morgan and Michael Halliday, two regular goalscorers last season. The consensus around me is that both should have played from the start. One-nil to the supporters. Morgan and Halliday make an instant difference, their skill creating a goal for Sean Ward. Pegged back, Shelbourne panic and are forced to hang on as the Glentoran part-timers pour forward, causing the home crowd to find their voice at last. The old stand begins to shake.
Glentoran can’t quite make it, but have restored some hope for the second leg, the winners of which will face Steaua Bucharest, by the time the excellent Greek referee blows his whistle. In a significant and welcome gesture, given our troubled political past and present, many home fans stay to clap the Shelbourne team off the pitch, an act acknowledged by the visiting players. They may have given Glentoran a lesson, for the majority of the match at least, but many in the North feel that it’s in matters off the pitch that Shelbourne might teach us the most.
From WSC 223 September 2005. What was happening this month