Sporting lives Ronnie McFall: I wanted to give all those at Portadown a first major trophy... we won the league and next year the double
Managerial legend Ronnie McFall on characters he played with and against, and why he takes no pleasure in his home town club's present plight despite his unhappy exit after 29 great years
Ronnie McFall feels a different pain now, listening out for Portadown's results, than he experienced on his abrupt parting from the club he served so well and for so long.
After 29 and a half years, he seemed a permanent fixture at Shamrock Park and indeed in the Irish League.
His plan was to retire gracefully on the 30-year mark. There would surely have been farewell dinners, presentations and endless back-slapping in recognition of his contribution to football in general and the club in particular as one of the most successful and well liked Irish League figures of the modern era.
Twenty trophies in all, including league titles and Irish Cup wins for the Ports and Glentoran before that.
But it all unravelled in his final season.
The financial problems now coming home to roost at the once proud club, reduced to begging bowl status in the Championship, began to manifest in poor results and supporter unrest. It was as if all McFall had achieved in his near 30 years at his home town club counted for nothing in some quarters.
Matters came to a head with a shock Irish Cup home defeat by then lower league neighbours Lurgan Celtic in March 2016 and a dejected and disillusioned McFall promptly resigned amid bitter recrimination that lingers to this day, almost two years on.
To understand how he must have felt, consider his background.
Portadown born and bred, a former player steeped in the club's football tradition, in our first interview on taking the job in 1996, he was emphatic: "I am going to give the football club back to the town."
And he did, winning league after league, cup after cup for a club that had never before won a major trophy. Under his management, Portadown were soon a football force in the land.
It's said everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end.
But his departure from Portadown and its aftermath was an Irish League football car crash of epic proportions. No one saw it coming, though McFall had picked up the danger signals in his driving seat.
Portadown's predicament now -relegated and punished for making illegal payments to players, struggling in the Championship and pleading with fans to help ease their financial woes - would appear to exonerate McFall in that the storm clouds soon to engulf the club formed way beyond the manager's office.
McFall, who turned 70 last October, could be forgiven for feeling vindicated by the club's present plight.
But he is adamant: "I take no pleasure from seeing Portadown struggle. There are a lot of genuine supporters I feel so sorry for. Portadown is a football town. If the club is going well, it is a boost for the town. It is soul destroying for all of those who have the club's best interests at heart to see them in such reduced circumstances.
"I genuinely hope they can turn things around and get back into the top division, where they belong and are needed."
Nevertheless, for all his goodwill expressions, McFall has not set a foot back in Shamrock Park, a mile from his home, since that fateful, defining night in March 2016.
And he is unlikely to as long as those he privately holds responsible for his unceremonious exit and the club's subsequent disintegration remain in situ.
Instead, he spends his Saturday afternoons, with wife Anne, a constant figure in his football and married life, at places like neighbours and old rivals Glenavon whose fans' hearts he broke with Portadown's title winning regularity.
At Glentoran, where he also won a league title, but who dispensed with his managerial services in a kneejerk reaction to a bad 1984 Boxing Day defeat at Distillery yet who on Boxing Day past, awarded him life membership of the club in a pitch presentation alongside contemporaries Roy Coyle and Tommy Jackson, also with their ups and downs at the club.
At Windsor Park, where he rankled Bluemen by breaking their stranglehold on the Irish League title by leading their bitter rivals through an unbeaten league season in 1981, the first since Belfast Celtic and unrepeated to this day.
And at Cliftonville where once in the worst of times, crowd trouble forced a Reds-Ports match to be abandoned.
Where is the healing process at Portadown, you might wonder?
"Anne and I are warmly received, wherever we go, and we appreciate the welcome," is all he will say.
Odd, too, that his expertise and experience has not been sought in a director of football or consultancy role, though he accepts: "My time as a manager is over."
It all began for McFall as a wide-eyed, enthusiastic lad playing for Hart Memorial primary, Clounagh High school and Thomas Street BB. He became a Schools international and showed so much promise he even had a trial at Arsenal. At 16 he was signed for Portadown by legendary Scot Gibby MacKenzie, emerging as an uncompromising left back.
"Gibby was ahead of his time. He went into schools coaching and developing players. That is where he found the likes of Gary Blackledge and Billy Murray for Portadown," recalled Ronnie.
From Shamrock Park, McFall moved to Scotland and Dundee United. Later he would have a trial at Fulham were the iconic Johnny Hayes, the first £100 a week footballer, was the king of Craven Cottage. There is a certain irony that in the years that followed, Ronnie would manage the Irish League's first £1,000 per week star, Garry Haylock.
Returning to Northern Ireland, McFall joined an exceptional Ards side containing the likes of Billy McAvoy and Billy Nixon, before going 'home' to Portadown and playing alongside fabulous characters such as Terry Kingon, Sammy Lunn and the man he regards as his 'greatest ever team-mate' Wilbur Cush.
As manager, McFall famously turned Portadown into a buying club. When he was a player they were a selling club and when Glentoran came in with an offer he was on his way to east Belfast, playing with Oval heroes such as Billy Caskey, Stumpy Jamieson and Rab McCreery. They won the title but, as the ever demanding McFall points out, that side 'should have won more'.
Encouraged by MacKenzie, McFall had been going to Lilleshall in his 20s and taking his coaching badges, so when Arthur Stewart left the manager's hotseat at Glentoran, Ronnie took over. He may have only been in his early 30s and the appointment was a surprise to some, but to the man himself, with football flowing through his blood, it seemed a natural progression.
In that 1980/81 season he made history by guiding the Glens to an invincible league championship winning campaign.
He recalls: "When I came into The Oval they were bottom of the league and it wasn't a good place, yet after three years we won the league, undefeated, which was only the second time that had happened in the Irish League. Belfast Celtic did it prior to that.
"Then we won the Irish Cup for the first time in 10 years. I'll always appreciate Glentoran for giving me an opportunity to go into management."
What meant even more was taking over as boss of his hometown club.
"I wanted to give the fans and all those at the club their first major trophy. We won the league in 1990 for the first time in the club's history and the second year we won the double.
"Those were exciting times, we had European nights, great players, great times and great success."
The 'Tartan Revolution' played a massive part in that. Under MacKenzie, Portadown were renowned for signing Scots. McFall brought the tradition back, asking his old Dundee United boss Jim McLean to lend a hand.
First came Sandy Fraser and then when Marty Magee was suspended, Stevie Cowan arrived on the scene. Others would follow.
"I said to Jim I need an out and out striker who will score goals and he said take Cowan. He won the first league title for us and later I signed Neil Candlish. Dougie Bell and Garry Peebles and all made their mark," said McFall, who knew exactly how to fit his pieces into an unbreakable jigsaw.
Rivals accused McFall of distorting the market but he insists: "Wages were lower then and it was Linfield, not Portadown, who made Haylock the £1,000 a week player. You have to live within your means and we did that." A lesson clearly not learned by later Portadown regimes.
McFall's long Portadown reign did not end the way he wanted it to, but he can look back with pride at his time there, knowing there were many more good days than bad.
He says: "If you had said back at the start I would have lasted 29 and a half years at Portadown I wouldn't have believed you."
Today he laments kids being glued to computer games rather than being outside playing sport and has concerns about the imbalance in crowds at Irish League games with clubs like Warrenpoint Town and Ballinamallard struggling to attract fans. He believes the standard of local football is not as good as it was but says the entertainment value is high, citing last weekend's 3-3 thriller between title challengers Coleraine and Crusaders as an example.
All the while the love of his life has been by his side. Anne McFall, wife, friend, confidante and much more besides.
"Anne has backed me 100%," says McFall. "She has always been there for me throughout my whole career. Without her support I know I wouldn't have had the success I've had.
"I'm grateful for everything Anne did because when you are manager of an Irish League club, people may think it is part-time, but it is 24/7 and you need support to be successful and thankfully Anne was always there to provide it."
As for that age old joke about Anne picking Ronnie's teams? "Rubbish. I picked the team," is the instant reply from mighty McFall, unquestionably one of the finest managers Irish League football has ever seen.