Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Back to the future as Glens lap up life at top

Plum’s a peach: Glentoran’s Croatian playmaker Hrvoje Plum has been a big hit
Plum’s a peach: Glentoran’s Croatian playmaker Hrvoje Plum has been a big hit
Billy Weir

By Billy Weir

Those of you familiar with the goings on of social media, whether it be Facebebo, Instachat, Snapgram or whatever, will no doubt have been plagued by the 10-year challenge.

This has become particularly prevalent in recent weeks with the coming to a close of one decade and the exciting start of a new one, with people posting pictures of themselves looking much the same as they did 10 years ago.

Another one doing the rounds in football circles is 10 pictures to sum up your life in the game, so it is hardly surprising, then, that Glentoran are looking to go back to the future.

I'm not altogether sure what Mick McDermott's club motor is, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him clamber out of a DeLorean on Mersey Street of a morning.

It was a momentous day on Saturday as the space time continuum remained intact when the Glens saw off Warrenpoint Town, although there was a wee wobble on the flux capacitor when the visitors took the lead.

Goals from two men vying for player of the season, Robbie McDaid and Hrvoje Plum, settled nerves and the result, and there was further good news on Tuesday with the Croatian joining fellow countryman Marijan Antolovic in signing a contract extension to 2021.

A 2-1 win over the men from the Mournes will probably not be remembered in a couple of weeks, never mind 10 years, but it was a highly notable result for a number of reasons.

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Firstly, it kept up the Glens' remarkable recent record. They are now unbeaten in 14 Danske Bank Premiership games but, more importantly, it took the men from the east to the top of the table.

So what I hear you cry. They were quickly knocked off their perch, albeit on goal difference by Linfield's defeat of Cliftonville, but psychologically it was a massive moment for the Glens.

I'm sure most won't remember a 5-0 win over Ards back in September 2013, when goals from David Scullion, Calum Birney, Richard Clarke, Jordan Hughes and Niall Henderson sent the Glens top of the pile.

That only a handful of players - Birney, Marcus Kane and Elliott Morris - remain from that side shows the magnitude of the changes in the east.

Incredibly, that was the last time they were on top but, as has been the way of the Glens in the past decade, another crisis was just around the corner, and in a couple of seasons Eddie Patterson, despite winning two Irish Cups, was on his way.

He was in good company. Gary Smyth, Ronnie McFall, Gary Haveron, Alan Kernaghan, Scott Young and Alan McDonald have all sat in the dugout in that previous decade.

The late, great McDonald was the last man to bring the Gibson Cup back to The Oval, you guessed it, 10-and-a-bit years ago, when they just pipped the Blues to the title.

But that was to be the final hurrah before a decade of turmoil, financial foolery of the highest order and an unerring habit of lurching from one crisis to another.

There were many eyebrows raised in a northerly direction when the latest man to come and save the club, Welsh-Iranian businessman Ali Pour, arrived with McDermott in tow.

Smyth and Paul Leeman were unceremoniously dumped by the club they love, with Paul Millar returning to The Oval to serve as McDermott's assistant, and the jury sat and waited.

Well, they haven't done too shabbily, have they? A look at the top five teams - now just separated by three points in the best title race ever - shows just how far the Glens have come.

Linfield, despite being rubbish according to some, are still top of the table and have exactly the same points, 50, as they had after 23 games last season.

The Glens, though, are a remarkable 23 points better off from 12 months ago, a miserly 27 points was all they had to show as the new revolution began bubbling behind the scenes.

Elsewhere, Cliftonville under Paddy McLaughlin are 12 points better off, Coleraine five and Crusaders are one worse than they were, showing that, while the top teams are taking points off each other, they are still swatting away the lesser lights in the division.

McDermott deservedly picked up his second Manager of the Month award last week after a fantastic December that included a Boxing Day thumping of Linfield.

He has assembled a team that is a fascinating mix of foreign imports that have welded superbly well with the players who were already there and know what Glentoran means to the community and the fans.

In cliff-hanging dramas, there is a thing commonly referred to as the 'water-cooler moment' when the workplace gathers round to chat about last night's thrilling instalment. I tried it myself this week, although we shall call it the 'kettle moment' as I sidled up to a Glentoran fan - it is best not to confront them face on as they can lash out - to ask him about life at The Oval.

I'm not sure if any of you ever had a Jack Russell terrier, but they had an uncanny habit of finding the lower legs of visitors a huge turn on and spent entire evenings attached - and doing unspeakable things - to your Aunt Mabel.

This was the beast I unleashed at the kettle. To protect his identity, we shall only refer to him as 'Pete', and, to be honest, he's also a Liverpool fan, so anything to shut him up about them is worth it, but a wee glow came over his face when I asked him about life at Glentoran.

"There's a genuine belief that we can do something," he said, as I edged my shapely shins out of the way just in case.

"Even on Saturday when we were losing to Warrenpoint, there was no panic, you just feel that they are going to come back and win, the way Man United used to.

"They are playing some great stuff, Hrvoje Plum is different class and Mick McDermott has them firing. The atmosphere around the place is completely different, the crowd are really getting behind them and the noise is fantastic."

After two-and-a-half hours I made it back to my desk, but it was worth it for research purposes.

Of course, there is a caveat to all this. It is Glentoran.

You can picture the scene now. It is the springtime, Marcus Kane is about to be handed the Gibson Cup with red, green and black ribbons fluttering in the wind and, upon hearing of the Iranian link, the leader of another Oval office, Donald Trump, cluster bombs the east Belfast venue and, with that, the title is gone.

McDermott, with a wealth of experience across the globe, knows that he is probably ahead of schedule, but is happy to ride the wave.

"Our aim was to be attached to the main group going into the New Year," he said at the weekend.

"We know every team raises their game when they play us, so the pressure is always there. Because we are top, it doesn't mean a lot because there are 14 difficult rounds to go.

"This is a crazy league and I think it will be like that right until the end of the campaign."

Crazy, perhaps, but did you ever think you'd see a clatter of Croatians, a Flying Dutchman, an Iranian and various other assorted waifs and strays plying their trade in east Belfast? Get the DeLorean started and let's see where this takes us.

Crisis? What crisis for the Blues?

A week is a long time in politics and in football, too. But thankfully for David Healy, his crises only last seven days and not three years.

Normal service was resumed for the champions with Monday night’s impressive win over Cliftonville at Solitude that took them back to the top of the table.

There had been much gnashing of teeth following their Irish Cup exit to Queen’s University the previous week and, thanks to Mark Stafford’s winner, the chance to extend two digits in the direction of the snipers was gleefully accepted.

Mind you, had they not taken the points after the controversy of Joe Gormley’s equaliser then the Stormont shenanigans of the past 1000-odd days would have been a mere trifle compared to Healy’s howls.

I have watched Conor McMenamin’s coming together with Ethan Boyle about 30 times and for the life of me still can’t tell who got the final touch, but fair play to referee Raymond Crangle for having the courage to make a decision and stick with it.

I’m not sure VAR could even have got to the bottom of it. Sky certainly didn’t shed much light on it but, then again, their coverage wasn’t the best.

No guest summariser at half-time and no reaction after the game, it really isn’t good enough, although I am aware that Storm Brendan may have scuppered their pitchside plans so we’ll see how they perform later in the month when they return.

As for the Blues, well, they are still top and continue to defy their critics.

“That win is for everybody, and I hope it’s the first step to winning a wee bit of the trust back,” said Healy.

“It’s only one game and three points, but people were doubting and there were question marks; what’s going on at Linfield? Have I lost the dressing room? Have they gone soft? Hopefully that’s the start of a bit of a run and we can get a proud Linfield team out on the pitch week-in, week-out.”

The rest of the league can’t say they haven’t been warned.

Nothing to play for? Don’t tell Gary

With the removal of the dangling carrot of a Europa League play-off spot this season, life in the bottom six is just one of struggle.

The only battle is the one for survival, which looks, no disrespect, to be a two-way one between Institute and Warrenpoint, with the four sides above them having little to play for.

Dungannon Swifts, Carrick Rangers and Ballymena United will point to the Irish Cup, while the Sky Blues also have next week’s Co Antrim Shield decider on the horizon. For Glenavon, though, it promises to be a long few months.

Out of the Irish Cup, they are seventh in the Danske Bank Premiership and realistically have little chance of making a top six that doesn’t really mean anything anyhow.

But whisper that quietly around manager Gary Hamilton, who was less than chuffed at his side scrambling to a 2-2 draw with ’Stute at the weekend.

“People might think that players at this club haven’t anything to play for. Well, they do, they are playing for their futures, everybody is,” he growled.

“I haven’t done well enough this year and obviously the players that take to the pitch haven’t done well enough this year because we are where we are and we are out of the Irish Cup, so facts don’t lie.

“But, as I said, it’s up to the players between now and the end of the season to prove that they want to be at the football club next season.”

Expect a 6-6 draw when they go to Ballymena this Saturday then...

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