Mark Farren's memory the driving force as Gary Hamilton's Glenavon eye Irish Cup glory
Gary Hamilton has a cup to win. On Saturday the Glenavon Football Club player-manager will lead his team into the Tennent's Irish Cup Final against Linfield at a 12,000 sell-out Windsor Park. The hopes of a town, its surrounding villages and a vast Lurgan Glenavon diaspora go with him.
It's a huge weight of expectation on his 35-year-old shoulders, heightened by his first major trophy win as a young manager on the same ground, this time two years ago, beating Ballymena United 2-1.
The consensus among the club's supporters and football pundits is that this is a much better Glenavon team than two years ago. But Linfield, seeking their first Irish Cup in four years, a lean spell by their standards, are much more fancied, so Hamilton has work to do.
And, yet, in the midst of his meticulous cup final week preparations, he still finds time to remember and honour an absent friend.
Two years ago Hamilton's Glenavon were led out onto the pitch by their popular and talented goalscorer, No.10 Mark Farren, forced out of football at the time as he battled the aggressive brain tumour that was to sadly claim his life at 33 in February this year.
Mark's passing was mourned by football fans across Ireland who recognised him as an exceptionally gifted striker, both for his home town Derry City and later Glenavon. Supporters at both clubs took to him as a person as well as a player and his loss left a void still felt at the Brandywell and Mourneview, but particularly by Hamilton, whose connection with Mark went far beyond that of manager and player.
They were mates, and Hamilton was hit hard, which is why cup final week sees him touring schools in the Lurgan, Waringstown and Bleary heartlands of the club support, not to promote the team or drum up support for the big game, but to help raise funds for the cause close to the Farren family heart, the Brain Tumour Research charity.
We speak as he drives between engagements at the various schools. No time for lunch, or even coffee, as he explains: "I am not being funny here, I seriously don't have a spare minute to sit down with anyone outside of the club or home this week."
Lest anyone consider him less than fully focused on the football task at hand, his players and chairman will tell you he is in complete control of the playing side of the club, from top to bottom, and especially in charge of the big match preparations.
"I picked my team in my head two weeks ago," he confides. The kit, the training, the team talks, even down to the pre-match choice of menu at his partner Faye McFarland's renowned Harlem cafe on Belfast's Bedford Street, where Hamilton himself can sometimes be found helping out.
Time outside that, which he'd ordinarily have to himself, he gives over to his fundraising tour.
"There's no better week to do it," he explains. "With the team in the cup final, all the kids in the area are tuned into Glenavon. We had the idea of asking them to organise non-uniform days. Myself and one of the club directors, Eddie Drury, go along and stage competitions, judge them and hand out prizes. The kids each bring in a pound to take part and all the donations go the Brain Tumour Research charity."
No matter how busy he is, Hamilton will always have time for Mark. To that extent, the night before the final will see Mark's wife Terri-Louise travel down from Derry to stay with his old boss and pal, and Faye, at their Hillsborough home ahead of leading out the team at Windsor the following day, just as Mark did two years ago.
The salutes to Mark's memory don't end there. The Glenavon team will wear his number 10 above the club crest on the front of their cup final shirts and,in the 10th minute, the club has asked its fans to rise for a momentary round of applause which they are sure the entire stadium, Linfield and neutrals, will join in. Hamilton's involvement in and endorsement of all that should tell you everything you need to know about him as a manager and a man, defined by his priorities.
But there are those who thought they knew different and old perceptions can be hard to shake, causing eyebrows to be raised in some quarters when Glenavon handed him the job he dreamt of at the helm of the club he supported since boyhood.
Hamilton readily acknowledges the party animal reputation that accompanied his 20s playing days, contending that if anything was wild, it was the exaggeration.
"Yes, I liked a night out and still do. And I never cared what people who didn't matter thought then, and still don't.
"Ninety per cent of what I was supposed to have got up to simply wasn't true. The people putting about those stories, always behind my back, didn't know me and could never know me.
"They didn't see me, during all that time, going around youth and reserve team games, taking note of young players showing promise, for future reference.
"They didn't see me taking my coaching badges in readiness for the manager's career I always intended to follow when my playing days began to shorten.
"If Glenavon took a chance on me when they gave me the job three-and-a-half years ago, any risk was down to inexperience, nothing else.
"By the same token, I take no pleasure in proving people wrong. That's not the way I am. My motivation comes from endeavouring to reach the standards I set for myself and this club.
"We've done well, winning the cup two years ago and qualifying for Europe two seasons running, but I believe there is more to come and that in maybe two or three years we can be challenging for the ultimate prize of the league title."
By now, looking at what he has achieved, any remaining doubters should have learned neither to discount nor underestimate him.
From a personal viewpoint, having been immersed in the Glenavon club, man and boy, 40 years and more, this writer can testify to the root and branch transformation he has brought about at a club going nowhere until his arrival on loan as a striker from Glentoran four years ago with ambitions of one day putting his managerial vision to the test there.
And having journalistically charted his career going back 20 years from Blackburn Rovers apprentice to star player at Portadown and Glentoran, international recognition, and now successful fledgling manager at Glenavon, the way he has learned and grown with his experiences is apparent.
In conversation, the balance he has struck in his life comes across just as impressively, a man with more depth to him than some would have given him credit for.
Football, Faye and his two boys, Calum (9) and Corey (5) from a past marriage are his focus.
"My boys are with me four or five days a week and I love every minute of the quality time I spend with them. I think it's important to play a part in your children's lives.
"I have two nights training and match days at the club, some days I help out with Faye at the Harlem, and when we get a chance, we'll spend a few days away."
Summer holidays are spent at their favourite resort, Quinta de Lago in Portugal, allowing Hamilton to catch up on his reading. Sports autobiographies are his thing and right now, in his down time, he is dipping into the life story of enigmatic Swedish football superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovich.
"I like to get inside the mindset of guys like that, to see and learn from what makes them tick," he says.
Those nights out he still enjoys are spent at favourite restaurants like the Pot Belly in Gilford and the Hillside in Hillsborough, either as a couple or with their closest friends, his assistant manager Paul Millar, himself an Irish Cup winning goalscorer with Glentoran in 1986, and his partner Antoinette McKeown.
A long way removed from the life of a supposed party animal. His club chairman Adrian Teer vouches: "If Gary says 90% of the stories about him are untrue, the other 10% have been quashed by the job he is doing here at Glenavon. I could not speak more highly of him.
"He is articulate, he is shrewd and he goes about his business with a steely determination. He knows how he wants the job done and won't be deflected. His attitude is that he stands and falls by his own decisions and we have given him free rein.
"He has control of the playing side from the academy through to the first team and knows every aspect and each individual.
"He also has a fantastic knowledge of football, not just tactically or man-management wise. If I were to mention a young player from here coming back from England, he'd rattle off the boy's background, his playing position, strengths and weaknesses.
"Very single-minded, too. You are either in with Gary or you are out. No one gets a second chance to cross him or take a liberty twice, as a few players and journalists have discovered to their cost."
Sport was always going to play a prominent part in Hamilton's life, being brought up in the cricket citadel of Waringstown and watching his famous uncles, Robbie and Davy Dennison, progress to international careers; Davy as a Waringstown and Ireland cricketer and Robbie as a Wolves and Northern Ireland footballer. The two brothers also starred at Glenavon, forging Hamilton's affinity to the club.
He moved on, always looking back on those boyhood days on the Mourneview terraces through blue-tinted spectacles, shattered on his return as a loan player to discover a dysfunctional club, lacking direction and flirting with a second relegation from the Premier Division in a matter of seasons.
"I believed I could turn things around," he asserts. "I applied for the job when it came up but I wouldn't have taken it on any terms. I insisted on having that total control. The dressing room had to be my domain. If the chairman wants to see me, I go to his office. Only the players and myself cross the dressing room threshold. Playing matters are my responsibility alone and, to be fair to the chairman and his directors, they have given me that latitude.
"Before, we were a club with a reputation as one where players past their sell-by date came to pick up a final pay-packet.
"Any older players I signed, like the former Linfield captain Winkie Murphy, for example, had to be committed to the club and buy into what we are building here and that's what happened. We now have good young players of our own coming through to the extent only one player remains from the squad I inherited three-and-a-half years ago, Kyle Neill.
"We are working towards a common goal here, everyone has to be pulling in the same direction.
"I think I am a fair manager who will give players leeway, after all they are part-time footballers holding down jobs and with family and other commitments to juggle.
"But I expect them to repay me in kind out on the pitch. I'm not strict, but there is a line they must not cross and they know that."
Where once there was a disconnect at Lurgan between players, supporters and the board, there is now a bond and a united front, evidenced by a third more ticket sales for the final than two years ago.
There is also that creditable and tangible wave of sympathy and support for the Farren family running right through a club taking its lead from Hamilton's example.
He would be the first to dismiss the notion of Glenavon as a one-man club. But good things are happening there, on and off the field, and one man has been the catalyst.