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Saturday 27th September 2014 ko 15.00

IFA Premiership

GLENTORAN 1 (McAlorum 81)

DUNGANNON SWIFTS 0

Att 782

Entry £10

Programme £3

It’s impossible to visit Glentoran’s Oval Grounds home and not think of shipbuilding. You are in East Belfast and the Harland and Wolff shipyard is visible for miles around, with the towering presence of the giant yellow cranes named “Samson” and “Goliath” as focal points. The planes taking off from the nearby George Best Belfast Airport seem to climb more steeply than normal to avoid them all.

With that in mind it was only fitting that the Titanic exhibition received a visit. It did seem slightly odd that the shipyard’s most celebrated ship failed to make it to its first destination hitting an iceberg and sinking in 1912! In fact outside the exhibition hall is the outline of the dry dock where Titanic and her sister ship Britannic were constructed. After Titanic’s sinking, Britannic was adapted for use as a hospital ship but was sunk in 1916 after hitting a mine. Amazingly Nurse Violet Jessop managed to survive both tragedies. She later commented that she made a point of retrieving her toothbrush before leaving the Britannic as she’d missed having hers after the sinking of the Titanic!

I could have done with more time at the exhibition, but I’d contacted Glentoran secretary Ricky Rea before flying out. With the Oval being something of an iconic ground I’d asked to have a walk round the ground before it opened to take some photographs. That meant getting there for 12.30, and Ricky was kind enough to reserve me a car parking space. What I didn’t expect was what followed.

It was the most wonderful guided tour of the ground including the boardroom, including the 1914 Vienna Cup. This was won by the Glens in Europe’s first club competition but due to the outbreak of World War I was never played for again.

Ricky finished the tour as we walked along the players’ tunnel with the comment,

“Just call me when you’re finished, I’ve put you on the list for the sponsors’ bar, and there are tickets for the directors’ box for you.”

He turned down my offer to pay, so after taking a bucketload of photos I made sure I bought a suitable number of raffle tickets and no trip to the directors’ box should be made without a club scarf!

The trip round the Oval turned out to be far better than I could possibly have imagined. Behind the terrace behind one goal is a Type 24 machine-gun pill-box, where in 1941 two gunners watched horrified as the Luftwaffe destroyed most of East Belfast in 4 hours. That included the Oval, as the Germans mistook the ground to be an oil storage facility. It took the officials, players and supporters of Glentoran 8 years to rebuild the ground brick by brick, with the first game back home taking place on 20th August with a City Cup match at home to the other half of the Belfast “Big Two,” -Linfield.

As a groundhopper I’ve seen football in all kinds of stadia. From the ultra-modern, to the park pitch, I regard it as my job as a writer to try to capture the essence of what I’ve witnessed. However sometimes a place just blows you away to such an extent that all you need to do is publish the pictures, and let them tell the story. Benburb did that, as did SanFrecce Hiroshima and Westfalia Herne, and the Oval does remind me slightly of the latter, but writing as I am with the benefit of a few days’s hindsight, I think Glentoran bests even those wonderful homes of football.

I sat at the back of the directors’ box with a smile on my face, days groundhopping don’t get any better than this, perhaps this was payback for the tribulations (and a soaking) at Kinmel Bay! The game saw Glentoran have great difficulty in breaking down a Dungannon side that played just one up front, and seemed happy to take a point. It was an attractive game to watch, but a mixture of dogged defending and profligate finishing kept the tie goalless.

Dungannon can’t claim that Stephen McAlorum’s blast from 25 yards came from the blue, he’d seen a sighter well saved by Andy Coleman a few minutes earlier. As it was the shot fairly whistled in, I exchanged grins with Ricky, and after thanking him for he and his club’s wonderful gesture I departed at the final whistle destined for a guesthouse near Windsor Park, and a Lebanese restaurant in town.

The Oval will not be around forever, the site has been sold and the club are looking for somewhere to build a ground more in keeping with the level of crowds they get. 55,000 once watched Glentoran play Rangers here, so please if you love wonderful, traditional football grounds this friendly welcoming club and its iconic ground should be top of your list of priorities.

To finish, the Edward VIII post box is at Bangor Post Office, and is the only one in Northern Ireland.