Picture the scene. The celebrations were in full swing with manager George Bowden leading the sing-along after Glentoran Seconds had won the coveted Steel & Sons Cup at Seaview.
Following the razzmatazz of the trophy presentation, a Christmas Day party got under way in the dressing room. The bubbly was popping and everyone was in great spirits boarding the coach to head back to The Oval, where another function was planned.
The problem was that the bus travelled no more than 400 yards before a fire broke out. Suddenly, the light-hearted banter and frolics turned to mayhem and everyone hastily had to head for the exits.
“The engine at the back of the bus caught fire,” remembers George.
“We were all — the team and backroom staff — sitting on the Shore Road pavement, opposite the Grove Baths, with the Steel and Sons trophy, sipping champagne.
“Passing motorists must have thought we were mad. We eventually made it back to The Oval for a real celebration.”
Before that memorable incident, George had served his time in the Irish League as player, coach and manager. In fact, the Jack Nicklaus clubs gag doesn’t quite do him justice.
There is little doubt his time under Roy Coyle at Glentoran was his most productive period. He arrived just after the former Northern Ireland international moved in, succeeding Tommy Cassidy in 1997.
Coyle knew what he was getting, of course, because he appointed George to manage the second team at his previous club, Ards.
“Roy rang to see if I would be interested in taking over Glentoran Seconds,” smiles George. “When I came out of his office after a meeting, the first one I met was Johnny Jamison.
“I asked him did he fancy a coaching job — he said, ‘Not a problem’. We recruited Norman Arnel as kit man. Obviously I had to run it past Coyler, but it was the start of a special time for the club and me personally.
“The club structure was great. Billy Spence was the chief scout and he was bringing players in by the bucketload. They were not just ordinary players, they were excellent players. Billy was superb at what he did.
“There was a little period, from 1999-2002, we were winning everything, it was incredible. We had a conveyor belt of players coming through — Neil Armstrong, Jason Hill, Andy Waterworth, Sean Ward, Jamie Mulgrew, Marty Hunter, Kris Pike, Conor Walsh, Philip Simpson, Glenn Bowers and Stuart Long, the list was endless.”
George has one tinge of regret, probably a major gripe — the defection of Mulgrew to rivals Linfield.
“Jamie was excellent,” he adds. “He went on to have a brilliant Irish League career. It was one of those situations he was wanting to be involved in the first team more often.
“It was decision time at the end of the season. We recommended him to Coyler, but he couldn’t guarantee him anything. By Davy (Jeffrey) had been in Jamie’s ear at that stage.
“It was still a shock when Jamie came to Jemmi (Jamison) and I to say he was going to Linfield. He was one player I would have loved to have seen in the Glentoran first team.”
Before he went into management, George had a distinguished Irish League career but modestly he insists it was the players around him that made him look good.
“I played with some fantastic lads — Hugh Dowd, Jim Hagan, Mal Donaghy, Alan Harrison. Who wouldn’t look good in that class of company?” he laughs.
“I started out at Cliftonville. A couple of guys, Alan Dickson and Sammy Scott, asked me up to Solitude. Alan was the son of Tommy, the Duke of Windsor. I played a few games for the Seconds, Dr Kevin McGarry was manager, but Kenny McKeague cracked the whip.
“My first-team debut was an Irish Cup tie against Derry City at the Brandywell. I was only about 19, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. We drew up there; Danny Hale scored for Derry, Davy Cairns replied for us.
“The replay at Cliftonville finished a draw. I wasn’t available for the third game which was at Ballymena. Unfortunately, it was played in the afternoon and I couldn’t get off work. We duly lost the game.”
It was during his time at Solitude that George was called into the Northern Ireland Amateur international side.
“We were beaten 1-0 by Wales,” he recalls. “But I played with Hugh Dowd, who was at Glenavon. He was superb, a brilliant player and made me feel comfortable.”
George’s impressive form soon made him a target of other clubs and he was shocked when Portadown boss Gibby Mackenzie appeared on his east Belfast doorstep.
“He could have sold you anything — he convinced me I was good enough to play for Portadown,” smiles George.
“I thought, ‘I’ll have a go at that’. The Ports were in Europe that year. I had signed but had only trained a few times before the team went to Reykjavik to face Valur.
“I didn’t play in either game, but the team got through to the next round and I was involved in the second match against Partizan Belgrade. It was a fantastic experience.
“To go from amateur football to playing in Europe was unbelievable. We had a young Jimmy Cleary and Billy Murray alongside the experienced Sammy Lunn, Jackie Hutton and Terry Kingon.
“Although Jimmy and Billy were kids, you could tell they were going to be good players. I had been brought in to replace Sammy Lunn, but that didn’t happen. He was too long in the tooth and too good a player, he was a legend. Gibby began to play me all over the place, midfield, up front. It wasn’t what I wanted. At the end of the season, I had a word with him. I decided to move on.”
Larne manager Sandy Shields was quick off the mark to acquire the big man’s signature.
“I signed on a Sunday,” he adds. “I hadn’t trained much in pre-season, but Larne were due to play Linfield on Tuesday night at Windsor Park and Sandy asked me to come along to watch the game.
“When I arrived at Windsor, he asked had I boots. I said they were in the car. He told me to get them — I was playing. I was up against Martin Malone. I managed to get through it, even though we were beaten.
“Things were going along well when Brian Halliday arrived. He had been at Cliftonville. He was a character, he was a bit like Gibby, he could sell you anything.
“Brian not only managed the team, but he brought in vital sponsorship and money. He really transformed the club. When I first arrived, I played with Jim Hegan. What a player he was, a class act. It was a shame he didn’t get even one Northern Ireland cap. He was transferred to Coventry City, which was no surprise.
“Halliday went out and signed a boy from Cromac Albion to replace him — Mal Donaghy. It was a dream for me playing with guys like that. What a career in England he had.
“When Mal left, Jim Thompson arrived. He had been at Bangor. ‘Stick’ was great to play with. Brian built a good side — (Colin) McCurdy, Gerry O’Kane, Brian Quinn, who went to Everton and America, and Geordie Hunter.
“We could have held our own against any side in the League and, although we got to Semi-Finals of different Cup competitions, we never managed to get over the line.
“The hardest one to take was Carrick Rangers beating us in the Semi-Final of the Irish Cup back in 1976. They went on to win the trophy, beating Linfield in the Final. It’s still probably the biggest shock result in the history of the tournament. Jimmy Brown is still dining out on that result.”
George then had a stop-off at Bangor under Billy Johnston. He remembers: “They were a decent side. I was privileged to play with many talented players and Alan Harrison was another one when he was at the Seasiders.
“I suppose boys like Dowd, Hagan, Donaghy and Harrison made me look like a player.
“I always enjoyed playing against robust guys — Paul Kirk was one of them, John Platt was another. Big Billy Hamilton was always a handful.
“When you came up against lads like that, you knew you were in a match.
“You were ready for it, whereas the likes of Billy McAvoy, Dessie Dickson and Warren Feeney were different. If you took your eye off them for a second, they were five yards away. You just couldn’t get near them.”