“All I remember is young Russell handling it off the line from my header, that’s all I can remember.”
Billy Caskey laughs as he tries to cast his mind back to the 1988 Irish Cup final.
It was the moment the dream became reality.
The familiar duo combined, captain Jim Cleary’s last minute corner headed toward the top corner by Caskey, only to be palmed cleared by 17-year-old Glenavon left-back Andy Russell.
Caskey throws his two arms aloft – he knows what’s about to happen.
“Jim was cool as ice with the penalty. He was always,” he says.
Cue pandemonium amongst the Glentoran support perched in the top tier of the North Stand and in the Railway End, behind the bulging net.
It had been a long time coming, only the giant club’s third Irish League and Cup double, following similar successes in 1920/21 and 1950/51.
The wait for the fourth is ongoing, a bizarre phenomenon for a club with 45 combined league championship and Irish Cup crowns.
The old rivals, Linfield, have managed it on a remarkable 24 occasions, Belfast Celtic three times and Queen’s Island, Distillery, Portadown and Glenavon all once.
“When you go to the Glens, you learn all about the history of the likes of the Detroit Cougars of the 1960s, John Colrain and the likes, and even they didn’t do it,” says Cleary.
“Surely they had the wherewithal to do it. There’s no real rhyme nor reason to it.
“We just worked well that season. It’s there, we did it and it can never be taken away.”
It was a success that came in the context of a decade of Big Two dominance. Throughout the 1980s, 17 of the 20 league and Irish Cup titles went to Linfield or Glentoran – Ballymena United’s three Irish Cup victories the outliers.
“It really was the Big Two,” says Caskey.
“Our games against Linfield were so big. We all had respect for each other and shook hands – well the fans didn’t in those days – but the two clubs dominated that decade.”
Coming into the 87/88 season, Linfield were enjoying a run of six consecutive league titles, the closest the Glens had come during that run was finishing three points behind in 83/84.
“We just couldn’t wrestle that league away from them when, a couple of times, we probably should have,” says Alfie Stewart, who would go on to be crowned Glentoran Player of the Year for the double season.
“The abiding memory of that year is pressure. Sheer, unadulterated pressure.
“We had put ourselves in a great position, we were very strong and the pressure to get it away from Linfield was immense to say the least.”
The Glens had by no means been devoid of success, coming into the campaign off the back of three Irish Cup coronations on the trot. With manager Tommy Jackson, and trusted number two Billy McCullough, coming into their first full season in charge, the brief was clear – the Gibson Cup must return to the Oval.
“The players were there,” says Caskey. “We just had to get the right attitude. Tommy and Billy brought that resilience, the same as the Cougars had. They told us we could win every match and we started to believe in ourselves.”
It required patience. By the end of October, there had been semi-final exits from the Ulster Cup, County Antrim Shield and the Gold Cup.
Little were Jackson’s men to know then that they would lift all four remaining domestic prizes, beginning with a 1-0 Budweiser Cup final success over Coleraine in December – Raymond Morrison with the goal.
Going into the festive fixtures, the league table was tight – Glentoran level on points at the top with a plethora of sides hot on their heals.
It was then that potential disaster struck, with regular centre-half Barney Bowers sidelined by injury, leaving a 19-year-old John Devine to step up to senior football.
There need not have been any concern, Devine would help stopper Alan Paterson continue a run of 941 minutes without conceding, ultimately seeing the goalkeeper scoop both the Ulster Player of the Year and Football Writers’ accolades.
“I’ve never seen a better transition of a kid into senior football than John’s. It was incredible. He was so mature for his age,” recalls left-back Stewart.
“I wasn’t that old myself but I remember thinking it was such a blow when Barney got injured and asking a teenager to come in for his debut in those circumstances with us trying to land the league.
“It was a sign of things to come, really. He proved that season how good he was and every season thereafter too.
“As a player beside him, I marvelled at him and I’m sure the fans did too.
“We had George Neill at right-back, Terry Moore and Barney then John in the centre and me at left-back, with the likes of Alan Harrison there too. It was a very strong defence.”
It was to provide the foundation for a remarkable run of results as the double dream came into focus from Christmas onwards.
A run of 15 wins, two draws and a single loss in their final 18 league games included 12 clean sheets.
“It all came down to the last few weeks of the season really,” recalls Cleary. “We hadn’t really been setting the world on fire but we were getting results and keeping our place at the top of the league.”
Helped by a 2-0 win over the defending champions at Windsor Park, the Glens were five points clear with two league games remaining.
But it wasn’t over yet.
“The way it was drawn out, our last two games were at home to Linfield and away to Coleraine, who were a very good team and third in the table,” says Cleary.
“We lost to Linfield to an early Lee Docherty goal. It was a typical Big Two game – not the best to watch, but they held on.”
The result kept the title alive – Linfield now only two behind and, thanks to the Blues’ superior goal difference, nothing but a win at the Coleraine Showgrounds would do for Glens, providing Linfield saw off Ballymena United.
“I was probably one of the most experienced players but you still get nervous,” says Caskey.
“I remember the crowd. It was unbelievable; a great atmosphere. We knew Coleraine were a good side but we had to win that day. Everybody had the radios up to their ears listening to what was going on at Windsor.”
They heard an early Martin McGaughey double putting Linfield on top of the table, where they would still be perched with 40 minutes remaining on a nerve-jangling afternoon, as Nigel Quigley cancelled out John Devine’s opener at the Showgrounds.
Step forward Raymond Morrison, the lifelong Glentoran fan born in the shadow of the Oval to win the game and the league title.
“We wanted it and we wanted it and that was it done,” remembers manager Jackson.
“We had a great crowd at Coleraine that day and to win it for them was absolutely superb.
“Raymond was a colossal player for Glentoran. Absolutely colossal.
“He had come through the ranks and to get the goal that won the league was incredible for him. You wouldn’t have chosen anybody else to do it.
“We would work out our set pieces over the season and he was always in there, running into the same position but the ball would never arrive and he never managed to score. Yet in the last game, we worked the set piece and he scored.
“He couldn’t believe it.”
As expected, pandemonium ensued with Glentoran supporters pouring onto the pitch to celebrate the end of six years of Linfield dominance.
“Davey McKeown, a huge Glentoran fan who went to all the matches and really loved the club, came into the dressing room crying and jumped into the bath with his full suit on,” laughs Jackson. “That was him – he was such a great supporter - but it summed up how everybody was feeling.
“We couldn’t even get off the pitch at the end of the match – there were people everywhere. It was one of those days, we didn’t mind but we just wanted to get the players out in one piece to get organised for the following week.”
A greater prize was on the line – history.
“It’s those two words – The Double,” says left-back Stewart. “They bring their own pressure. The Irish Cup final comes right at the end, and if the league champions are in it then they’re the ones who are there to be shot down. That’s a big opportunity for whoever they are facing.”
In this case, it was Glenavon, seeking only a third cup title.
“There was so much publicity surrounding it, people saying our nerves would go,” says Caskey. “Glenavon were a very good team. The way it ended was a bit hard on them but what can you do?”
The Lurgan Blues had held the league champions for 89 minutes before Caskey’s header had to be illegally stopped and Cleary delivered the telling blow.
“A lot of our crowd had started to leave, looking to a replay,” the skipper says.
“I didn’t go too mad about scoring the goal. I just stuck my hand up and walked back to the halfway line. I had no energy left to run anywhere.
“It was great seeing the reaction of the fans behind the goal.”
And with that, an understated raised arm, a record fourth successive Irish Cup was secure, as was Glentoran’s third, and still most recent, double, all thanks to the skipper.
“Jim was a great player,” says Caskey. “All of the accolades were thoroughly deserved. He wasn’t a captain that would give you a rollicking – he led by example.”
Cleary and Gary Macartney were joint second highest scorers with 18, nine behind Gerry Mullen, 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.
“Gerry was tremendous,” recalls Caskey. “He was a workhorse, as was Ron Manley beside him up front. When you had those boys chasing people and defending, it made it so much easier for the rest of the team. You very rarely get centre forwards who worked as hard as those two.
“It was a great team to play in. Gary Macartney was tremendous but you can’t score unless you get the ball through to you, I always told him.
“We had a lot of leaders, good pros; Barry Bowers, Terry, Ray and the likes of Johnny Jameson in midfield through to Gerry and Ron up top. It was quality right across the pitch.”
And that’s before taking into account Caskey himself, scoring eight goals that season and crowned the Irish League Players’ Player of the Year.
“Billy was great,” says 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 me. 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.”
It could all have been so different. When Caskey return from his second spell in the USA in 1986, he was approached by the old enemy, and the reigning league champions.
“Linfield were trying to sign me but I couldn’t do that,” he said. “They offered me more money but there’s no way I could do it to the supporters who had looked after me for all those years. I did the right thing because we had the better team.
“It’s a rare feat, winning the double. You don’t realise it when you’re playing.
“It’s sad, really, that the fans have had to wait so long to do it again. Linfield have done it lots of times, but they are the most professional outfit and can attract the players. Not for me, I couldn’t do that.”
For Caskey, one double with Glentoran was more valuable than whatever he could have won anywhere else.
The wait for Glentoran’s next heroic double winners continues.
Thanks to Ian Clarke, Marshall Gillespie and Steven Beacom for their assistance