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Oval's history can point to new chapter for Glentoran

By Ivan Little

The deadly exploits of Adolf Hitler, loyalist gun runners and vicious murderers together with a rail tragedy aren't the usual subjects football fans expect to find kicking about in a book about the beautiful game.

But an intriguing new tome about Glentoran and their home in east Belfast literally explores new ground about one of Northern Ireland's most famous football stadia, the Oval.

Rival fans unkindly call it the Hovel because after 113 years, its somewhat decaying and out-dated appearance makes it look like a place that time - and the Irish Football Association and the Government - forgot, though a multi-million pound modernisation is on the cards.

However the critics of the ground which was constructed in the shadow of the Belfast shipyard are decidedly offside in as much as they ignore the remarkable backstory of the Oval which has long been the heartbeat of east Belfast through its good times and bad.

The stadium opened in 1903 just nine years before the sinking of the Titanic and old photos of the ground show the Harland and Wolff gantries towering over it.

Now a fourth generation Glenman, Sam Robinson, has written an unputdownable book which is both a definitive history of the Oval and a social snapshot of Ballymacarrett where it stands.

And among the portfolio of striking pictures that he has included in his publication is a grainy black and white image of a Glentoran game against Cliftonville as far back as 1897.

But even more significantly, the still is from what is believed to be the first ever moving pictures of any football match anywhere in the world.

The brief film was shot by a Frenchman called Alexander Promio for the Lumiere Brothers company during a visit to Belfast.

For years it was mistakenly thought that the footage was from a game between Woolwich Arsenal and Newcastle United in London.

The Lumiere Institute have acknowledged that the error came during the cataloguing of the film.

The tongue-twisting title of Sam's self-published book is 'There's a green sward called the Oval - the life and times of a football stadium' but it does more, much more, than it says on the tin and will be devoured by anyone with even an inkling of an interest about one of Belfast's most important districts.

Sam's goal at the outset however was a lot more modest.

He says: "I'd answered a call from the Glens to help water the Oval grass at the end of the season in May and as I stood there, the notion hit me that the story of the ground should be told, especially as it had just been agreed to re-develop the Oval. But it was only meant to be a small-scale project."

But the more Sam dug up the past, the more he unearthed that fascinated him. "I'd been writing for the Glentoran programme for a long time and I'd been involved in other projects and thought I knew it all.

"But I quickly realised that I didn't really have a clue about the amazing history of the Oval" says Sam, a self-confessed anorak who carried out research along with fellow Glenmen George Dorrian and Philip Stevenson in the Public Records Office and the Belfast newspaper library.

The trio were all surprised to discover just how big a part the ground played within the very fabric of east Belfast from political rallies against Home Rule to cycle races, athletics events, and carnivals.

"And I also found photos of baseball matches at the Oval when swaggering sailors from the American Navy came to town in the 1920s," he adds.

Other visitors were less welcome. In May 1941, 200 of Adolf Hitler's Luftwaffe pilots rained down their lethal bombs on Belfast. The Fuhrer was intent on blitzing the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the Short and Harland aircraft factory and the docks but his planes also devastated the Oval along with huge swathes of the city where hundreds of people were killed.

For eight years before they were able to return home, Glentoran played their games at the Grosvenor Park base of Distillery and Sam has found a rarely seen picture of the Oval in the wilderness years when the club brought in sheep to graze on the pitch to keep the weeds away.

Tragedy also stalked the Oval in January 1945 when two Belfast-bound trains collided just behind the perimeter of the ground. One train smashed into the back of the other one, leaving 23 people dead.

But what's also remarkable about that accident is the fact that the two trains had a total of 786 passengers on board.

Another little known chapter in the Oval story is the discovery of loyalist guns at the ground during the civil unrest in Belfast in November 1922.

Three members of an organisation called the Ulster Protestant Association were arrested in a Royal Irish Constabulary sting operation as they tried to hide rifles, grenades and ammunition under the unreserved grandstand.

Sam Robinson's book also deals with the notorious McMahon murders in a north Belfast gun attack eight months earlier in March 1922.

Catholic pub owner Owen McMahon, who died along with four of his sons and another man in what was believed to have been a reprisal for the killings of two policemen the day before, was a director of Glentoran.

Back on the football front, 51-year-old Sam, who was raised in Solway Street in east Belfast before moving to Ballybeen in Dundonald, says he grew up listening to relatives' 'magical' recollections about Glentoran's legendary European exploits in the sixties when they drew games at a packed Oval against mighty Benfica and Rangers.

He adds: "I didn't start going to the Oval until I was seven in 1972 and I was hooked. I can still remember my first walk up the hill at the City End and it's a journey I still make every other Saturday.

"One of my favourite memories was the night we played Juventus in front of 35,000 people in the 1977-78 European Cup. I'd never seen a crowd that size before and I'd never seen any swarthy footballers who looked so healthy, fit and trim compared to our boys who all seemed so anaemic in comparison.

"We played like lions that night and they only beat us 1-0."

Sam, whose favourite players in the old days were Jim Cleary and Billy Caskey, regrets there are no players of their stature in the modern game.

"The standard isn't what it was. Kids with any modicum of talent are straight across the water to English clubs. And while Irish League players of today are certainly fitter, I don't think they are any more talented than in the old days," he says.

"The characters of the past are sadly missing too. They're like catalogue footballers nowadays who've all been coached exactly the same way.

"But I still wouldn't miss the Glens, home or away. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I look forward all week to the game on a Saturday but often within 10 minutes I'm wondering what I'm doing there."

The age-old Glentoran rivalry with Linfield features in the book too and Sam doesn't shy away from recording details of regular clashes between the two sets of supporters, sometimes in the rafters of the unreserved stand at the Oval, before stricter segregation arrangements were introduced.

Sam hopes that his book will be a reminder of the old Oval if a new Oval becomes a reality after over 30 years of unfulfilled promises.

The plan is for a new 8,000 capacity stadium to be built at a cost of over £9m on the Oval site with the pitch turned 90 degrees from its present position to the way it used to be on its original site 300 yards closer to Dee Street.

Sam says: "I'm more optimistic than I've ever been that we are going to get a new ground. There is certainly momentum coming now but we are Glenmen, we have seen it all before."

Like many other supporters Sam opposed the once-mooted plans to move Glentoran's home to the site of the Billy Neill Stadium at Dundonald.

"That was a bridge too far," says Sam who is on the board of the Glentoran Community Trust.

"We wouldn't have ruled out the Blanchflower Stadium on the Holywood Road as a possible site or land at Laburnum in the Orangefield area or even the Titanic Quarter because they would all have had connectivity with east Belfast. But not Dundonald. That would have been turning our back on decades of history."

Down the years managers have come and gone at the Oval and there's been a steady turnover of chairmen too. But Sam has revealed that groundsmen are more rooted at the Oval.

"By my reckoning there have only been six groundsmen since 1903 when the Oval opened. They tend to stay quite a while and after the war, after all the problems, the condition of the pitch has invariably been praised by visiting teams from Europe," says Sam who wishes that another football figure had got the chance to show his skills on the Oval pitch.

George Best was a boyhood fan of the Glens and accompanied similarly-disposed relatives to games, and Sam says he has established that Bestie was in the Oval grandstand the night Glentoran drew with Benfica.

Not long afterwards, Best was in the thick of the action against Benfica at Wembley where his virtuoso performance helped Manchester United win the European Cup.

In 1982 Best donned a Glentoran shirt for the one and only time in a friendly against the Old Trafford club at the Oval.

"That's another iconic image in the book," says Sam who regrets George was 'the one that got away' at Glentoran. He calls it the club's Decca moment.

"They were the record label who turned down the Beatles," says Sam.

  • Copies of the Oval book can be obtained at www.gctni.com or www.glentoransuperstore.com

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