Oval and out for Glentoran
Published 24/12/2013 | 08:00
Merry Christmas to all Irish League fans and I hope you find the Boxing Day fixtures as entertaining as a sing-a-long with a Linfield manager.
I hope they bring us some golden memories because if our season switches to the summer months, they will soon be no more.
The biggest crowd – around 5,000 – will be at The Oval for the Big Two battle and I would encourage fans heading to that one to savour every moment.
Why? If Glentoran realise their dream of moving to a new stadium as early as 2016, there may only be one or two more of these festive scraps on Mersey Street.
When the locks go up and the bulldozers move into the famous old ground which has been part of the east-Belfast landscape for more than 100 years, it will be an historic moment tinged with immense sadness. It is impossible for me to find the words that would adequately describe The Oval's contribution to Irish League football.
Fans will have their own special memories. Outrageous goals, comebacks, cup wins, shocks. Crowd trouble, Morgan Day – when Chris Morgan's (pictured) goal in 2005 against Linfield effectively clinched the Glens the title.
A white ball in the snow, a cockerel and a pig, giants of the game like Eusebio and our own George Best.
Great European battles against Marseille, Juventus, Benfica and Arsenal – the Gunners were humbled 1-0.
When I was a kid in school in the early 1980s, many of my friends supported Liverpool. I wanted to be different so I allowed myself to be seduced by Manchester United. Can't say I regretted that move.
Many of my classmates also followed Linfield so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. It was time to take in a Blues-Glens match at The Oval.
I can remember jumping on a bus from north Belfast and travelling into town to catch another bus to the east of the city. I got off a bus on the Newtownards Road, but I may as well have landed on the moon.
I didn't know where I was, but then I heard the crowd. That noise became my Sat Nav and sucked me towards The Oval.
When I arrived I made my way to the terracing. It was a glorious day and I was blown away by the colour and noise of the spectacle.
It was the beginning of a relationship that is still going strong.
In those days, guys like Jim Cleary and Billy Caskey stamped their class on games.
They were like gladiators performing in their own Colosseum.
Now it's hard to get your head around the fact you may never see your team win a Boxing Day game at the Oval again.
'Stadium' is the modern buzzword. Casement Park and Windsor Park are getting a lick of paint while not far from Mersey Street, Ravenhill has never looked better.
Moving home can be a stressful experience.
Throw in The Oval's unique tales of sporting triumph and despair and it becomes an even more heartwrenching experience for Glentoran.
The ground was reduced to rubble during the Second World War but the German bombers failed to break the spirit of the people of Belfast and normal service was resumed.
Crowds of over 20,000 used to flock there – the kind of attendance figures that would give a health and safety officer a sleepless night.
Now the Glens are naturally keen to turn the page on a painful chapter and secure long-term financial security.
Turnstiles nearly closed but they remain open and some painful medicine has been consumed to revive the patient.
Now, if they can find a new home, Glentoran can embark on a glorious new adventure. Anyone who doubts what they bring to the Irish League should attend Thursday's clash with Linfield.
I sincerely hope there's a few kids going to their first Irish League fixture and their souls will be touched too.
But change is ahead. It could be a time for new heroes and a new Coliseum.
Here's to the future. Le Jue Avant Tout.