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Alfie Stewart: I was annoyed and angered at contract Glentoran offered and that's why I joined Portadown

 

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Former Glentoran and Portadown defender Alfie Stewart at his Magherafelt home.
PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Former Glentoran and Portadown defender Alfie Stewart at his Magherafelt home. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Former Glentoran and Portadown defender Alfie Stewart at his Magherafelt home.
PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Former Glentoran and Portadown defender Alfie Stewart at his Magherafelt home. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Former Glentoran and Portadown defender Alfie Stewart at his Magherafelt home.

Former Glentoran and Portadown defender Alfie Stewart at his Magherafelt home.

Trevor Williamson

Trevor Williamson

Alfie Stewart wins a header for Glentoran

Alfie Stewart wins a header for Glentoran

Alfie Stewart

Alfie Stewart

Former Glentoran and Portadown defender Alfie Stewart at his Magherafelt home. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Irish League clubs have been guilty of some calamitous administration howlers down the years.

Who could ever forget Portadown's demotion back in April 2008, after their Premiership application was half an hour late?

What about Cliftonville's decision to play a Cup-tied striker in their 1999 Irish Cup Semi-Final victory over Linfield?

The Blues were guilty of a registration blunder of their own back in 1995 which allowed their star striker, the highly-paid Garry Haylock, to walk away - scot-free.

Glentoran, however, could well top the category.

The club counted the cost when someone in power opted to offer defender Alfie Stewart - who had just helped the east Belfast giants to a League and Cup double - a new contract that fell well short of his previous one.

The rest, as they say, is all history because the Magherafelt man got the deal he wanted at Portadown. He duly repaid them by helping transform the Shamrock Park outfit into a formidable force during the most successful period in the history of the club.

Born and brought up in Maghera, Alfie played junior football for Bridgend United before moving to Moyola Park as a 16-year-old. But he was spotted by Glentoran scout Denis Shields playing at Coleraine University and was soon off to The Oval.

"There were floodlights at the university and I was asked to attend a trial game, issued to all youth players in the area," recalls Alfie.

"I was never renowned for my goalscoring exploits, but I managed to bag a hat-trick. Could you ever imagine that - three goals from outside the box?

"Denis offered me a trial at the Glens. My first game was a reserve match against Ards at Castlereagh Park - a long journey from where I lived.

"I don't mind admitting I felt completely out of my depth. I suppose it's the same for any kid making the step up to the next grade of football.

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Alfie Stewart wins a header for Glentoran

Alfie Stewart wins a header for Glentoran

Alfie Stewart wins a header for Glentoran

 

"One person I remember playing against was Sammy Galway, who was a renowned Irish League footballer, even though he was in the twilight of his football days.

"To be honest, because of my naivety and my inexperience, I thought that would be the end of it. But after the game, Denis was confident enough to shove a contract under my nose."

Remarkably, within the space of five months, Alfie was mingling with the first team squad.

He adds: "I remember running onto the pitch as a substitute - absolutely petrified. Ronnie McFall wasn't afraid to pitch me in on occasions. He was preparing for the 1983 Irish Cup Final against Linfield, so I got the call to fill a few gaps as he was protecting certain players.

"It was brilliant. Well, I was in the company of boys like George Neill, Dermott Keeley, Alan Harrison, Tom Connell, Alan Paterson, Barney Bowers, Jimmy Cleary, Ron Manley and Gary Blackledge.

"If you can't learn quickly in that class of company, then there is something seriously wrong. As a left winger, it was either sink or swim. But I quickly realised all I had to do was make the right run and Cleary would have put the ball on my toe."

In a hectic six-year spell, Alfie was a regular on the winners' podium.

"I appeared in four successive Irish Cup Finals - winning all of them," he chuckles.

"But oddly enough, I had to wait until the 1987-88 season to get my hands on a League title - the year I left.

"Linfield were very strong during that period, but no team could match us in the Cup. By the time I was 23, I had four winners' medals, which was unbelievable.

"Yet, when I retired just short of my 39th birthday, I had added only one more Cup medal to my list, which shows how difficult it is. It also demonstrated how blessed I was to play in a Glentoran team of that calibre."

Alfie not only celebrated a League and Cup double in 1987-88, he was part of a team that also lifted the Floodlit Cup and the County Antrim Centenary Chalice.

His reward, however, was a slap-in-the-face offer of a new contract.

"Leaving Glentoran was a big wrench," he admits.

"I didn't want to leave. I loved the club and had great success there.

"But I was perturbed, annoyed and angered at the terms I was offered. I was six years at the club and was part of a really successful period. But they offered me a miserable deal on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

"Being the stubborn country boy that I am, I decided to leave it. I don't blame the players. The person responsible was the one pulling the strings upstairs - that's where the blame lies."

It was no coincidence that Alfie's former boss McFall was first in the queue for his signature.

"When Ronnie was sacked by Glentoran in December 1984, rather unfairly in my opinion, he came back to raid The Oval, signing the late Davy Mills, Brian Strain, Tom Connell and Paul Millar," remembers Alfie.

"My move was different because, back then, the club had the right to hold your registration. There was no freedom of contract. It meant the clubs had to agree a transfer fee. If they couldn't, then it went to a tribunal.

"I remember Ballymena United being stung when they had to fork out big money for Alan Harrison. Clubs had the power over players, but the Bosman ruling changed football.

"Ronnie offered me a good deal. Portadown were a club trying to break into the big time. The gamble was made easier for me because Ronnie was boss. I knew all about him. I knew all about his management style and I knew he wanted me.

"In my early days, he said, 'I have the backing of this board, I'm going to make us a force and I'm going to try to win the League in three years'.

"Within two years of my arrival, he had achieved his goal.

"In my first season, we finished in sixth position, but we were becoming difficult to beat and teams didn't enjoy playing against us. We were physically and mentally strong.

"Ronnie had the nucleus of a good side and then he added the likes of Joey Cunningham and Marty Magee. The boss had a great knowledge of players. He brought in the likes of Stevie Cowan, Sandy Fraser, Dougie Bell.

"Whoever was Ronnie's contact in Scotland, he certainly sent over the right pedigree of player.

"Cowan played for Sir Alex Ferguson (at Aberdeen), which was incredible. There was not a chance of him playing Irish League football had his knees not given up on him.

"He scored something like 120 goals in 140 appearances, which was incredible. I felt sorry for him at times because it must have been a massive blow that his knees prevented him from playing at the highest level.

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Alfie Stewart

Alfie Stewart

Alfie Stewart

 

"Fair play to Stevie, he had a great attitude. Even though it was part-time football, he always had the professional head on. Dougie Bell was the same. He may have played for Aberdeen and Rangers, but his attitude was top-class.

"In my 10 years at Shamrock Park, I picked up three League titles and achieved the double again in 1991 - we actually won four trophies that season.

"We used to take a bit of stick about our back five - Keenan, Major, Strain, Stewart and Davidson. It never changed for years. Ian Curliss was actually left-back at the start, but he picked up a bad injury. Wee Gregg came in and he became a club legend.

"It was an incredibly competitive time in Irish League football. There were five different title winners in the 1990s, which was quite amazing."

Alfie and his family - son Aaron and daughter Alana - suffered heartbreak back in October 2008 when his wife Lorraine was tragically killed in a car accident on the outskirts of Randalstown.

"It was a difficult time for all of us," adds Alfie, a man of great Christian beliefs.

"Both my kids were only teenagers and they had lost their mum. As a father, I learned a lot and took great courage from them.

"My daughter is now mum to my two lovely grandsons, whom I haven't seen for a while because of the current Covid-19 crisis in the country.

"Aaron, as most people know, played for Ballymena United, but he walked away from the game at the age of 25. He was there from 11 years of age. He had numerous offers to stay in the game, but his heart wasn't in it - and I respect him for that."

Alfie Stewart's key facts

÷ Alfie hit 14 goals in 239 games over six seasons with Glentoran and was transferred to Portadown in 1988 after being named Player of the Year.

÷ He turned down the chance to join Middlesbrough as a 25-year-old after impressing against them in a pre-season friendly.

÷ When Alfie left Portadown in 1998, he joined Coleraine and had spells with Moyola Park and Ballymena United.

Belfast Telegraph