Belfast Telegraph

How Glentoran's bitter rivalry with Portadown began in 1987 as Paul Millar prepares to get back in the thick of it

Glentoran assistant manager Paul Millar was a factor in the beginning of the club's rivalry with Portadown.
Glentoran assistant manager Paul Millar was a factor in the beginning of the club's rivalry with Portadown.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

It's January 1987 and the Irish Young Footballer of the Year is on the move. Little did he know that 33 years on, he'd still be in the thick of the bitter rivalry his transfer helped to create.

A teenage Paul Millar had, just six months before, won the Irish Cup for Glentoran with a late goal to edge a much-fancied Coleraine 2-1 in the decider.

In fact, he had scored in every game of the cup run, seven in six matches including a late goal to earn a replay against Ballyclare Comrades and a winner over Cliftonville.

The Glens had high hopes for a local east Belfast prospect.

Yet here he was, just a few months later, off down the M1 to join Portadown.

He was, of course, linking up with a certain Ronnie McFall, who had just taken charge of the County Armagh club after being ousted by the Glens two years previous.

Insult would be added to Glentoran's injury in the summer of 1987, when another local lad Philip Major would follow, joined on the increasingly well-worn road by former international Tommy Connell, the late Davey Mills and Brian Strain.

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A year later, McFall would finalise the fire by swooping for the Glens' Player of the Year Alfie Stewart, who had just helped the club to a league and cup double.

"Big Ronnie's to blame," laughs Millar, who will be in the Oval dugout as Mick McDermott's assistant on January 4. That's when the rivalry will be renewed as Portadown arrive for an eagerly-anticipated Irish Cup fifth round clash.

"For supporters, it will be good," concedes Millar, with the sides not having met since Portadown's relegation in 2017.

"We're playing a team that's top of the Championship and it's going to be really, really tough. We're going alright at the minute, Portadown are going alright and the Irish Cup is special.

"There are banana-skins all round the place. That's what makes it so exciting."

The rivalry has remained ferocious since Millar's move, with Irish Cup ties in particular stoking the fires at regular intervals.

There was the 1990 final, when Glentoran upset the league champions 3-0. Then the 2003 semi-final saw ugly brawls between supporters mar Glentoran's 6-1 win.

And, of course, the famous 2015 final, in which the Glens' winner followed seconds after a highly-controversial decision not to award a foul when Portadown's Michael Gault was brought down by Willie Garrett when through on goal.

Michael Gault felt hard-done-by after the 2015 final

"It's a big game, it's a big rivalry," smiles Portadown boss Matthew Tipton, who scored 30 goals for the club in the 11/12 season.

"One that sticks in mind from my year playing for Portadown was a game at Shamrock. We were 1-0 down after 74 minutes and I managed to grab two goals to win it late on.

"It's completely different now though. We're two different clubs at two different stages and it's now about the players who are currently playing. Can they go and get something for us?

"It's something the fans will be looking forward to and they'll be looking at revenge for the 2015 Irish Cup final and everything that went with that.

"I think the thing they do miss playing in the Championship is a rivalry with another club. You don't get that.

"It's a big day out for us. It will maybe show us where we're at compared to where we hope to be next season. It makes for an interesting tie because we've got nothing to lose."

The Ports are currently six points clear at the top of the Championship table, with American goalkeeper Bobby Edwards impressing in goals and local strikers Aaron Duke, Lee Bonis and Adam Salley all finding the net with regularity.

"We're working hard and the boys are getting the results, which is the main thing," said Tipton, keen to bring the Ports back to the top tier in what is their third successive season in the Championship

"Our strength is as a unit rather than as individuals. I think last year we were the opposite of that. We do still have individuals that can produce moments of brilliance but as a unit, I think we're a bit better."

While his loyalties are back in his native east Belfast, even Millar wouldn't mind a little Portadown success if it meant a return to regular installments of the rivalry.

"It's good to see Portadown on a bit of a revival," he said. "They're top of the Championship and should be in the Premiership so this should be a tasty game."

He's hoping the match will mark the start of a victorious run, Glentoran chasing a 23rd Irish Cup success and a first since 2015.

"For the players that have been here a long time like Elliott Morris, Marcus Kane and Curtis Allen, it hasn't been plain sailing," said Millar. "It's been doom and gloom. It's the same for the supporters and they still turn out in high numbers to support the club. I think they deserve to get something back."

Something like Millar's 1986 Irish Cup winning goal would do. Something like an arrow from wide on the left flying into the opposite top corner.

"It was a cross," shouts manager McDermott from across the room.

"He's winding you up," retorts Millar.

"It was special for me that year. I had only come into the side early that season. I had scored in every round, and the replays, through the campaign and then the manager named the team for the final and I wasn't in it.

"I was the one sub. There was a real panic of not getting into the team for the cup final after scoring in every game in the lead-up to it. Then coming on and scoring the winner was special."

The Irish Cup usually is. And it's all set for another stormer at the Oval.

The break is over and the 33-year-old rivalry is back.

If only Millar had known what he was starting back in January 1987.

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