Belfast Telegraph

Tony Bell: I wasn't popular in Portadown and when I scored the Irish Cup final winner for Cliftonville, it added insult to injury

Tony Bell on 1979 Cliftonville heroics, excelling in different sports, and brave battle with cancer

Swing of it: Tony Bell is still playing bowls and golf
Swing of it: Tony Bell is still playing bowls and golf
Tony in action for Ireland
Famous day: Tony Bell (far right) celebrates Irish Cup success with Cliftonville teammates Marty Quinn and John Flanagan (front)
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Not too many players can claim that they scored the winning goals in both the Irish Cup final and the Armagh 'B' Gaelic Football Championship final, but then not many have shared in the level of versatility that has underpinned Tony Bell's sporting life to date.

Now 66 but "going on 40" as he puts it himself, this former teacher's sporting prowess has brought him success in bowls, cricket and badminton as well as soccer and GAA.

A soccer career that began with Glenavon was to span some 17 years and take him to Portadown, Glentoran, Ards, Larne and Cliftonville.

From the word go, goalscoring was to be Bell's forte and he retains a vivid recollection of his most memorable moments in this respect.

"I was lucky enough to score a couple of goals on my debut for Glenavon against Crusaders and this seemed to kick-start my career as a finisher, if you'll pardon the pun," recalls Bell.

But one goal more than any other during his playing career afforded Bell considerable satisfaction. That came in the 1979 Irish Cup final for Cliftonville when his late strike proved the winner and allowed the Reds to take delivery of a trophy which they have not been able to get their hands on again since.

As a native of Portadown and a former player with his local club, Tony was not too surprised that his winning goal did not endear him to the population of the town.

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"I wasn't too popular in Portadown because I had thrown in my lot with Cliftonville and then when I scored that winning goal in the 1979 Irish Cup final, this was viewed as adding insult to injury," reflects Tony.

"But we had a decent Cliftonville team then and it was my job to get goals. Obviously it gave me satisfaction to get that winner but I was sorry that my native Portadown had to be the victims on that occasion.

"My father, who is now 93, has been a lifelong supporter of the club but he didn't hold what I did against me.

"That Cliftonville team and that final will stay with me until the day I die. It was a great team with great men in it."

It was through his involvement with soccer that Tony came into contact with former Armagh GAA star Ger Houlahan.

Bell admits that he was "slightly flabbergasted" when Houlahan suggested that he might like to try his hand at Gaelic football and subsequently paved the way for him to turn out for Armagh city club Pearse Og.

If he found the physical demands of the Gaelic code on a rather higher level, Tony's scoring touch was nonetheless still there to serve him well, never more so than in the Armagh 'B' Football Championship final against Clan na gael.

"The Pearse Og side were awarded a penalty in the closing moments and when it was suggested that I should take it, I initially baulked at the prospect because the goals looked smaller and the spot-kick mark looked rather more distant from the target than in soccer but in the end I said I would have a go," recollects Bell.

"I set the ball down and thumped it as hard as I could but the goalkeeper still managed to beat the ball out to the side. I followed up and from an acute angle I was able to squeeze the ball into the far corner of the net and that score gave us a victory that we never thought we would achieve."

In time, he graduated to the Pearse Og senior string in which he proved a very capable forward and when Houlahan expressed the view that he could possibly reach inter-county status, this provided him with more encouragement.

But his myriad of sporting interests meant that Bell was not able to commit himself more fully to a career in GAA.

"To be honest, the fact that Gaelic football is played on a bigger pitch than soccer or rugby suited me down to the ground because I was able to use my pace better and avail of space," reveals Tony. "I was also able to score with both feet which I found to be a big help.

"I know nowadays most players have mastered this particular skill but back some 30 years ago it was rather different with most players only able to kick scores with one foot."

It was with some regret that he eventually departed the GAA scene.

"I made some good friends in the Pearse Og club and since then Gerard Houlahan has invited me to oversee soccer coaching courses which were run under the auspices of the Council in Armagh," he points out.

When he called time on his field game pursuits, Tony turned his hand to bowls and was to make an impact in both the indoor and outdoor codes.

"I was fortunate enough to reach the British Isles Triples and Fours finals over the course of the last few years and this afforded me tremendous satisfaction," reveals Bell. "I had initially taken up the sport as a means of relaxation but as I got more involved my competitive juices started to flow again and I found myself competing at quite a high level, which was rather unexpected."

Indeed, since he called time on what he terms "high-energy sports" he has been enjoying an extended sporting career through bowls, golf and cricket as well as becoming an armchair rugby fan.

"I have represented Dunbarton bowling club and I am a member of Tandragee golf club but I can assure you that my interest in rugby is away from the field of play," smiles Bell. "My brother Gary's daughter, Jodie, is married to the former Ulster and Ireland captain Rory Best so it's no great surprise to learn that I have been a passionate follower of both teams for some years now."

Even the onset of prostate cancer has failed to diminish his spirit or quench his pursuit of an active life.

"The cancer was initially diagnosed some 13 years ago and I had radiotherapy treatment last year, but I must say I am feeling good just now," states Bell.

"I like to get on with what I am doing, although I recognise my limitations. There are people out there who are more unfortunate than me and I have to say that life is good."

He certainly did not pick his love for the outdoor life up off the stones. At just seven years short of reaching the 'ton', his father still undertakes his walk in Gosford Forest Park, Markethill on at least four days in any given week.

"My father has always been a very active man and he has kept us all on our toes. He lives just a few doors from me in Castle Avenue, Richhill while my brother also resides in the same row of houses so we are a close family with sport helping to cement what is a great bond. Maybe they should rename the street 'Bell Avenue'," adds Tony.

He follows in his father's footsteps by walking and exercising in Gosford Forest Park and continues to take a keen interest in all sports.

"I like to think that I have a positive attitude and I feel that this helps to sustain me," states Tony.

"I know that there are a lot of people engaged in sport who derive tremendous satisfaction from it and I must say that I certainly enjoyed my involvement in whatever sport I was pursuing at any given time.

"I like to think that I have been trying to put something back into football by overseeing coaching courses and helping young players. There is obviously great interest in sport just now and with the improved facilities and highly enthusiastic coaches I can see great progress being made on all fronts.

"It's tremendous to see young people getting the encouragement they receive to help them maximise their talents and I have no doubt that the stars of the future are right here in our midst when you think about it."

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