| 14.7°C Belfast

Tony Bell: I'll never forget Irish Cup win with Cliftonville but Portadown fans never forgave me

40 years after Irish Cup heroics for Reds, Tony Bell on how Sir Alex affected his career, and tough times


Still smiling: Tony Bell had a glittering footballing career, but he has plenty of other sporting interests too, such as bowls and golf

Still smiling: Tony Bell had a glittering footballing career, but he has plenty of other sporting interests too, such as bowls and golf

Winners all: Cliftonville’s 1979 Irish Cup-winning heroes

Winners all: Cliftonville’s 1979 Irish Cup-winning heroes

Just champion: Cliftonville celebrate 1979 Irish Cup glory

Just champion: Cliftonville celebrate 1979 Irish Cup glory

Still smiling: Tony Bell had a glittering footballing career, but he has plenty of other sporting interests too, such as bowls and golf

Ask an Irish League fan of a certain vintage about Tony Bell and they are likely to recall him as the man who scored the winning goal for Cliftonville in the 1979 Irish Cup final.

There is, however, far more to the charming 65-year-old than that.

For decades he was a highly respected maths teacher at Craigavon Senior High School and when he wasn't helping children solve problems he excelled at golf, squash, tennis, long distance running and became a British champion when representing Gilford-based bowling club Dunbarton.

There has also been a cancer battle in his well-lived life.

This sporting all-rounder appreciates that the decisive Cup-clinching strike for the Reds against his old club Portadown 40 years ago is remembered so fondly because Cliftonville haven't triumphed in the competition since.

The goal in the dying moments of a 3-2 victory at Windsor Park was the high point of an Irish League career that saw him play for Glenavon, hometown club Portadown (twice), Cliftonville, Larne and Coleraine. Tony, an energetic and effervescent forward, was a man who could fight his corner on and off the pitch.

"My first club was Glenavon. At 17 I made my debut against Crusaders and scored a couple of goals. Walter McFarland was their centre-back and the boys told me after the match he was 'the killer' but during the game I didn't have a clue about that," said Bell with a twinkle in his eye.

"I enjoyed it at Glenavon and when I was there had the chance to go to the USA and play for New Jersey Americans along with Arthur Stewart, who played for Northern Ireland and went on to manage Ballymena and Glentoran.

"I played the whole summer over there and was flying. Then I came back and a Mr Eric Adair had become the Glenavon manager and he told me I would have to go into the reserves and prove my fitness. Being young and impetuous, I said to him, 'Prove my fitness? I've been playing professional football all summer. Pick your three fittest men and I'll run them into the ground now!'

"The great Gibby McKenzie, manager of Portadown, got wind of what happened the same night and I was signed by him within 12 hours. My father was a die-hard supporter and was happy about the move."

The legendary Sir Alex Ferguson would soon play a key role in Bell's future.

"Gibby sent me over to Aberdeen on trial. They talked about offering me a contract but I wanted to finish my last year at Stranmillis to qualify as a teacher and go over in the summer," says Bell, an ace storyteller.

"Between Easter and the summer Aberdeen changed managers with Alex Ferguson taking charge. He had his own black book and own scouts so that deal fell through," said Bell.

"To be honest I wasn't upset because I was a home bird and was happy playing Irish League football. I had a brilliant time with Gibby. He was so enthusiastic, bubbly and was great to play for. He was an older version of the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

"I left Portadown after a fall-out with the next manager, Bertie Neil. At that time Jim Alexander, Jim Campbell and myself were up front. I liked to be in the centre but was put out wide and I remember playing Linfield once spending the whole match chasing up and down after Alan Fraser. I had words with Bertie afterwards and threw the head up and went to play junior football for a while.

"I was doing well scoring goals while the Portadown team were struggling and the fans wanted answers so he brought me back to the club. I got back into the first team and we were 3-0 up against Crusaders and I was taken off because Bertie was making a point about who was boss. The crowd went mad, I went mad and put in a transfer request and ended up at Cliftonville with Jackie Hutton as manager. It was Jackie who moulded Cliftonville into a Cup-winning side in 1979.

"That Cliftonville team and that final will stay with me until the day I die. It was a great team with great men in it.

"I scored the winner against Portadown and to be fair to Bertie Neil after the match he came over and shook my hand and said, 'Well played, great goal, you were super today' which I thought was a kind gesture given his team had just lost a Cup final."

Another twist followed when Hutton became Ports boss the following year.

"The first thing he did was sign me in a player exchange with Jim Alexander," remembered Bell, who classes Jim Cleary, Felix Healy and Ciaran McCurry as the most gifted footballers he played alongside.

"Gary Blackledge was up front and we were the leading strikeforce in the Irish League. We also had the fantastic Billy Murray on the left so there was a really good mix.

"Unfortunately, though, the Portadown fans couldn't forgive me for going to Cliftonville. There was a famous corner called Moaners corner and if I had tied my lace crooked they gave off to me. Hutton had to appeal to them to stop the criticism and it did for a short while but then it came back. I took dog's abuse and felt I had to go. I wasn't even back for a year."

Spells at Larne and Coleraine followed before Tony retired. Over the last 20 odd years he has shone on bowling greens for Dunbarton and is now with Banbridge.

He also managed intermediate football side Markethill last season but has stepped away to focus on his health.

He said: "I had prostate cancer 13 years ago and had the prostate removed. I was told if it stayed away for six or seven years I would probably be clear. It did stay away but two or three years ago it reared its head again and my blood readings started to go up so I needed treatment.

"I had seven weeks of radiotherapy at Belfast City Hospital in October and November. The initial blood readings are suggesting it is well in decline but I won't know for sure until later this month. I actually feel 100% and want to keep playing bowls, hope to get back to my golf and I walk my cocker spaniel dog all the time. I also do a bit of maths tutoring. Life is good."

Rugby was never one of Tony's favoured sports, but he takes a close interest now because his niece is married to Ulster and Ireland's captain marvel Rory Best.

"My brother's daughter is Jodie and she is married to Rory," said Bell.

"I have to say if everyone was as humble as Rory the world would be a lovely place. For a guy who has achieved so much you would never know it when you are talking to him."

Belfast Telegraph