Another Irish League football season is about to dawn — the big kick-off as they used to call it.
Back again to that old routine — the Saturday ritual and an ingrained way of life for many people. A day for glory or gloom, depression or despair, depending on how your favourite teams performed.
A day to be glued to the TV screen or radio waiting anxiously for the results as the nationally recognised voice of the presenter read them with clinical precision. A day for checking the pools, now the lottery, with its financially astronomical prizes — and then a glimpse of Ireland’s Saturday Night, that sporting must in every household, alas no more, to confirm what dividends the coupons were paying out.
Studying Saturday’s Irish Premier League programme I noticed two matches — Lisburn Distillery v Glentoran at New Grosvenor Stadium and Coleraine v Linfield at Ballycastle Road. Instantly the memory went into rewind — to Saturday April 1, 2000 . . . Distillery defeated the Glens 1-0 while Linfield lost 2-1, yet won the championship with an unassailable points total and four fixtures remaining.
Linfield’s David Jeffrey had broken his managerial championship duck. Amazingly the Gibson Cup had not been displayed at Windsor Park or on the table at the members’ annual meeting since 1994, The Special One, as some label Big Davy, had delivered, commencing a sequence of success — 29 trophies to date.
Jeffrey had then been under some pressure to get that championship flag flying proudly again from the stadium’s masthead. Ironically, the situation is similar now as supporters, brought up on constant success, demand results after what has by Linfield’s high standards been a disappointing 12 months with no major trophies to put on show.
When referee Alan Snoddy blew the final whistle at 4.57pm that April day nine years ago suddenly the sun burst through, the title famine at last had ended. Indeed, the fact that Coleraine won 2-1 didn’t matter amidst the euphoria.
Those nail-biting final 15 minutes were played in a surreal atmosphere climaxed with spectators spilling on to the pitch chanting “Champions, Champions, Champions” as they carried Jeffrey shoulder high.
Jeffrey, now 46, will never forget that afternoon when success brought a mood change and eased the managerial tension.
“We didn’t play very well, were beaten but what joy,” he said. “I recall Billy McCoubrey, our former chairman to whom I owe so much, walking down the touchline and throwing his arms round me. His joy — Linfield fans’ joy — was unrestrained.
“Collecting that trophy really gave them an uplift, made them walk tall. I knew when I took over the job it was going to be a rebuilding process, that we must be patient and it would, perhaps, require a couple of years.
“Yes, it was a rough mine-strewn road. Now we had successfully negotiated it. Coleraine was the turning point. What a change because it was there in the previous two seasons we surrendered our title challenge. To clinch the championship with four fixtures remaining was quite an achievement.
“You could hear the buzz among the crowd throughout as they listened to BBC Radio Ulster on their transistors. They were on tenterhooks anxious to ascertain the state of play at New Grosvenor. It was all so dramatic.”
John Devine, the former Glentoran international defender, scored both Coleraine goals, one a penalty, while Glenn Ferguson got Linfield’s — also a spot kick conceded by Devine. Nobody cared about the result so long as Glentoran lost out to the Whites and that’s what happened, when Graeme Arthur scored three minutes from the time ensuring the Blues of the title for the 43rd time.
Pandemonium at the Showgrounds — ecstasy, too.
A remarkable day. A remarkable outcome. All part of the intrinsic appeal of football. Hail the new season!
Coleraine 2 (Devine 56, pen 67) Linfield 1 (Ferguson 73, pen)
Coleraine: McKeown, Clanachan, Smyth, Gray, Devine, Gaston Picking, McCauley, Hollingsworth, McAllister, Loughery: Subs: McCann, Kerr, Stewart.
Linfield: Mathers, McDonald, Easton, Morgan, Murphy, Beatty, Larmour, Gorman, Ferguson, Callaghan, Bailie: Subs: Marks, McMullan, McCoosh.
Referee: Alan Snoddy (Carryduff).
Lisburn Distillery 1 (Arthur 87) Glentoran 0
Lisburn Distillery: Henry, Reid, Deegan, Hagan, McBride, Murray, Martin, Finlay Bates, Arthur, Prenter: Subs: McIlroy, Clifford, Hirthe.
Glentoran: Gough, Nixon, Kennedy, Ferguson, McCombe, Rainey, McCann, Hamill Gilzean, Batey Elliott. Subs: Armstrong, Young, Russell.
Referee: George McCay (Strabane).