Belfast Telegraph

The Irish League's seven most loyal 21st century stars

By Gareth Hanna

In an era when loyalty in football is becoming as hard to find as Portadown in the Danske Bank Premiership 17/18 handbook, we take a look at the Irish League players who stuck around.

Inspired by the news that Francesco Totti will finally, after over 600 appearances, take his bow for his beloved Roma on Sunday, we got to thinking about which local stars showed similar loyalty to their clubs, especially those that suffered hard times when they could have jumped ship and swum to greater glories.

1. Colin Coates (Crusaders)

We'll start with a current player. The six-time Northern Ireland international was a youth-team member at Seaview, having turned down Glentoran in favour of joining the Crues. "I was lucky that the team was poor at that time," he says - any Crusaders players of 2002 can take that up with him - and so he made his first-team debut at just 17. Now 15 years on, Coates has made just shy of 500 appearances for the club and has two league titles under his belt.

It wasn't always just that easy, Coates even went through relegation in 2005 when Championship runners-up Glenavon ousted second bottom Crusaders from the top division in the promotion-relegation play-off. But Coates didn't fly away, helping the Crues to immediate promotion and the rest, as they say, is history.

2. Keith O'Hara (Portadown)

In this week's news because he has hung up the boots and taken over as manager of Mid-Ulster side Rectory Rangers, O'Hara makes it into our list due to his 20 year association with Portadown, and the fact that the recent developments made information on him easy to come by.

O'Hara joined the Shamrock Park club in 1997 and, barring a brief spell with Annagh United, it's the only senior club he represented. He got his hands on one league (two counting the Championship) and one Irish Cup in that time but the relatively few titles never looked like seeing the hometown boy tempted away. Even the relegation suffered due to an administration error in 2008 didn't see O'Hara chuck the towel in. Long-time club captain, he even managed the team for a spell after Ronnie McFall's departure. Rectory Rangers should be warned, once he's in, he's hard to shift.

3. Gerard McMahon (Glenavon)

Staying in Mid-Ulster, Gerdie provided one of (very) few highlights to suffering Glenavon supporters during their spell in the wilderness.

Known as 'Gerry' to nobody except Wikipedia, McMahon played 17 times and scored twice for Northern Ireland. He even played for Tottenham on 16 occasions. But after he returned from 'across the water', nobody could tempt him away from his boyhood club Glenavon. Psychiatrists perhaps required, his loyalty knew no bounds as one of the league's most talented players stuck around for nine years, albeit blighted by a horrific leg break in 2002. Such was his influence, Glenavon fans felt a fully fit McMahon could even single-handedly have prevented relegation in 2004. The 1992 Irish Cup winning goal-scorer stayed nonetheless and after promotion a year later, gave a heart-wrenching speech that left everyone present on the verge of tears. That's what we're talking about right there.

4. Colin Nixon (Glentoran)

The club's all-time record appearance holder played 794 times for the Oval side and could only be shifted when the club decided not to renew his contract after 18 years of service between 1995 and 2013. He picked up four league titles and five Irish Cup winners' medals in that time, as well as three Player of the Year awards at the club. In his final season, Glentoran finished fourth and won the Irish Cup. Interestingly, an article on the club website penned towards the end of that season said Nixon "carried out his duties as club captain in an exemplary and professional manner" during a "difficult" season. For some reason, we reckon if the 17/18 campaign saw the Glens finish fourth and win the cup, "difficult" might not be the adjective of choice.

5. Chris Scannell (Cliftonville)

Scannell has scored the second most goals in Cliftonville history (if reading after the 17/18 season, Joe Gormley may have netted the 33 goals required to render the opening of this sentence null and void) with 153, behind only Kevin McGarry on 170. He was selected by supporters as the first inductee into their John McCredy McAlery Hall of Fame.

Scannell missed most of the campaign that would end Cliftonville's 15 year wait for a league title, but he did score the winner on the opening day of the season - more than enough to warrant joining George McMullan to lift the trophy. He did help the club through the 03/04 promotion/relegation play-off against Armagh but, like Coates and the Crues, his loyalty no doubt helped pave the way to future back-to-back league titles.

6. Noel Bailie (Linfield)

Alright so there's absolutely no way we can spin a story of this guy sticking with his side through adversity. Bailie spent 25 years at Linfield - which is almost the same amount of time I've spent on the earth - won 10 league titles and seven Irish Cups. He made 1,013 appearances for the Windsor Park side and even received an MBE for his services to football in Northern Ireland. An incredible record that speaks for itself, Bailie is the absolute definition of a one club man (Hillsborough Boys Club - don't ruin this) and absolutely storms into our list.

7. Allen Jenkins (Ballymena United)

In a shameless tribute given his decision to leave the club this week, we've made a special spot for the big Scot. He was at the Ballymena Showgrounds for six years - that was just about time for Bailie to get himself settled in at Windsor - but during that time he was (reportedly) the subject of approaches from other Irish League clubs. Ballymena finished in the bottom six in the first five of his seasons at the club and so nobody (bar maybe Coleraine supporters) begrudged Jenkins his top half finish and NI Football League Cup winners' medal this year.

Seven seems a strange number to stop at, but we're funky like that. So that's your list. Bear in mind we didn't have all day and couldn't include everyone, but tell us who we missed out.

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