“History books will record Saturday April 30, 1994 as the day of the most incredible finale to an Irish League season…”
Malcolm Brodie was writing at Windsor Park as Linfield lifted the Gibson Cup once again – a 42nd league title for the Belfast Blues but one quite unlike any other.
“It makes me shiver just thinking about that day,” says Michael Reith, a former Ireland international cricketer and lifelong Glenavon supporter.
It had been, in prospect, the greatest day in the history of either of Mid-Ulster football’s two bitter derby rivals.
The Lurgan Blues welcomed Portadown to Mourneview Park on the final day of the league campaign. With both sides locked on points at the top of the table, it was winner takes all for the Gibson Cup.
A momentous occasion, especially considering that even now, in 118 years of Irish League history, the trophy has only left Belfast on 10 occasions.
Back in 1994, it was perched on the back seat of a car in a layby at the Moira roundabout, along with Irish League President Morton McKnight and secretary Harry Wallace, to the sound of the BBC radio coverage.
Only in the event of a draw in Lurgan would the car turn round and head back to Windsor, where Linfield also started the day level on points at the top but with the worst goal difference of the three.
“The way it had all played out, we thought we were bound to go on and win it,” says Portadown fan Barry Magill, then a teenager nervously looking on from Mourneview’s Hospital End terracing behind the goal.
It's almost been made more famous because it happened like it did, cutting each other's throats. It's legendary now.
Confidence was high on both sides of the divide that was dubbed the ‘Mid-Ulster Big Two’. No fewer than 15 cups had been split between them since the turn of the decade, adding to Portadown’s league titles in 1990 and 1991.
"That day was unique,” says Reith, who carries admittedly vague memories of Glenavon’s most recent league win, way back in 1960 with the likes of Ireland internationals Wilbur Cush and Jimmy Jones in their ranks.
“We had a chance to win the league for the first time in I don't know how many years. It was so exciting and to be playing the old enemy to win the thing made it all the more special.”
Fast forward a matter of hours and the hope, the expectation, the confidence had all vanished in a puff of exhaust smoke as a trophy-laden car accelerated down the citybound M1 slipway.
“People say you don't lose a league on the last day but we did,” says then Glenavon boss Alan Fraser. “I’ll never forget it.”
It had been a remarkably close campaign, the derby rivals nip and tuck throughout. Glenavon had got off to a flier, winning 12 of their opening 13 league games.
Their only home defeat of the campaign followed on December 18, when Shaun Strang secured a 1-0 win for Cliftonville. Portadown would then rubber-stamp their own title credentials in the festive derby. Kick-off was delayed 15 minutes to allow 10,000 to pack into Shamrock Park to see a Trevor Smith double help the Ports to a 3-1 win and top of the table.
Linfield could easily have been dumped out of the race before the famous - infamous if you're of a Mid-Ulster persuasion - final day but Trevor Anderson’s side picked up a vital victory at Portadown the week before the climax.
That would put the fate of the title in blue hands, temporarily at least.
"When Linfield beat us it was total deflation, we thought it was gone,” recalls then Portadown forward Robert Casey. “They had two games left and would win the league if they won both of them.
“But then they drew 1-1 at Newry on the Thursday and that obviously gave us such a lift as it was back in our control. From then, we were so determined to do it. We were buzzing.”
So all three teams entered the final day on 67 points; the title perfectly poised.
"It was the nerves, the fear of losing,” says Glenavon’s Stephen McBride, who formed a third of the legendary three pronged attack; McBride – Ray McCoy – Glenn Ferguson .
It was, of course, another packed house as Mourneview Park filled with greater expectation than ever before.
"There were thousands hanging round outside the ground,” recalls Magill. “We all saw people we knew from the other side and it was all good natured. I remember looking around and marvelling at the whole thing. It was rammed and everyone was wearing their colours; a sea of red meeting a sea of blue.
"The tension was unbelievable. It was nerve-wracking.”
Glenavon had gone into the game without five key names; former Leicester City midfield star Ally Mauchlen, defensive stalwart Nigel Quigley, left-back Tony Scappaticci and midfielders Keith Percy and Davy Dennison, a former Ireland cricketer.
"A lot of people don't seem to realise that,” says manager Fraser.
It would have been impossible to tell at the hour-mark. Fraser’s men were two goals up, thanks to McCoy and McBride, who netted his 36th goal of the season before racing to the fans, arms aloft.
Coasting to the title.
“They steamrollered us,” confesses Casey. “I remember looking up into the main stand, they were dancing up and down the terracing. I remember wondering how we were ever going to get out of this. They were so much better than us and should have been out of sight.”
But they weren’t, largely thanks to two Mickey Keenan saves from Glenavon captain Paul Byrne, and a one-on-one that went past the post from McBride.
"Ronnie McFall pulled a masterstroke,” explains the Glenavon winger of what was to follow.
The Portadown boss had raised eyebrows with his decision not to start 33-goal Trevor Smith but called on the Scottish striker to provide the escape route from the nightmare.
“That substitution changed the game,” McBride continues.
“Ronnie put him wide left to play against Dean McCullough, who had run himself into the ground. Trevor's fresh legs helped him set up their first goal.”
Ports hero Sandy Fraser was the man on the end of the cross on 72 minutes, his header teeing up an enthralling climax while Pat Fenlon finally put Linfield ahead against Glentoran at Windsor.
"I remember one of the directors coming down to me to say Linfield were winning and that we needed to hold on,” says Fraser. “People were anxious and panicking. It was going to be one of the greatest days in the club's history.”
Linfield would ultimately defeat their rivals 2-0, Dessie Gorman adding the second before the final whistle blew. They faced a nervous wait as fans clutched radios close to their ears to hear from Mourneview, where there were five minutes left to play.
And suddenly, a roar that has echoed in Lurgan from that day to this.
It was Fraser again to level at 2-2, a diving header to snatch the league from Glenavon’s grasp.
"It was chaos,” says Magill, lost among the pandemonium in the away support. “We had such belief in that team. There were five minutes left and I was sure we were going to nick it.”
They almost did.
“Here’s Casey and he’s onside to win the league for Portadown. He’s missed it,” screamed Mark Robson on UTV commentary.
With that, it was over, the trophy on the move as soon as Casey’s lob over Robbie Beck skipped past the post.
"I just stood there. Now what? Nobody knew what to do. Shell-shocked. Gutted. With 16 minutes to go, we were 2-0 up to win the league. With five minutes left, we were 2-1 up to win the league."
All around a motionless McBride, players in red and blue dropped to the turf as others eschewed their traditional divide and embraced; united in pain.
"It was the worst sporting experience I've had in my life, worse than anything I went through as a cricketer. It was just awful,” reflects Reith, a small laugh acknowledging the fact that sporting trials pale in comparison to life’s greatest tribulations, yet the following pause portraying the pain that remains.
“Even relegation; it was much worse than that, much worse.”
Across the pitch, Magill could reflect on title glories of the recent past. The blue half of the ground could not.
"To be honest, and I'm probably not speaking for every Portadown fan, I felt bad for Glenavon as well as us in that moment,” he says.
"Both sets of fans applauded the teams off. Everybody was busted and drained by the whole thing. It was like two gladiators leaving the arena. What else can you do? We were both so close and got nothing.
"It's almost been made more famous because it happened like it did, cutting each other's throats. It's legendary now.”
In the 26 years since, the stories have taken on lives of their own.
I never forget about it. I can't forget about it and I don't want to forget about it.
It’s not an infrequent occurrence to hear supporters at Mourneview or Shamrock, during a comparatively dull outing, look back on what might have been that day in 1994.
"My dad's still a bit like 'bloody hell Robert Casey...' but I know it hurts Robbie even now. To this day I can see that ball bouncing and I'm still convinced it's going in,” laughs Magill, revealing the reality that for many it’s those missed opportunities that are the abiding memories; Casey in the dying seconds for Portadown and McBride to make it 3-0 for Glenavon.
“If I tried to recreate it, I'd score it seven or eight times out of ten,” says Casey. “I've run it over and over in my head so many times, do I take another touch, do I try and square it? Trevor Smith always says I should have. In hindsight, should I? Put him or any other striker in my position and they're all going to take the shot on.
"Even watching it back, it gets to me. You see the ball going past the post and my whole world just sank. I'll never get over it.
"I had arranged to go out with my girlfriend that night but I couldn't do it. I came straight home and I screeched my eyes out, balled for about half an hour.”
The Newry man would get his hands on the trophy two years later, ironically sealing the title with a Portadown win over Glenavon, an ‘unreal’ feeling, he admits, to exorcise those demons.
Over in Lurgan, the wait for another title goes on to this day. McBride doesn’t need reminded.
“I put the ball to Mickey Keenan’s right and when it left my boot, I would have put my house on it that it was going in,” he says of his own miss opportunity, hunched over on his staircase reliving a day that still sticks in the throat.
“The more it travelled, it bounced and skipped, and it shaved the outside of the post.
"At the same time, it was still 2-0. It wasn't as big a drama to me until much later because it’s only in recent years that I realised people were asking why I didn't square it to Raymy McCoy. I've no recollection of hearing Raymy up with me calling for it. Certainly I would have squared it to him if I'd known. That's the way it is.”
Stephen McBride won the Irish Cup, League Cup, Floodlit Cup, Gold Cup, County Antrim Shield and Mid-Ulster Cup during 11 years at the club, not to mention his four Northern Ireland caps and the Ulster Footballer of the Year crown in 1991.
A living legend at his hometown club.
And yet still that day, that miss, lives on.
“It's part of Glenavon's history, Irish League history and it's part of my history,” he says thoughtfully; seriously. “I never forget about it. I can't forget about it and I don't want to forget about it.
"Over the medals and Northern Ireland caps, my memory is of the teams I played in, the feeling around the club at the time, loving playing football.
"But I can never forget that. I've always had it thrown at me and always had to live with it. The Steven Gerrard slip - I can identify with that. There are supporters that sticks with, not everything else he did.
"Our team was five minutes away from being legendary in Glenavon's history. That's snatched away. We'd have reunions and there would be all sorts of things. It was a life-changing event.
"People have views about that chance or about why we didn't match Portadown's substitutes. There are all those ifs and buts. There's not a week goes by that it doesn't come into my thoughts.
“It always sits in me that we just didn't do it that day and there's nothing we can do about it. It's almost like a death. You reflect on it but there's nothing you can do.”
Fast forward just six months and Glenavon manager Fraser had been sacked after a slow start to the following season, replaced by Nigel Best. The side would go on to finish second, seven points behind Crusaders before slipping down the table in subsequent seasons, chances of success diminishing for much of the next 20 years.
"I won Manager of the Month in August, we lost a couple of games in September and I was sacked in October,” he recalls. "They couldn't see that this team could go on to win the league. It had hardly kickstarted when they got rid of me and I was convinced we would win it that season.”
He wasn’t afforded the opportunity to find out and now, 26 years on, the ghosts of 1994 remain.
"I don't think you'll see another end to a season like that, locally or anywhere else, ever again,” says Casey.
There are many around Mid-Ulster that wouldn’t want to either.