Legend says former side well placed to follow 1988 crop and lift both trophies
Glentoran legend Jim Cleary says he hopes the club can make fresh history and win only their fourth league and Irish Cup double — but he believes the players and management will keep their feet on the ground and not get swept away by rising expectations.
Incredibly, the east Belfast giants haven’t celebrated a double since an ice-cool Cleary fired home a late penalty in the 1988 Cup final against Glenavon at Windsor Park.
Glentoran’s three doubles matches up to Belfast Celtic’s record, while Linfield have managed it a remarkable 25 times with Queen’s Island, Distillery, Portadown and Glenavon doing it once.
With Mick McDermott’s side now two points clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership and at Queen’s University in the Irish Cup on Saturday, the opportunity to win another league and Cup double is another incentive for a squad oozing talent and confidence.
When Glens icon Cleary drilled his left-footed penalty high into the Glenavon net back in 1988, it sparked wild celebrations among the supporters and Glentoran became the first team to win the trophy for a fourth year in a row — a feat which has never been matched.
The Glens celebrated a double in 1920-21 and 1950-51 and 34 years on from their 1988 party, supporters are hoping to have double vision this year.
“It’s difficult to believe the Glens haven’t won a league and Cup double since but then again, the club hasn’t won it too often in its history,” reflected Cleary.
“But there’s an opportunity this year. It’s hard to do it from a Glentoran perspective and I don’t think the guys will be thinking about that at this stage.
“They have just got to the top of the league and they play Queen’s on Saturday which will be hard enough. I saw them against the Welders recently, I thought they played well and they are in good form.
“They looked a team that are in a false position in their league.
“We all want to see Glentoran win the league and in the Cup anything can happen but there’s work to do yet.
“They have the right guys looking after them, there’s plenty of coaching experience on the bench and I wish them well.”
The Big Two flexed their muscles throughout the 1980s.
Seventeen of the 20 league and Irish Cup titles went to Linfield or Glentoran — Ballymena United’s three Irish Cup victories the outliers.
In the 1988 showpiece the Glens fans in the old Railway Stand and North Stand danced a jig of delight after Cleary’s slick spot-kick.
The skipper’s last-minute corner was headed toward the top corner by Billy Caskey, only to be palmed clear by 17-year-old Glenavon left-back Andy Russell.
It was a good save by the defender but a costly mistake as Cleary had the final say in what was then the Bass Irish Cup.
The left-sided midfielder scored a penalty in every round of the Irish Cup that year.
“It was a good side but if you look back at the records, they will show we had a good defence that year,” he said in a nod to players such as George Neill, Alfie Stewart, John Devine and Terry Moore.
“We didn’t concede too many and that helped us win the league. It was an overdue league title because we hadn’t won it since 1981. We won it in my first season there and we didn’t win it again until 1987-88.
“The Blues had won it six times in between so it was overdue.
“It was a late penalty, not long left and young Andy handled the ball from Casko’s header after my corner-kick. The penalty might have looked cool but it probably didn’t feel that way at the time!
“As a former player, I’d love to see them do the double but it’s early days and the players and management will keep their feet on the ground. It will be in the back of minds but in this game you can’t get carried away.
“What you need to do in the Cup is get your name in the hat for the next round, it’s that simple.
“We had a few scrapes over the years. I can remember beating Omagh Town 1-0 at the old Showgrounds on a muddy surface and we were lucky to win it. We beat Ballymoney 1-0 at The Oval in an early round and it’s never easy in the Cup when teams raise their game.
“Queen’s, of course, beat Linfield before and you need to go out with the right attitude otherwise you may suffer a defeat. I think the Glentoran lads have the right attitude.”
There’s a famous photograph of a Glenavon mascot called Gary Hamilton taken with Cleary during the pre-match handshake before the 1988 Cup final. Caskey recalled: “Jim was a great player. All of the accolades were thoroughly deserved. He wasn’t a captain that would give you a rollicking — he led by example.”
The respect was mutual.
“Billy was great,” said Cleary. “You often get asked who the best player you play with was and often it changes but the last lot of years, I think of it as if you were picking a team, who would your first choice be. For me, it’s Billy every time. Apart from being a great player, you could move him round the pitch. He could play anywhere. He was the sort of guy, if you’re in a battle, you’d want him beside you.”
Cleary and Gary Macartney were joint second highest scorers with 18 that season, nine behind Gerry Mullan, who would cap the season off a week later with a hat-trick to win the final of the County Antrim Centenary Chalice — a one-off tournament — 4-2 against Ballymena United.
Cleary spent an unforgettable nine years at The Oval and grabbed 19 trophies.
If today’s talent are worth £100,000, then what price on his head?
The midfield maestro, a name you will find in every all-time Glentoran XI, played for the club 413 times, scoring 144 goals.
He also won five caps for Northern Ireland, including selection in the squad for the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain, and was voted Ulster Footballer of the Year.
Now aged 65, he still makes appearances for the Legends team and tries to take in matches when he can.
“I still go to matches as much as I can and the game is very different now with the full-time set-ups,” he added.
“Glentoran have a great squad and it’s great they are improving on the pitch but off the field, I would love to see some progress on the ground. The important thing from a supporter point of view is the team is performing well and the crowds have been great.
“I can see standards rising with the full-time training and in terms of fitness, players are stronger. Over the next few years I would expect the full-time teams to get stronger and you just fear having a two-tier league.
“But the teams that aren’t full-time such as Coleraine are giving as good as they get.
“The Glens last won the league in 2009 and that’s been a long time. They have their noses in front but there are a lot of matches left. They’ve won nothing yet.
“I know there’s money in the game now but I had a great time when I played and I wouldn’t change it. I gave medals away to family members, something for them to keep. Management never appealed to me.
“I did some coaching with kids at Rosario Youth Club which I enjoyed but the adult scene never appealed to me as much. It’s time consuming being a manager and I have huge respect for them all.”
Jim Cleary — captain, leader, legend and double winner.