'It was their decision to opt out': Glentoran chairman opens up on departures of Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman
Exclusive interview: Glens chief Stephen Henderson talks to the Sunday Life
Chairman Stephen Henderson has broken Glentoran’s silence over the controversial departure of club legends Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman.
After two months of uncertainty following the appointment of Mick McDermott as manager, the former defensive duo this week walked away from The Oval for the final time.
Just 12 months ago, they had both been brought on board in a coaching capacity under boss Ronnie McFall.
When the former Portadown chief departed in January, Smyth was handed the job, assisted by his trusty lieutenant Leeman. However, neither had the coaching credentials to take the club into Europe.
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With a potential takeover — headed by British-Iranian businessman Ali Shams Mohammad Pour — hovering in the background, Glentoran took the decision to appoint McDermott and Paul Millar, both of whom have the necessary qualifications.
However Smyth, Leeman and fellow coach Kieran Harding were offered the chance to remain at the club under the new management structure.
The Glens even offered Smyth and Leeman support to complete their coaching badges — including their UEFA A Licence, followed by a Pro Licence — which was declined.
Henderson believes it was prudent that the club cleared the air over the departure of two of The Oval’s favourite sons.
“The reputation of Glentoran Football Club comes before me or any individual,” he said.
“So I don’t want to be dragged into a slagging match with anyone because it doesn’t befit the club or how it operates.
“By the same token, I think it’s important we convey some things concerning the departure of the boys.
“I would like to place on record my personal thanks to Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman for their services over the past period of time. When we approached them to join us, we needed them more than they needed us — it was as simple as that.
“They were part of a long-term plan that we were attempting to implement. There has been too high a turnover of Glentoran managers and we needed a bit of stability.
“We felt that if we turned to people who knew the club, it would help provide that. We also knew, as most people did, that neither of them could become manager because they didn’t hold a Pro Licence, which is why we brought in Ronnie McFall.
“We were slated by some because it seemed a very convoluted coaching structure.
“Again, Ronnie didn’t need the job. He was doing us a massive favour. He made it clear it was only a short-term fix.”
However, the potential takeover, which was given the thumbs up by the shareholders at an EGM earlier this month, helped accelerate matters.
“Long after those appointments, the investor came onto the scene around September last year with very serious intent,” adds Henderson.
“We were getting very close to agreement but there were a few issues that needed to be addressed before we could put a formal offer to our shareholders, which included land dealings and the historic debt.
“All of the management team (McFall, Smyth, Leeman and Harding) were all fully informed of what was happening in the background.
“That proposed investment was a game-changer because it had the potential to transform the club’s future. Our loyal fans deserve better than the club finishing in seventh place in the League table.
“Everyone knew there was a March 31 deadline in terms of naming a manager with proper European credentials. This club must always strive to be in Europe. It’s the least that our loyal fans deserve, given the financial windfall that comes with it.
“As the investment inched closer and the deadline loomed, a decision was taken to potentially get the deal over the line and Mick McDermott was appointed as manager.
“Following the appointment, there were a series of meetings with Gary and Paul and Kieran Harding, who immediately agreed to remain at the club.
“Gary and Paul were both asked to stay on. It probably impacted a little bit more on Gary because he was asked to step back to his contracted position.
“The roles of Paul and Kieran didn’t alter at all. To be fair, Gary did explain that he didn’t want a coaching role, which left us in a difficult position because we can only have one manager at the club.
“So Gary was asked to consider one of the roles within his contracted position.
“Time dragged on a lot longer than we anticipated until it emerged that both Gary and Paul declined the opportunity to stay and be part of the club moving forward.
“It then became an employment issue and there was a process that had to be followed to protect the club.
“I get the guys are hurt and I get there will be bitterness. I also get the sympathy of the general public will always be with the legends — the former players, who were the heroes on the pitch.
“Both Paul and Gary are revered at Glentoran Football Club for what they achieved as players and for coming to the club in a coaching role at a time we needed them more than they needed us.
“They will always be welcome at The Oval. There will be no anger or bitterness from our perspective.
“We actually went out of our way to make sure they would be treated fairly because we negotiated with the investor to make sure they would be part of the future plans. But it was their decision to opt out.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital