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Big Mac savours Glens title challenge

By Chris Holt

He's worn the green of Northern Ireland with pride on more than 50 occasions - many of which as captain and some of them at the World Cup finals.

He's also chalked up well over 400 league appearances - most of them in the English top flight with Queen's Park Rangers.

So as a player, to call him experienced would be a massive understatement.

As a manager, though, let's just say he would admit himself to being a little wet behind the ears.

Tomorrow, Glentoran boss Alan McDonald sets off on his latest adventure and one of his biggest challenges in football - bringing league title glory back to east Belfast.

Such has been the domestic dominance of Linfield in recent years, it is easy to forget that it was only two and a half years ago that Glentoran were being crowned champions at a green, red and black engulfed Seaview following a final day of the season victory over Crusaders.

Seven days previous to this, Chris Morgan's last-gasp goal all but sent the Gibson Cup to the Oval, when he stabbed home from close range against his former Linfield team mates. At one point the trophy looked to be going to Windsor, but Morgan's goal tilted the balance and sparked scenes of jubilation and despair in equal measures around the old ground.

What should have provided a catalyst for the push for a rare back-to-back title triumph would, however, eventually turn into a disaster.

And it was Linfield who seized the moment.

A few weeks later, the Blues made up for their domestic loss by shocking the whole of Ireland by winning the very first Setanta Sports Cup in beating highly-fancied Shelbourne on their own Tolka Park pitch.

Buoyed by that amazing victory and stalked by the fear of a repetition of 'Morgan Day', David Jeffrey rallied his troops to a fantastic domestic clean sweep then followed that up last season with another league and cup double.

During that time, legendary manager Roy Coyle left Glentoran, probably in the same way he had found it nine years previous - at a low ebb and with confidence shattered.

Rookie boss Paul Millar came on board but the only positives that were garnered from that era were the signing of Gary Hamilton and the introduction of young blood to the side. Millar was sacked after a season and a half in charge. And so we come to his successor.

While McDonald definitely wasn't first choice – Roy Walker was infamously paraded as boss only to have the job taken away due to a lack of coaching badges - a 100 per cent start to the season has brought at least a glimmer of a smile back to the Glentoran supporter.

A win tomorrow against Armagh City in their Carnegie Premier League kick-off would perhaps broaden those grins.

"To be honest the fans have shown me, the coaching staff and the players a great deal of support since I took over," said McDonald.

"They have seen what I am trying to do here - at least I hope they do - and they seem to be happy with how things have been progressing so far.

"It is very early days but we have had a decent start to the season in the CIS (Insurance Cup) and I can't really ask for much more from the players in that respect.

"The fans were always going to be wary of someone new coming in and of course this is my first managerial job, but I have done everything I can to give them what they want.

"Glentoran has a tremendous history of playing football the right way - along the ground and with style. I have encouraged the players to do that. I want them playing as much football as possible but of course that is not always going to happen.

"There will be times that due to the opposition, the pitch, the conditions, the weather, whatever, that we will not be able to knock the ball around the way we want to and I hope that the fans respect that.

"I have brought exciting players to the club as well - and again traditionally Glentoran have played with fabulous wingers. In David Scullion I think I have given them (the fans) someone who will excite and entertain throughout the season.

"Expectation levels are high at this club - but I am relishing the opportunity to test myself here as a manager and I am really looking forward to it."

Last season, as is likely to be the case again this year, with Michael Halliday and Gary Hamilton up front, goals aren't expected to be hard to come by.

Last season, though, midfield and defence was a worry.

The return to form of young defender Philip Simpson and finally settling Sean Ward into a regular position at centre back alongside him has perhaps solved the backline problem.

To fix the midfield quandary McDonald turned to one of his old heads.

"Paul Leeman played in midfield as a young player and I was aware of that," said the 43-year-old. "I decided to try him out there again recently and he has been brilliant in there.

"We have Leeper, Ryan Berry, Daryl Fordyce, Dean Fitzgerald, Philip Carson who can all play in the middle of the park and there are others around the squad too.

"Young players are coming through as well. We have a great squad and team spirit is excellent."

But can they win the league?

" Time will tell. If we are in the race by Christmas ask me then," he added. "Until then we will just have to wait and see."

Belfast Telegraph

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