Glenavon is a club with a proud heritage and its contribution to Northern Ireland football over the decades has been immense. A club that has always acted with dignity and decorum and professional in its approach.
The death recently in Dublin of legendary centre-half Johnny Matthews, 89, brought back memories of the golden era at Mourneview Park and one of the club’s greatest feats — winning the Irish League Championship in 1951-52 season.
That took the Gibson Cup out of Belfast for the first time. It was only one of their “first” feats. They were the first Northern Ireland team to compete in Europe (1957-58), first ever to travel by air to a match with Aberdeen (1949) and first provincial side to achieve the double (1956-57) when Jimmy Jones hit 74 goals, a post-War record.
How the Glenavon of today would love to re-enact the glories of the 50s and 60s under two brilliant managers and ex-Belfast Celtic all-time greats — Harry Walker and Jimmy McAlinden, a member of Portsmouth’s 1939 FA Cup-winning team, who reigned as king at Mourneview for 14 seasons.
The Irish League Championship triumph was the zenith. Consistency of performance and sheer brilliance of players meant Wilbur Cush, Jackie Denver, Jimmy Jones, Ronnie Lyske and Billy Liggett, were targeted by cross-channel clubs.
Glenavon could have made a fortune and much needed revenue in transfer fees, but officials were more intent on becoming champions and getting their hands on the Gibson Cup, invariably the property of Belfast-based clubs.
The date, Saturday, March 29, 1952. Glenavon only needed a point from their match against Glentoran at the Oval and the title was theirs. No big money in these days — players were given a £10 win bonus.
There was a self-belief in the squad then that they could be title winners and that’s just what happened, Cush and Denver scoring the goals in the 2-1 victory over Glentoran handicapped by the absence of several key players.
Sammy Ewing, a Glentoran idol then, cut back a goal but Glenavon, despite a tension-filled final few moments, held out to the end.
These were the players who wrote themselves into history that day: George Brennan, Billy Liggett, Ronnie Lyske, Maurice Masters, Johnny Matthews, Jim Lewis, Tommy Forde (now resident in Australia), Jackie Denver, Jimmy Jones, Wilbur Cush, Maurice McVeigh, who was known as “twinkle-toes”.
My Ireland’s Saturday Night report summed it up: “Nobody can say Glenavon won the title in a canter. They’ve had to fight for it since Christmas and it was the same at the Oval.
“They ripped away the barrier which had kept the provincial teams as the perennial country cousins, sweeping aside the opposition with style and at times arrogance.”
Glenavon’s influence in the corridors of power has been a major factor in local football governance. One of the Irish League presidents was the late Billy Kennedy who was also the Irish FA treasurer. And it was a Glenavon director and IFA delegate Joe Beckett who was responsible for the purchase of the IFA headquarters at 20 Windsor Avenue.
When Harry Cavan indicated the IFA would be moving the headuquarters from Waring Street, Beckett asked him to visit a magnificent house between the Lisburn and Malone Roads. A deal was done and the IFA have been there ever since.