Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Make our football a premier product

In an era dominated by multi-million pound stadia and television football, Portadown fan Victor Gordon longs for a time when it all so much more simple

They are currently building a magnificent new grandstand in my beloved Shamrock Park (home of Portadown Football Club). It'll seat 1,900 fans and complement the stand they completed about five years ago, plus the old one that was constructed in 1950 when the original wooden one was destroyed by fire.

It will mean that 3,600 fans can be accommodated on seats at Shamrock. Trouble is, the way things are going in football (and sport in general), all those seats won't be occupied too often in a single sitting.

The record attendance at Shamrock Park is a whopping 16,000, set in 1961. All the fans — with the exception of the privileged 770 in the old grandstand — were squeezed like fish fingers onto the terraces. It was the last scheduled league encounter of the season between Portadown and Linfield. It went to a test match and the Blues took the Gibson Cup. But let's not talk about that.

The health and safety police would never allow it in this day and age. And yet, there wasn't a single casualty. Except the Ports' league hopes. But let's not talk about that. It may have been the Windsor Park men's famous seven-trophy season (or was that the following year?) when the Ports were runners-up in just about everything. But let's not talk about THAT.

I loved that era of sport, despite the dearth of facilities.

I remember playing rugby for Portadown College in south Belfast and the shower was a barrel filled with God's Natural Spring Water (ie. rain); stripping off to play football at Villa Park, Portadown, (now a housing development, of course) and the clothes pegs were a hawthorn hedge; being a ringer for a Co Antrim hurling team (I was listed as 'Vince Jordan') and hitch-hiking home afterwards.

What youngster in his right mind would do any of that nowadays, with the emphasis on how much money they can extract from their sporting prowess? In those days, we were so keen on sport that we were actually out money — buying our own kit, paying club fees, stumping up for travel, treating ourselves to a greasy fish supper after the match (Who had ever heard about — or cared about — salmonella?)

The point is that neither sport nor crowds seem to have developed much since then, despite improved facilities. Not that I'm against the provision of modern facilities for the comfort and delectation of the fans. My daughter, for example, is forever bemoaning the lack of loos for the ladies at many Irish League football grounds.

Let's get our priorities right. Do we really need a new national stadium at The Maze or anywhere else?

I have my doubts. Let's get the product right first. For example let's try and produce the likes of Tommy Dickson (Linfield) and Wilbur Cush (Portadown), the battle-hardened footballing geniuses who faced each other without compromise in the bruising encounters of the aforementioned era.

That would entice the prospective fans away from their Sky Sports channel, their Gameboy, their Wii, and back to the great outdoors to view the real thing live. In the meantime, pour the Maze millions into improving the existing stadiums and bring more of them up to standard for international matches.

That way, more clubs will share in the rental bonanza that is the exclusive rights of Windsor Park for Northern Ireland international football matches. They'll be richer, and clubs like my beloved Portadown will be able to invest in more quality players.

And prevent Linfield from winning just about everything. Cheers!

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