Belfast Telegraph

Sorry end for Portadown icon Ronnie McFall

By Jim Gracey

Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end. The one meaningful line from an otherwise forgettable helping of 1988 movie corn, uttered by Tom Cruise in Cocktail, rings particularly true for Ronnie McFall in the manner of his departure from Portadown.

Ronnie walked away from Shamrock Park on Saturday night a bitterly disappointed and dejected figure and into a vacuum, refusing to take calls from media and well-wishers until he comes to terms with the huge upheaval in his life while he contemplates a future outside football for the first time in 29 years.

He and his many friends in the game would have wished for a more dignified exit on his terms than the resignation that followed a shock 3-2 Irish Cup quarter-final home defeat by lower league Lurgan Celtic.

Read more: Ronnie McFall 'devastated' at calling time on record breaking career at Portadown after 29 years

That will likely be his biggest regret. It meant a sorry end for a colossus of the local game who had signalled his intention to step down at the end of this season after almost 30 years in charge.

He might also consider he ought to have gone sooner as his farewell season began to unravel, and with it his authority, as often happens once a manager declares his hand in that way. It even happened to the greatest of them all, Sir Alex Ferguson, whose longevity Ronnie surpassed, when Ferguson announced he would step down at Manchester United in 2002, quickly retracting as results took a downturn.

In reality, Ronnie has nothing to reproach himself about. His record of success with Portadown, his home town club, speaks volumes for his managerial know-how... just look at the roll of honours during his tenure as Europe's current longest serving manager, up until Saturday night, a statistic that even saw his leaving make national TV news bulletins.

When the dust settles, Ronnie will find football history will judge him kindly, both as a manager and a man.

Many of his critics, who had been calling for him to go in recent times, were not even born when McFall returned from a self-imposed exile from the game, following his 1984 departure from Glentoran, to take the Shamrock Park reins in 1986, promising to 'give the football club back to the town'. He delivered beyond the wildest dreams of supporters of the then struggling club and now the wheel has turned full circle again. But is there another McFall out there this time? Time will tell.

Ronnie built Portadown over and over again in his three decades at the helm, including from relegation following an administrative blunder in 2008. But conditions and a changing game were against him repeating the feat and, deep down, he knew that, hanging on only in the hope of an Irish Cup success as a parting gift to the club, the town and himself. In the end, he was the collateral damage.

Altogether his remarkable career has spanned 50 seasons, the last 29 as Portadown boss, having come in to the game with his home town club aged 17, and going on to play in Scotland for a spell with Dundee United. He also played for and managed Glentoran, leading them unbeaten to an Irish League title in 1981.

But it was with Portadown he really made his mark, ending a title famine in 1990 and going on to add three more championships and three Irish Cups in a golden era through the 90s and early part of the new century.

The last few seasons have been a struggle, by the standards McFall set at Portadown, with budget constraints hitting his transfer market options and, amid supporter unrest, he announced before Christmas last year that this would be his last season.

But the end came sooner than planned after Celtic's shock win, courtesy of a last minute penalty after the Ports had fought back from 2-0 down to 2-2.

One of the big Irish League personalities of the past three decades, it will be strange looking at the Shamrock Park dugout and not seeing Ronnie, in his trademark flat cap and muffler, barking orders, disputing decisions, living and loving every minute of the 90. And later, in the tea-room, with devoted wife Anne in tow.

Aged 67, he was asked in a recent Belfast Telegraph interview how he would spend his Saturdays in retirement and said: "To be honest, I haven't had time to think about it. I've been too busy preparing the team from match to match and taking care of all the other business being a manager entails. Maybe getting closer to the time, I will start wondering what I'm going to do with the time I've spent on football down the years.

"I expect I'll still go to matches. Many good friendships have grown out of club rivalries down the years and there's nowhere I wouldn't feel welcome."

Whether he will feel ready to return to Shamrock anytime soon will depend on how deep the wound of his leaving has penetrated and the length of the healing process.

Even prior to stepping down, he had been linked with the vacant Ballymena United post.

But in that same interview, he was adamant that Portadown would be his last managerial job in football.

"I always said when I finished with Portadown, I'd be finished with football and I'm holding to that. It will be a complete break," he said.

Ronnie has brought a lot to the Irish League party and his big presence and vast reserve of football knowledge will be missed.

Arsene Wenger now takes over as Europe's longest serving manager, pushing towards 21 years with Arsenal, amid critical suggestions that he, too, has been there too long.

Everything ends badly in an unforgiving game.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph