Why we can't afford to let Ports fall off big stage
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Forgive me for applying the classic words of Charles Dickens ('A Tale of Two Cities') to the fortunes of a mere football club. But that's how it is at Shamrock Park these days as Portadown teeter on the brink with Pat McGibbon's resignation as manager last night the latest body blow.
The best of times occurred either side of the Millennium, when manager Ronnie McFall landed the Ports their first major trophies since they entered the senior game in 1924 - seven in all. Four league titles and three Irish Cups. Were the fans dreaming?
The worst of times are here and now, with the club shackled by the double whammy of being deducted 12 points - 15 points, in effect, with Coleraine having been awarded the spoils from their postponed August fixture - and banned from signing players on professional forms. Not to mention the succession of fines and the expense of the various appeals.
It's the equivalent of occupying football's 'Death Row', with the Championship beckoning - akin to the 'sirens' of Greek mythology calling the sailors onto the rocks.
One can understand the anger of the directors and fans calling foul. Yes, the directors, foolishly and open-eyed, transgressed. They made unauthorised payments to striker Gary Twigg (now with Coleraine) and paid amateur Peter McMahon (now at Dungannon Swifts) as a professional.
And the fact that a £3,000 cheque from the directors to pay off a fine to the Irish Football Association (IFA) actually bounced added a spot of derision to the entire farrago.
But in my view the punishment was too severe. Either the deducted points or the ban on signing new professionals would have sufficed. The double sentence is already crippling the club, who have pulled back only six of the 12 (or 15) deducted points with two wins from 10 matches. Several seasoned pros left the club in the close season to flee the encircling crises. There are too many tenderfoot players in the line-up.
Chairman Roy McMahon feels that the club have been "shafted", while the long-suffering fans are pointing the finger in the direction of the boardroom and calling for changes. What everyone at Shamrock Park agrees with is criticism of the IFA for their painfully slow handling of the situation.
Firstly, let us recall the good times. The mind goes back to April 1990 when manager McFall brought the first ever league title to Portadown, beating Linfield in the final match of the season. We couldn't believe it after all those lean years. A photograph remains in my memory bank as I stood between McFall and my great friend and journalistic colleague Brian Courtney and hugged the Gibson Cup as if it were a beautiful bride.
Both Brian's and my late father had followed the Ports from the day they entered senior football. Brian's dad had been club secretary and mine had played for the reserves. We came from the era where our dads lifted us over the turnstiles in our childhood.
"It doesn't get any better than this," Brian beamed. But it did. The next season, the Ports did the double of league and cup glory, securing the title with six matches to spare and beating our deadly rivals Glenavon 2-1 in a colourful Irish Cup final in front of 12,000 roaring fans.
And what a team - brilliant captain Brian Strain led his troops which included Alfie Stewart, Mickey Keenan, Stevie Cowan, Sandy Frazer… what a line-up!
I had to head for Cork afterwards, as a member of Portadown Male Voice Choir, to sing in the International Festival. With me came Glenavon fan and fellow tenor Sammy Hamilton. We were as hoarse as donkeys from supporting our teams, but the choir won another piece of silverware that weekend.
The trophies kept rolling in, with further league titles in 1996 and 2002 and Irish Cups in 1999 and 2005, interspersed with 'lesser' prizes like the Gold Cup, the Budweiser, the Ulster Cup and the Irish League Cup (1996 and 2008-09).
The second of those League Cups was won when the Ports found themselves relegated to the Championship after they'd finished fourth in the top league. It's a matter of shameful history that the club were 25 minutes late in registering for the Premiership and the fans found themselves studying various maps to decipher the routes to far-off football fields like Coagh and Castlederg. Again, the punishment was draconian.
The fact that they bounced straight back up again and won the Ulster Cup (with Premiership teams in the mix) elicited a communal sigh of relief.
"We don't ever want to face the likes of that again," was the response. And that's how most of the clubs felt, with Portadown - in my view, the leading provincial club - having the biggest potential support outside Belfast.
Certainly, we attract plenty of atmosphere and revenue to most clubs. Even Glenavon don't want us to disappear! Our rivals at Mourneview appreciate the great rivalry and the exciting (and profitable) Boxing Day derby games.
Now the worst of times - and they are upon us with a vengeance. Only a minor miracle can save us. If we tumble to the anonymity of the Championship, it will be a difficult climb back. We simply don't have talent like 2008.
The current hiatus can be traced back to the 2015 Irish Cup final and the 1-0 defeat by Glentoran at their HOME ground The Oval (it could only happen in Northern Ireland). It is a matter of history that Portadown were the victims of a refereeing decision that will, forever, rankle with all concerned at Shamrock Park - especially McFall, who made his views rather forcibly!
It denied the Ports vital European money and McFall was placed on a season's notice that his 30 years were up, but he didn't survive until the summer break. The crunch came after a 3-2 Irish Cup quarter-final defeat by juniors Lurgan Celtic and McFall walked there and then. He hasn't set foot in Shamrock Park since. Pat McGibbon saved the demoralised squad from relegation on the last day of the season and now he has gone, too.
So where do we go from here? There's no point in the board leaving, despite supporters' calls for wholesale resignations. Who'd want to replace them in these traumatic times? And who'd want to invest their hard-earned money in a club that had sunk from Everest heights to Death Valley depths?
The lessons are in the 2008-09 Championship 'adventures' when the directors were responsible and the IFA slapped on the most extreme punishment for a 25-minute delay.
The directors, in fairness, rose to the challenge and kept the talented team intact, and the fans rallied, travelling to corners of Northern Ireland they didn't know existed.
There are signs that the board is strengthening in personnel, and the faithful fanatical fans of Portadown - among the best in the league - will do their bit.
A problem, though, has been that the board often seem disconnected from the fans. That must be put right.
Unless a minor miracle is effected and the Ports stay in the Premiership, there could be a few lean years where those road maps will be required, and much hard work needed from management and board.
Portadown are much too important a club to be ostracised from the top echelons of Irish League football.
Senior football means so much to a struggling town once the shopping capital of Mid Ulster, which has lost much of its identity with the over-ambitious Craigavon new city project, and where the sense of community isn't as strong as it used to be.
We can't countenance losing the Ports…