Friday 4th October 2019 19.45
NI League Premier
Glentoran 0 Cliftonville 1 HT: 0-0 Att: c3,500
Murray so 63 : Gormley 84
from The Oval
Many hoppers will cite Glentoran as their favourite ground and many more will have it in their top five. I’d seen pictures of it and agreed it looked like a good one and was keen to see it for myself, although there was also a tinge of slight irritation that comes from people raving on about something (it took me years to watch Trainspotting, sick of all the effusive hype, but then I loved it). Well it turns out everyone was right, and then some. What an experience.
The hype is true and, despite having a reputation to live up to, it exceeded expectations.
I’d first arranged to go last season, but TV programming had moved the fixture to the Monday and I ended up at Lisburn Distillery. This time, again, the fixture was changed, from the Saturday to the Friday night. I find this intensely irritating; it feels like people sat at home watching on TV are given priority in these decisions, ahead of the true fans. I wanted to experience it in the daylight with a 3pm Saturday kick-off, but now it would have to be an evening game.
One benefit of it being an evening game was that we had a whole day to kill in NI, with the plane landing in Belfast Airport at 8am. With the airport already being a good 20 miles north of Belfast, we hired a car and drove to the north coast to take in see the Giant’s Causeway and, a few miles further on, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, wobbling precariously between two islands. On the way back, unplanned, we happened to see a sign for the Dark Hedges and I vaguely remembered them being famous for being a location in Game of Thrones, a series I’d read and watched.
We swung a few miles off our track to take in the spectacular arch of beech trees forming an eerie tunnel that was the King’s Road in the GoT series. We kind of did Northern Ireland in a ferocious whistle stop tour, and still back in time to drop the car off in Belfast and visit the famous Liquor Vaults, before heading to the Oval.
The Glentoran Stadium Tour Package was £25. For that you got a match ticket, pint, pin badge, programme and tour of the ground. It was an absolute bargain, the tour alone was worth more than £25. You do need to book, as the tour sells out fast and it was full on this Friday night derby with North Belfast club Cliftonville. Many of the other visitors were hoppers from elsewhere in the EU.
We did wonder at why we were expected to arrive by 17.00, when the game started at 19.45; but over an hour into the tour, completely mesmerized and feeling like ten minutes had passed, we could see why. The guy doing the tour was a local, about 60 years old, and knew his history of the club inside out, and added his own experiences as a lifelong fan to the narrative. The history of the ground and the club is rich and voluminous, and this guy brought it all to life with his effortless and beguiling delivery.
Glentoran FC date back to 1882. They were the first British team to win a Eurpoean Trophy, the Vienna Cup, in 1914.
George Best used to watch them with his grandfather when he was little, and was turned down by them for being ‘too small and light’.
Their games in Europe started in 1962 in the Fairs Cup and their first European Cup game was against Panathinaikos two years later. In 1966 they played Rangers in the Cup Winners Cup in front of a record Oval crowd of 55,000.
In 1967 they almost beat Benfica at home, a team starring Eusebio. It was the legend himself that got the equaliser in a 1-1 draw. In the return leg in the Estádio da Luz, they held on for a 0-0, becoming the first team to go out of the competition on the away goals rule and also the first team to deny Benfica a home goal.
In the 70s they got to the Quarter Finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, losing to Borussia Mönchengladbach. They also played Juventus in the European Cup four years later. Amazingly they have had 44 seasons in Europe playing a total of 100 matches.
The 2002-03 season was their most sucessful, almost winning a NI Quadruple, winning the Irish League, League Cup and Antrim Shield but losing 1-0 to Coleraine in the Irish Cup Final.
They have had a few financial difficulties since the turn of the century, affecting their successes a little, but that hasn’t stopped them winning the league in 2002-03, 2004-05 and the last time in 2008-09. They have won the league 23 times, second only to Linfield with 54 titles. They have won the Irish Cup 23 times also, joint with Linfield.
The Oval has been home to Glentoran since 1892. Due to its proximity to the dockyards, it was bombed in 1941, destroying the two stands and leaving a massive crater on the pitch. This crater caused repeated flooding of the pitch. A small building still standing on the top of the terrace behind one goal was specially built and used for reconnaisance during the war, due to its height and views across the dockyards and to Belfast City Airport.
In view on the skyline are the famous Samson and Goliath cranes of Harland and Wolff Welders, making a dramatic industrial landscape. As if that wasn’t enough it’s also on the landing path of the Belfast City Airport and planes fly low over the ground coming in to land.
The main stand holds 2,720, was built in 1953 along with the main stand at Springfield Park, Wigan which bears the same design. The stand the other side holds 2,070. The former is a double tiered stand, similar to a Leitch stand. A large terrace sweeps all the way round between the stands forming the famous Oval.
Despite having had 55,000 there in its heyday, it’s official capacity is now 26,556, but a mere 6,050 according to new safety legislation. It has hosted the Irish Cup on numerous occasions, being one of the biggest grounds in Ireland along with Windsor Park.
This pedigree of club and ground, with it’s architectural beauty, antiquity, history, swathes of old school terracing and spectacular industrial backdrop, make it easily one of the must-see grounds for anyone interested in football and football history, let alone groundhoppers.
After a two hour plus tour of this Belfast man talking off the cuff, showing us the dressing rooms, the stands, the WWII look-out, the numerous flags, pendants, kits and trophies of their travails in Europe, every nook and cranny of the ground, each divot and graffito, we all retired to the bar for the free pint. The game seemed almost irrelevant now, an added bonus.
It felt like a big crowd had gathered under the lights for this Belfast derby. It was a tight encounter with Glentoran not having any luck and then on 63 minutes there was a world footballing first – Glentoran’s Murray was the first player to be sent off for not exiting the field at the closest point. He was the first player to fall foul of the new ruling to stop players timewasting by dragging their feet from one side of the field to the other.
Cliftonville broke home hearts five minutes from time with the only goal of the game. It wasn’t a classic as derbies often aren’t, but it didn’t really matter. If this night was on a meter, the £25 tariff would’ve been hit just walking up to the ground. It was the best footballing experience ever.