How Portadown broke the 'Gypsy's Curse' to clinch their first league title in 1990

Nearly 30 years on, Ronnie McFall and his heroes recall rollercoaster ride to their place in history books

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Party time: Portadown enjoy the moment after winning the Gibson Cup for the first time in their history in 1990

Party time: Portadown enjoy the moment after winning the Gibson Cup for the first time in their history in 1990

Fond memories: Members of the Ports’ 1990-91 double-winning side reunite

Fond memories: Members of the Ports’ 1990-91 double-winning side reunite

Party time: Portadown enjoy the moment after winning the Gibson Cup for the first time in their history in 1990

So near yet so far away. Portadown Football Club could almost have adopted that as their motto as they experienced repeated near misses in the hunt for a first ever Irish League title after entering senior football in 1924.

 

There were good teams at Shamrock Park over the years, they were just never quite good enough to win the biggest prize.

Often challengers, but never the champions.

The 1960-61 season was a classic example. Despite only two defeats in the 22-match campaign, Linfield, who were beaten four times, were champions when they won a play-off after the teams finished level on points.

A year later, there was heartbreak at Shamrock Park.

Legendary status awaited Albert Mitchell as he stepped up to take a penalty with Gibby McKenzie's team needing only a draw to take the title - and a guaranteed place in the club's folklore forever.

He missed from the spot, the Ports lost the match and for the second season in a row they tied with the Blues - this time with identical records.

From being so close to it being a history-making season for Portadown, it turned into a famous one for Linfield instead. They retained their title by winning a second successive play-off, rubbing salt into the wounds after they also beat the Ports to win the Irish Cup and in the process complete their storied seven-trophy campaign.

You'd almost think that the Ports were cursed.

Well, depending on who you believe, they were.

Various stories are attached to a 'Gypsy's Curse' striking Shamrock Park. According to club historian Trevor Clydesdale, the most plausible is attached to the 1939-40 title race - the last completed before World War II.

Portadown had pushed Belfast Celtic all the way, only for a defeat late in the campaign to all but put paid to hopes of an historic first league success.

It is said fans carried a coffin into the ground ahead of the final game as a sign of those hopes being dead and buried. Gypsies camped nearby took exception to the presence of the coffin and cursed the club, condemning them to everlasting disappointment instead of league glory.

Many observers at the time believed that if it hadn't been for the outbreak of war that the Ports - who had finished third and fourth in the preceding seasons - would have won the league.

By the late 1980s, however, the Gibson Cup still hadn't arrived at Shamrock Park and the curse story had lost nothing in the telling.

Ronnie McFall, who had played for his hometown club in the 1960s and '70s, returned as manager in 1986 determined to put the curse to bed once and for all.

He had pedigree, having led Glentoran to the league title unbeaten in 1981, four years after winning it as a player at The Oval.

"I was behind the goal when Albert Mitchell missed the penalty against Glentoran," said McFall. "There was growing opinion around the town that the club would never win the league, with the Gypsy's Curse and all that."

McFall vowed that within three years he would have a team capable of challenging for the title. Instead, they went one better and won the thing.

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Ronnie McFall and wife Anne show off the Gibson Cup at Shamrock Park.

Ronnie McFall and wife Anne show off the Gibson Cup at Shamrock Park.

Ronnie McFall and wife Anne show off the Gibson Cup at Shamrock Park.

 

Not without experiencing a rollercoaster ride along the way.

Firstly McFall undertook a major rebuild of his squad. Of those who carved their names in history as Portadown's first league title-winning team in 1990, only three of them had preceded the manager at the club - goalkeeper Mickey Keenan, left-back Ian Curliss and winger Gregg Davidson. Davidson would have a telling impact on the day the league was won.

"Ronnie cleared nearly everyone out, almost starting from scratch," said Keenan. "What Ronnie was best at was getting players and he started getting in good players. He managed the board as well. He knew what he wanted and was able to ensure that they got it for him and pulled a super squad together.

"You could see the professionalism that he tried to bring as well. As soon as he came, training kit was provided and I never cleaned a pair of boots from the day he arrived at the club.

"All that left the players to get on with their job, which was to win matches."

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Mickey Keenan

Mickey Keenan

Mickey Keenan

And win matches they did. Seven victories in a 13-match unbeaten run before the turn of the year laid the foundations for what was to come further down the line. The building blocks were then put in place at the back.

The defence in front of Keenan picked itself when fit. Philip Major, Brian Strain, Alfie Stewart, who had all been recruited from Glentoran, and Ian Curliss were a backline that even the best strikers found hard to break down. When Strain was hit by injury, one that resulted in him playing in just 15 of the 26 games during the league campaign, it might have felt like that curse was coming into play again.

Local boy Neal McCullough stepped in and the defence conceded only seven goals in those first 13 matches.

"Defensively, we were very sound. The goals-against stats were amazing. It wasn't that we won lots of matches by big numbers," said Strain.

"It was always Ronnie's mantra: you keep a clean sheet and I'll find the players that will score goals - and he did that with the strikers he brought in. It was pretty amazing.

"When you get off to a good start you begin to believe in the squad, although as it turned out it was mega tight."

In front of that strong defence, the midfield unit blended power, talent and toughness in the shape of Kevin McKeever, Roy McCreadie and the late David Mills, while Joey Cunningham and Gregg Davidson provided craft and trickery on the wings.

Up front, Marty Magee had lit up the league the season before as top goalscorer and Football Writers' Player of the Year. McFall tried to go back to the future when he brought Scottish striker Billy Paton, who had shone for the Ports in the 1984-85 season, to the club for a second spell.

Injuries meant that the former winner of the now-defunct PFA Young Player of the Year award wasn't the same player and after just four matches he was gone.

Scots were to have an impact as the season went on, though, with first McFall's Caledonian contacts helping to bring an unknown 22-year-old called Sandy Fraser across the Irish Sea.

In a season that had many sliding-doors moments for the Ports, things may have been different had a planned move much further afield not collapsed.

"When I first went to Portadown I was just killing some time," said Fraser. "I was meant to be going to Australia and initially it was going to be a very short-term arrangement, but the move to Australia fell through and it was almost like it was meant to be.

"I was playing, I was enjoying myself and the supporters were a different class. They took to me and I took to them very quickly."

Hitting it off with Magee helped too.

After Cunningham scored to give the Ports a 1-1 draw at Linfield in the opening game, Fraser and Magee both netted in crucial early results, a 2-0 win at Distillery and 2-2 draw at home with Larne.

Magee was flying; he had hit six in the first eight games before an incident at Carrick Rangers in early December threatened to wreck their title dream.

After netting his seventh goal of the league campaign, the Ports were rocked when Magee was red carded. He was then alleged to have headbutted the linesman, who had informed the referee of an elbowing offence against Carrick's full-back.

The red card was later rescinded, but that wasn't the end of it.

Magee played on, scoring a double against Ards at the turn of the year and bagging another brace in a thrilling 3-2 victory against Glentoran at The Oval. That result was crucial in getting the Ports back on track after their impressive unbeaten run was ended by Bangor a week earlier.

All the time, however, Portadown's main goal-getter was under threat of suspension, fearing that it might end his entire career. If deemed guilty of hitting the linesman, he was expected to be banned for life.

"I got sent off too because I couldn't believe what was happening in front of my eyes," said Cunningham, who had followed Magee into the dressing room at Carrick a few minutes later.

"There were no words to describe what happened. At that level of football those things can't happen.."

In the end Irish FA disciplinary chiefs suspended Magee for the remainder of the season. At the time it was looked upon as a fudge. A guilty verdict surely meant a sine die ban, innocent meant he would play on. A suspension of effectively three months fell between two stools.

That was still enough to throw doubt over the Ports' title challenge - certainly to those looking from the outside in.

McFall, however, had been working hard in the background to ensure he could fill the void that any suspension would leave.

After another Scot, Willie Callaghan, flopped in his four matches, McFall knew he needed someone else; someone who could deliver the goals needed to win a league title.

Numerous knee operations had affected Stevie Cowan's mobility and the man who had been the Scottish Premier League's top goalscorer in 1985-86 no longer had the same threat at that level.

Coming to the Irish League might have been seen as a step down, but the carrot of a league title had been dangled and that was enough for Cowan to agree to an initial loan from Motherwell.

"I'd done my homework and the league title challenge was an incentive for me," said Cowan.

"I didn't know about the history in terms of the club not having won the league before, but I knew they were top of the league and that was enough for me."

An uninspiring debut didn't do much to convince his new fans as Kevin McKeever scored the two goals to beat Crusaders at Seaview with eight matches to go.

Things were to change very quickly, though. A fortnight later, Cowan scored twice in a 3-0 win over Cliftonville and would net seven times in the final seven league games - as well as grabbing a hat-trick in the Irish Cup semi-final win over Coleraine.

"He came with a pedigree. When he was with Hibernian he'd been the top scorer in Scotland alongside Gordon Durie," said McFall.

"When I got him his best days were behind him because he had knee problems, but his ability to lose players in the box was unbelievable. I'd say his ratio of goals to chances was virtually one to one."

Fraser had hit a dry spell over the winter months, with the winner in that game at The Oval being his only strike in 14 games. Cowan's arrival saw his fellow Scot spring back into life, with Fraser scoring four in the remaining league clashes, including one hugely important effort.

"When Stevie came, it became a really joyful experience for me," said Fraser. "We flew over together every week, we were enjoying our football, we enjoyed our time together, we had a great two years and it probably showed in our football."

Cowan and Fraser came to the rescue in another exciting 3-2 victory, this time at Ballymena United, on a day when the Ports' mettle was tested to the limit. McCreadie powered home a free-kick to level after the Sky Blues had raced into a 2-0 lead.

Those doubting the Ports could last the pace were having to think again.

Heading to Glenavon on Easter Saturday, McFall's men had built up a four-point lead over their local rivals, who were also their nearest challengers after an impressive run in the new year.

Victory would leave the Ports needing just one win from their three remaining games. A win for Glenavon would throw everything back into the melting pot.

The Mourneview Park men dished out a dose of the blues. They turned up, the Ports didn't. Stevie Conville scored twice to keep Glenavon's title hopes alive.

An early kick-off on Easter Tuesday saw Glenavon temporarily top the table, but the Ports were back in front when they beat Newry Town in the evening.

There was no margin for error with two games to go.

Portadown had recorded their biggest league win of the season when they put four past Ards at Shamrock Park earlier in the campaign.

For 90 minutes at Castlereagh Park, it looked like they were never going to score. Down to 10 men after Cunningham was sent off and with future Northern Ireland goalkeeper Alan Fettis producing a string of outstanding saves, it looked as if the Gypsy's Curse was to have a late say in events. Finally, two minutes into injury time, Fettis misjudged a corner and Fraser swivelled to finish with his left foot, sparking celebrations like the title was already won.

"I barely touched the ball in that game. I watched from the other end as Alan Fettis played the game of his life," said Keenan,

The importance wasn't lost on Fraser. "That was the first point that I thought we might not win it," said the match-winning hero.

"Joey had been sent off and we couldn't get a goal. Then it was like an explosion. It was like there were 100 people in the box, the ball came to me, I kicked it in and everyone ran in different directions.

"It wasn't a great goal, but probably the most important and probably my favourite goal."

For Cunningham, it was a huge relief.

"I got sent off for nothing. The boys dug me out of it by going on to win the match," he said.

"I thought I'd blown the league for us. I could have accepted it if I thought I deserved to be sent off, but all I did was speak to the linesman."

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Joey Cunningham

Joey Cunningham

Joey Cunningham

McFall, who had watched on in agony, recalled: "I just remember the feeling of elation when we finally scored."

The Ports were still on top and one win away from glory. All they had to do was beat outgoing champions Linfield on the final day. Simple!

As McFall prepared for the biggest game in the club's history, a dose of reality arrived almost on his doorstep. A failed mortar bomb attack on a military base close to his home on the Thursday morning caused damage to rooftops.

"It didn't affect my focus on the game. The main thing was nobody was hurt," he said.

Come Saturday, April 28, 1990 - 30 years ago next Tuesday - fans who had waited for decades packed into Shamrock Park. Excited for what would unfold in front of them, but also hoping to witness history. Some had been there in 1962 as well.

"I remember driving up - we'd obviously have been there a couple of hours before the game - and even on the outskirts of the town, the place was hiving. The crowds were unbelievable," remembers Strain.

Nerves would obviously come into the matter and the Ports were still in need of a crucial goal as the second half progressed. That's when McFall turned to his bench and called upon Davidson, who had lost his place in the starting line-up to Vic Kasule, who had been signed for the run-in.

Within minutes of him stepping onto the pitch, he'd swung in a corner for Cowan to head in the opening goal and then scored the second himself, pouncing on a rebound after George Dunlop had saved from Fraser and Cowan had hit the post with his follow-up.

"We still have a lot of banter about it and I tell the other boys that we wouldn't have won the league if I hadn't come on," said Davidson.

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Greg Davidson

Greg Davidson

Greg Davidson

"When I was going on, Ronnie said to me, 'Go on and do something' and then when I was going over to take the corner I said to Stevie, 'Go to the front post'. I whipped it and he headed it into the net.

"For my goal I just remember thinking, 'Keep it low and hit the target' and it went in."

Excited fans flooded the pitch after both goals and with fears that the match might be stopped - or worse, abandoned - those players who didn't make the team were sent out to appeal to fans to stay behind fences.

As the clock ticked towards the 90-minute mark, there was no holding them back. They'd been patient for long enough and thousands of the red and white throng stood just a couple of feet from the pitch as Alan Snoddy blew his whistle.

They'd done it. The Ports were champions, Strain raised the Gibson Cup in the stand and the Gypsy's Curse was no more.

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Fond memories: Members of the Ports’ 1990-91 double-winning side reunite

Fond memories: Members of the Ports’ 1990-91 double-winning side reunite

Fond memories: Members of the Ports’ 1990-91 double-winning side reunite

 

"I always maintained that if you had the best team and the best players then you would win the league. Portadown never had that before. It was nothing to do with a curse. We dispelled that and I don't think anybody has talked about it for the last 30 years," said McFall.

They are, however, still talking about 1990, the first league title and the history-making team.

Even a defeat to Glentoran in the Irish Cup final a week later only dampened spirits for a short time. Fans were still riding on an emotional high. That evening, thousands filled the streets of Portadown for a victory parade.

And just to show that the curse was definitely buried, they went on and won the league again the next season - and the Irish Cup to boot.

Belfast Telegraph