Different class... Alan Gracey on being the Irish League’s first black player, how he dealt with vile abuse, pulling on a Glentoran shirt again at age 62 and, yes, that age-old Post Office robbery story is true
The clock turned back in more ways than one last weekend for that great Irish League character of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Alan Gracey.
Big Alan was always different. Make that different class.
The first black player in Irish League football at that time, he also stood out as a competitor as he rose above sickening racial abuse at away grounds in his career with Glenavon, Glentoran, Portadown, Ballymena United and Distillery.
Alan was then, and still is, a guy with a knack of defusing the worst situations with his humour, a defence mechanism perhaps against stuff that should never have happened or been tolerated, then or now, and, happily, which he has been free from for over 30 years.
It is heartening to hear him say that since bowing out of senior football and for three decades playing and managing local Portadown side Hanover in the Mid Ulster League, up to the age of 60 two years ago, he cannot recall a single abusive utterance.
Times changed and so did big Alan, both for the better, though tragedy has visited his life, too.
His journey in life has been a remarkable one, from teenage tearaway, caught up in the Troubles and briefly imprisoned in bizarre circumstances, to one of the best known, most loved and respected figures in Portadown and its Mid Ulster football hinterland.
So much so that towards the end of last year, having finally hung up his Hanover boots at 60, he was presented with a Special Merit award by the Mid Ulster FA for his service to the junior game in the area. A further measure of the regard in which he is held came when he turned up at the Seagoe Hotel for what he thought would be a simple handover only to be surprised by a host of football friends, past and present.
And if that recognition left him humble and proud, he was chuffed again to be remembered at one of his old clubs, Glentoran, with a call-up for a Legends game against rivals Linfield last Sunday.
It was a step back in time as he hooked up for the first time in 35 years with old team-mates like Rab McCreery, Roy Walsh, Johnny Jamieson and Ron Manley.
They were happy times for him, though tinged with regret, as he later explains.
Regrettably, too, he also had to deal with a side to the game that ought to have been as unacceptable then as it is now. As a strong character, he faced it down, but he shouldn’t have had to.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” he agrees. “It brought it all back when Cyrille Regis died recently, reading what he went through. I had the same sort of stuff. I had bananas chucked at me and was called all the worst things imaginable but, to be totally honest, it never worried me nor bothered me.
“I was always more annoyed if I hadn’t played particularly well because I believed in giving my best, 100 per cent in every match and, in that regard, the abuse was a spur. It made me lift my game.”
It also helped that Grass, as he was nicknamed, could handle himself, a legacy of his tough upbringing in the Portadown loyalist stronghold of Edenderry.
“We were a close knit community, brought even closer by the Troubles,” he relates. “Everyone looked out for each other. I can honestly say, growing up in Edenderry, no one bothered about what colour I was. We had more to worry about — the Troubles, unemployment, paying the bills...”
Born in Lurgan hospital, a corner kick from Mourneview Park, he counts himself a Glenavon man despite his Portadown roots. Alan learned his football at school, going to Edenderry Primary, Killicomaine and Portadown Tech, and had high hopes of making a career of it until those Troubles intervened and this time his skin did mark him out.
It was the early 1970s, Portadown was a hotbed of paramilitary activity and like many young lads in areas like his at the time, Alan found himself swept up.
Sent out to rob a local Post Office, he donned a mask, forgot to wear gloves, was lifted within the hour and sent down for two years... and he has never lived it down.
I’ve known the big lad 40 years but only this week dared to ask if one of the most talked about stories of the time was truth or fiction.
“Sadly, true,” he admits. And does he mind talking about it?
“Why not? There’s no hiding from it. The whole of Portadown knows it happened,” he shrugs. “It was over 40 years ago and I still get stick about it and, again, it doesn’t worry me or annoy me. That was then, this is now. I was young and foolish and I have moved on. The whole country has moved on and we are in a better place for it.”
On his release and determined not to go back, Alan threw himself into his football with Killicomaine Boys Club and his break came when then-Glenavon manager Alan Campbell scouted and then signed him.
Campbell was building a very good Glenavon side that would go on to twice finish league runners-up in 1977 and 1978, made up mostly of players he picked up from junior football through his network of contacts.
Grass was one of those, going on to become a powerful midfield presence. “Alan told me there was no money but if I did well for him and played 10 games, he would look after me. He was as good as his word.
“He gave me my chance and I will always be grateful to him for that.”
But it wasn’t just Campbell’s coaching that made him, quite literally, a player of vision. “I was desperately short sighted and Alan arranged for me to be fitted with contact lenses. I couldn’t believe the difference they made to me as a player,” he says.
“I came into a great side full of smashing players... Jimmy Harvey, who went to Arsenal, Paul Malone, Rory McIlroy’s uncle, Mickey McDonald... I remember Rory’s mum Rosie coming to our matches... Davy Neill, Stanley Sheppard, Geoff Blair, Bobby Carlisle in goal... top players and great characters.
“The supporters were great to me, too. They stood up for me when rival crowds got on my back and they even used to bring a banner to matches saying ‘Keep off the Grass’. They were great times and I still have friends to this day that I made all those years ago at Glenavon. I was made up when a crowd of them turned up to surprise me at the Mid Ulster award presentation.”
The highlight of his Glenavon career came in 1977 when Campbell’s league runners-up (to Glentoran) played Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven in the Uefa Cup. They lost 6-2 in Lurgan and 5-0 away against a side packed with players like the Van der Kerkhof brothers who would feature in the following year’s World Cup final for Holland against Argentina.
The low point was his leaving. Having taken Glenavon from second bottom of the league to twice runners-up, Campbell was inexplicably axed by a deluded board who thought they could go one better. Grass soon followed in a dispute over a signing-on fee and was immediately snapped up by his friend and fellow townsman, Ronnie McFall, for Glentoran.
It was ironic given an incident that had gone before that led to him making the first of two apologies to Big Ronnie, who he is delighted to see back at the Glens after a gap of 34 years.
“Ronnie trained with Glenavon when he was a Glentoran player, as did another Portadown man, Davy Jackson, who was with Coleraine,” recalls Alan.
“One day, when we were playing the Glens, Ronnie caught me with a tackle that left me with an ankle ligament injury. There was no malice, I accepted it as part and parcel of the game but the Glenavon board retaliated by banning Ronnie from training at Mourneview.
“It was so petty and I went to Ronnie and apologised. He just told me to forget it. He rose above it and look at him now, sitting at Mourneview Park as an honoured guest.”
McFall showed there were no hard feelings by signing Grass for a quality Glens team he was determined would knock Linfield off their league-winning pedestal... McCreery, Jameson, Manley, Gary Blackledge and keeper Dennis Matthews were all there.
But Grass only lasted a year due to his biggest regret in football.
“I was so stupid. I still tell myself that to this day,” he admits. “We were due to play a Cup match, there was a dispute over bonus money and a group of us threatened not to play. Ronnie told me not to listen and warned if I didn’t turn up, I’d never play for Glentoran again.
“Foolishly I didn’t weigh in, all the others did and I was out on a limb. Again, I had to say sorry to Ronnie. I was in the wrong and, to his credit, he has never mentioned it again. A top man is Ronnie and I wish him and the Glens well.
“I never thought I would pull on a Glentoran shirt again, especially at this age. That’s why I was so pleased to get the invite to play for the Legends team even though I am nothing of the sort. I was only there for a year but I was responsible for their Cantona moment.”
That came when Grass was transferred to home town Portadown in exchange for the all-time great Jim Cleary, the final piece in McFall’s title-winning jigsaw.
And the wheel of football fortune turned full circle last Sunday when Cleary again replaced Grass as a sub for the Legends side.
Maybe it was the weight of home town expectation, but Grass never hit it off in a struggling Portadown side and he jumped at the chance to rejoin Alan Campbell at Ballymena.
“That didn’t work out either as Ballymena let us both go and I ended up signing for Roy Welsh at Distillery,” he recalls. “They had a decent side with Bertie McMinn, Buster Andrews and Eamonn Hawkins but I wasn’t enjoying my football and packed it in at 28. Next thing they win the Co Antrim Shield, their first trophy in years and the story of my football life. Every time I left a club, they won something.”
Persuaded by a pal to help out his local junior club, Hanover, Grass took over as player-manager, winning a promotion and a couple of Cups, intending to be only a stop-gap.
Thirty-four years on, he is still involved, though he hung up his boots at 60.
“I’ve played, managed, been secretary, washed the kits, you name it, and it’s been my most rewarding time in football. I’ve loved it. I’ve always maintained that if you can’t give 100 per cent, you shouldn’t be playing, plus I made so many good friends.”
A joiner by trade, he is busy this weather installing new fireplaces for a local firm. He lives with his partner of 20 years, Jacqui, and has two daughters, Natalia (34), from a past marriage, and Leah (18).
He also had a young son, Daniel, who you’d always see around with him.
Sadly, Daniel lost his young life to cancer, aged just 13 in 1994 and Alan has thought about him every day since.
When he wonders what might have been, he is not thinking of his own missed opportunities.
“Daniel would be 37 now and I always think about the man he would have become,” he says, reflectively. “Would he have joined a youth team with the sons of all the other fathers I knew? Would he have followed me into the Irish League? He would likely be married by now.
“When something like that happens, it puts all the other stuff we get worked up about into perspective.”
And when he puts it like that, it is little wonder not much else annoys him.
He has certainly become a better man than the idiots who abused him.