Irish League Lives: Robert Strain who played with hero Denis Law but is remembered for failing to score in Crusaders' big season

Robert Strain

It's not every day you get an opportunity to hitch a lift to work with the legendary Denis Law!

Kit bag over the shoulder and prepared for another tough day at the office, Robert Strain admits he had to pinch himself on occasion.

Although he was only a fresh-faced 19-year-old, Robert was the envy of his team-mates, arriving at Manchester City's training ground with one of football's all-time greats.

It was fairytale stuff for the lad from Drumaness, whereas the former Manchester United and Scotland striker was approaching the twilight zone of his career.

Having played for his village team as a 16-year-old, Robert was snapped up by crafty Portadown boss Gibby Mackenzie, who was later instrumental in orchestrating his move to full-time football.

"Gibby brought two or three of us to Portadown from Drumaness," recalls Robert.

"The Ports were a good side, with boys who had been around the block, the likes of Sammy Lunn, Ronnie McFall, the Morrison brothers, Brian and Ronnie, and Vic Fleming. Then a young Jimmy Cleary arrived.

"We reached the 1972 Irish Cup Final, only to be beaten 2-1 by Coleraine. They were a tasty team - McCurdy, Curley, Jackson, Dickson and Jennings.

"Although I was only a young lad, I had to grow up very quickly in that company. When you got hit, you had to bounce back up and not let anyone know you were hurt.

"And I made my first European appearance with the Ports against Icelandic team Valur after we finished runners-up to Linfield in the Championship."

Robert then got that surprise move to Manchester City.

He laughs: "You know what Gibby was like, he could have sold sand to the Arabs. He approached me at training one night, asking if I fancied going across the water.

"I thought he was talking about Islandmagee or somewhere like that, but he managed to get me over to Manchester City, where Malcolm Allison was boss.

"I played a few games for the reserves and lucky enough it worked out. I agreed a two-year contract in 1972.

"I never managed to make my first-team debut. That's because the first team was full of international players - Joe Corrigan, Mike Summerbee, Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Rodney Marsh, along with Alan Oakes, Glynn Pardoe, Tony Book.

"I was staying in digs in Stretford, along with George Dunlop. I suppose my claim to fame was that Denis (Law) used to pick us up in the mornings to take us to training.

"Denis was winding down his career after making a surprise switch from Man United. I was fortunate to have played with him in the reserves.

"I can also remember him scoring the goal to relegate United at Old Trafford, I was in the crowd.

"He scored with a cheeky back flick but didn't even celebrate.

"Never did I think when I was a wee lad running about Drumaness that I'd ever play alongside one of my idols."

Robert was lured back to Crusaders by manager Billy Johnston on his return to Northern Ireland.

He goes on: "Again, I was fortunate to join a team with many good players, including Roy McDonald, Walter McFarland, John McPolin, Bobby McQuillan, Ronnie McAteer, Paul Kirk, George Lennox, Robert Gillespie and Geoff Gorman.

"We won the League title in my first year back. Billy (Johnston) had won it a few years earlier which was the Tom Finney era, so to repeat it was a great achievement.

"My second claim to fame was I was the only player not to score a goal that season! Even our goalkeeper, Roy McDonald, managed to get on the score sheet - the wind caught one of his clearances and blew it into the net down at Ards.

"The boys always gave me a bit of stick about that and even to this day when I meet the likes of big Paul Kirk, he would remind me about it.

"I remember our last match of the season. We were winning 4-0 against Portadown, the title had been secured a few weeks earlier.

"Billy was aware I hadn't scored, so he told me to play up front for the last 10 minutes. A ball came in from the wing and I never headed it better.

"It had goal written all over it until Bobby Carlisle got a glove to it, which took it onto the crossbar.

"After that, I knew I was destined not to score. That's how I'm remembered - the only one not to score a goal in our League-winning team."

The Crues' reward for that title success was being drawn against mighty Liverpool in the European Cup.

Although Johnston's boys held the Merseyside giants for much of the game, a Phil Neal spot-kick and a late John Toshack goal sealed the deal.

"We knew the team that beat us would go on to lift the trophy - and that's what happened," chuckles Robert.

"I played at Anfield a few times with City reserves, but it was a bit different turning out in front of 40,000 fans as opposed to 400.

"Seaview was bunged to the rafters for the return match. There were no floodlights, so it was an afternoon kick-off.

"Although we did well over there, where Roy (McDonald) had an outstanding game, they won easily in Belfast - it was a fantastic experience."

After four years, Robert made the switch across town, signing for Glentoran, who were managed by his former Portadown colleague Ronnie McFall.

"Ronnie was assembling a good side," adds Robert.

"He signed Jimmy Cleary and brought Barney Bowers back from England. He also snapped up Johnny Jameson from Linfield - 'The Flying Angel' as he was called.

"We won the League title in my second season and, by that time, Dermot Keely and Alan Harrison had arrived. I've three Championship medals, one was won with the Crues of course.

"I'd won every medal except the Irish Cup and my agony looked set to continue as I was only substitute when we reached the 1983 Final against Linfield at Windsor Park. The game finished level.

"Fortunately for me and unfortunately for Barney (Bowers), he picked up an injury and I was in the team for the replay, which we won 2-1.

"That was my only Irish Cup Final success, but it did help me complete my set of Irish League medals."

When Robert decided to hang up the boots, McFall persuaded him to remain at the club in the capacity of second-team manager.

He explains: "I was still only 32 or so, but I relished the challenge. We won four or five League titles, the George Wilson Cup and were beaten by Dundela in the Steel & Sons Cup Final. However, we returned the following year to defeat East Belfast 4-1 in the Final."

Robert and his sidekick Billy Caskey were then asked to take over first-team duties when Tommy Jackson parted company with the Glens in July 1993.

"Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it was the worst decision I ever made," he admits.

"It was a poor year for the club. There were banners up from fans at every game, wanting the board sacked.

"The club was in turmoil. Unfortunately, Billy and I were in the middle of it. We were probably only a stop gap, because another manager was always going to come in - it was Tommy Cassidy, who arrived from England.

"Billy quit, but I was asked to stay on to help Tommy settle in. I stayed for another year to assist him, but I should have left with Casko."

When he did make his Oval exit, Robert was persuaded to return to Crusaders by his old buddy McDonald.

"Roy Walker was manager," concludes Robert. "It was the time Tony O'Connell was involved with the club. What a character he was - a cigar-smoking Dubliner.

"Tony used to bring a stack of boys up from the south every week - Roddy Collins, Liam Dunne, Robbie Lawlor, Derek Carroll, Martin Murray, and Mick Deegan. And we had big Kirk Hunter - another larger than life guy.

"I remember him coming off the bench against Cliftonville. He was on the pitch for about two minutes when he was sent off. He walked past the dug-out, looked at Roy (Walker) and all he could say was, 'Sorry, boss man'.

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