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Linfield and Glentoran great Warren Feeney on bridging the Big Two divide in an era of big personality players

'Juventus were practically the Italian national team. Our Glens part-timers played the game of our lives against them and they gave us their shirts'

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Old stomping ground: Warren Feeney at The Oval

Old stomping ground: Warren Feeney at The Oval

Danger man: Warren Feeney in his Linfield days

Danger man: Warren Feeney in his Linfield days

Silver lining: another trophy for prolific goalscorer Warren Feeney

Silver lining: another trophy for prolific goalscorer Warren Feeney

Warren Feeney watching a game with son Warren jnr, the Ards manager

Warren Feeney watching a game with son Warren jnr, the Ards manager

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Old stomping ground: Warren Feeney at The Oval

Where have all the great Irish League characters gone? Walking their dogs and grandchildren around their local parks, or enjoying a quiet evening at the bowling club, by the sound of Warren Feeney.

That's where Feeno now meets contemporaries from his rip-roaring, success-laden career of the 70s and 80s, like his old Linfield boss Roy Coyle, tough nut Isaac Andrews and that other celebrated Blues legend, Sammy Pavis.

When it comes to characters, no one is more qualified to lament the demise of the species than Feeno.

They didn't come any larger than life and full of devilment than the outstanding goalscorer and wind-up merchant of a golden era when every club boasted a dressing room full of brash and brilliant terrace heroes.

As he celebrates his 69th birthday this weekend, Feeno, the great showman of his Linfield and Glentoran heyday, is, like his old pals, enjoying life at a more sedate pace than his Crazy Gang days at Windsor and The Oval, his interest in the local game rekindled by his son, Warren jnr, taking on the firefighting job at relegation threatened Ards.

Don't get him wrong. Feeno isn't one of those old stagers decrying present day standards in comparison to his era.

He sees the paucity of personalities as a symptom of a more intense time, with different pressures and inhibiting influences, from longer working days to social media.

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"Life is a rat race now," he observes over a pint in a place he knows well, east Belfast's grand Park Avenue hotel, the scene of so many Glentoran trophy celebrations and he can't help wondering when the next one will be at the decaying old ground down the road, before returning to his theme.

"You know, it's not just football that has lost some of its soul. Look at your own game, in the media.

"It, too, was full of characters, wonderful wordsmiths now sadly all gone like Malcolm Brodie, the two Toners, Alex and Paddy, Jimmy Dubois, Gordon Hanna, Bill Ireland, Bill Clarke and Adam Coates.

"They were almost like team-mates, socialising with us after games, giving as good as they got when we disagreed with their write-ups. But we never fell out and, above all, you could trust them.

"No disrespect to the present day journalists. I understand the media business has changed, too. It seems more cut-throat now, everything is.

"Ours was a more relaxed time. We enjoyed ourselves on and off the field.

"At the same time it was highly competitive. Every club had standout players and personalities. Look at the Linfield and Glentoran teams I played on, they had an incredible array of characters from one to 11.

"At Windsor, we had the likes of George Dunlop, Peter Rafferty, Colin McCurdy, Billy Murray, Davy Nixon, Stevie McKee and Peter Dornan. At The Oval, I lined up alongside some of the club's greatest players ever… Billy Caskey, Vic Moreland, Denis Matthews, Johnny Jamieson, Rab McCreery, Alex Robson. Everywhere you looked there was quality. Those were exceptional teams and individuals.

"There was so much competition, it took more than ability to elevate you in that kind of company. You had to be strong, physically and mentally, to stand out."

The ebullient Feeney certainly did that as one of the few, then and now, to attain legend status at both Linfield and Glentoran.

He scored goals for fun as he collected medals and honours by the shedload.

Another claim to fame is in his bloodline as one of three generations of Feeneys to win international caps. His father, Jimmy, played twice for Ireland, before the football divide in 1947 and 1950 while with Linfield and Swansea City. Warren gained his solitary cap for Northern Ireland against Israel as a Glentoran player in 1976 while Warren jnr amassed 46 with seven different clubs between 2002 and 2011. That sporting pedigree also extends to daughter Lynsey who played top level hockey with Ards and Ulster and is now a solicitor with leading Belfast law firm Arthur Cox.

Feeno's single regret in a glittering career is the absence of his name from the Northern Ireland goalscoring record book. "I scored our goal in a 1-1 draw that night in Tel Aviv but Malcolm Brodie gave it as an own goal even though it was going in despite the touch from an Israeli player.

"It has stayed that way in Malcolm's Yearbook to this day. He used to kid me about the goal that never was and, of course, I forgave him."

Outside the game, he has enjoyed a colourful life as well.

He and dad Jimmy ran a typical east Belfast working man's pub, the long gone Farmer's Rest on the corner of Templemore Avenue, a fraught occupation in troubled times as bars bore the brunt of the tit-for-tat shooting and bombing madness. "Thankfully we never had any bother and came through unscathed," Feeno relates. "Our regulars were great. We had Bluemen and Glenmen in talking football all the time and sometimes busloads of travelling supporters would pull up outside. They all mixed in together."

He has also been an advertising salesman for the News Letter and Downtown radio, retiring after a spell with a car hire company at the George Best City Airport.

These days he looks after his grandchildren, daughter Lynsey's three, and he hopes soon to see more of Warren jnr's four with the family in the process of moving back from Plymouth where they currently reside.

On their park walks near his east Belfast home, Feeno regularly meets his old Linfield pals and neighbours, Roy Coyle and Isaac Andrews, similarly exercised. And occasionally he meets up with Blues legend Sammy Pavis at Belmont bowling club.

Life is certainly slower paced than when they played and celebrated in some style.

Feeno would torment defenders all afternoon and everyone else in the players lounge later.

He had nicknames for everyone. Victor Moreland was Brains, after the Top Cat cartoon character, hardman Alex Robson was Jaws, Billy Caskey he called Bamber after Gascoigne, the University Challenge host, while Colin McCurdy became Philadelphia Phil when he returned from a spell playing in the US city wearing his club shirt.

Ronnie McFall he ribbed for having creases in his shorts. "His wife Anne used to iron them. I've never seen that, before or since," laughs Feeno.

Here again, the media weren't spared from his wind-ups.

"You were the Beano reporter," he reminded me. "We had some fun with that when you came into the dressing room looking for the team sheet."

Once a vice-president of Glentoran, he had drifted away from going to games until Warren jnr landed the Linfield job. That took him back to Windsor Park until Warren left for Newport and now his Saturdays for the remainder of this season will be spent watching Ards, ironically where it all began for him.

Few people realise that he was actually born in Canada where dad Jimmy emigrated after leaving Swansea City to work and coach a club called Ulster United, made up of fellow exiles.

Returning to Belfast at 16, he was contacted by then Ards boss George Eastham senior who had played with his dad at Swansea.

Eastham, father of George junior, the Stoke City legend, was to become a pivotal figure in his career.

"Ards were a top side then," recalls Feeno. "It was daunting for a young player going into a dressing room with established names like Sam Kydd, Ray Mowat, John Anderson, Billy Nixon and Billy McAvoy.

"My first game was away to Derry City. We won 3-1 and I scored. But I soon realised there were no easy games. Every team you played had big performers. I remember going to face a Coleraine side with Bertie Peacock as player manager of a team that included Ray Gaston, Sean Dunlop, Tony O'Doherty and Brian Jennings, Pat's brother. That's what I mean when I talk about characters. There were just so many, compared to now."

Still an amateur, Linfield, his first love, came in for him at 18. "We lived in Ligoniel when I came back from Canada. Tommy Jackson was a neighbour and another, Tommy Stewart, who played for Linfield, used to take me to their matches.

"Ewan Fenton was the manager who signed me in a swap for Tommy Shields. Again, I wondered how I was ever going to break through into a side with Linfield greats in every position, players like Dessie Cathcart, Isaac Andrews, Sammy Hatton, Sammy Pavis and Bryan Hamilton. I was in the Swifts for a couple of months and finally got my chance when Dessie Cathcart was injured.

"Coming out of contract, George Eastham got in touch to say Stoke, where his son played, were looking for an outside left so I thought I'd try my luck. I was there for two years, Terry Conroy, the former Glens player, took me under his wing, but I didn't make the first team and came home after two years in 1973."

Again, George Eastham, then managing the Glens, was waiting.

"I had five glorious years at The Oval," Feeno recalls. "It was the dream team of Billy McCullough, Bimbo Weatherup, Rab McCreery, Stumpy Jamieson, Peter Dickinson, Casko and Moreland. We were winning trophies and playing in Europe every year."

Feeno's fondest memory is of the game, rated by all who were there in the 25,000 crowd, or watching on television, as the greatest performance by an Irish League club in Europe as the Glens restricted mighty Italian champions Juventus to a 1-0 win in a 1977 European Cup tie (and not just because he missed a penalty that would have earned a draw).

"It was practically the Italian national team. Every player was a household name and many went on to become World Cup winners," he says, relishing the memory. "Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Scirea, Tardelli, Causio, Bettega, Benetti and Boninsegna… playing at The Oval against part-timers like us. Alex Robson was immense, that night we played the game of our lives.

"We lost the away leg 5-0 in Turin but I remember the class of the Juve players off the field as well. Every one of them swapped shirts with us. Dino Zoff gave our keeper, Denis Matthews, his distinctive grey jersey and Denis wore it for the remainder of his Glentoran career.

"I got Gentile's and have given it to Warren's son, George, who is in the Exeter City academy."

Feeno experienced tragedy in Europe too, quietly recalling his shock at the sudden death of team-mate Roy Stewart after a game against Borussia Moenchengladbach.

Few players crossed the floor of the house between the Big Two in those days. The moves weren't popular with either crowd but when the chance came to rejoin his beloved Blues, Feeno could not resist.

"Arthur Stewart had come in at The Oval and Roy Coyle was by then at Windsor. They agreed a swap… me for the Linfield striker Jimmy Martin.

"Of course I got stick from both sets of fans but it was water off a duck's back. I answered them with my football. I won the full set of Irish League medals with Glentoran and won them all over again at Linfield.

"You couldn't fail in the Linfield team we had and in Peter Rafferty we had the greatest leader I ever played under.

"I played against some smashers as well, chief among them being Walter McFarlane at Crusaders. The way he would come in to tackle, it was Walter who taught me to hurdle!"

Farmed out to Crusaders in his 30s ("Roy Coyle was doing his old mate Derek Wade, the Crusaders chairman, a favour"), Feeno remembers the exact moment he knew it was time to call it a day.

"I was playing a reserve game at Cliftonville, coming 35 and feeling every minute of it. I remember saying to myself: 'This is it. Time to hang up the boots,' and I did."

He took with him a wealth of experience of the playing craft but never dreamt of going into management like son Warren who, he says, "makes all his own decisions".

"He's taken on a tough job at Ards but it's what he wanted," reflects Feeno.

"He's always done his own thing. He went away at 15 to Leeds, made a good life for himself as a professional footballer and won 46 caps for his country. He has nothing to learn from me."

Mind you, should young Warren ever require a 'character' reference, he knows who to ask.


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