Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Following the Glens

1967-1976 - From the age of three years old I was trailed around every Irish League football ground and their social club by my da', as he attempted to satisfy his insatiable lust for following Glentoran Football Club. Every Saturday of the football season I was wrapped up in my Glentoran hat, scarf, raincoat, and armed with a corncrake rattle which my older brother had delicately painted for me in the colours of red, green and black. My father took me to strange little places around the country to watch ‘the Glens’. Many times I stood on the muddy terraces on a rainy windswept and bloody freezing afternoon to watch a nil-nil draw. It was a real rite of passage into the ways of the Ulsterman.

In my father's world Glentoran Football Club was his real love. Family came second to following his beloved football team everywhere they went, yelling obscenities at referees and opposing teams - in particular at the foot-soldiers of the arch-nemesis; Linfield supporters. My father hated Linfield. His obsession with Glentoran was a handy excuse to satisfy his now ever-growing dependence on alcohol. Football matches were a perfect excuse to get drunk as he was either celebrating a victory or drowning his sorrows at a Glentoran defeat.

I liked going to the football matches. I would sit in various bars and social clubs surrounded by old men who constantly fed me with Coca-Cola and potato crisps. The more alcohol they consumed the more their generosity would come to the fore. Most of the old boys would give me some spare change from their pockets. I would come away from a day out at the football match with both my trouser pockets swinging back and forth from the weight of the coins I had been given. I wasn't complaining, although it was hard work having to sit quietly and listen to grown men singing off-key renditions of sentimental country-music ballads or boisterous Glentoran songs. These were the songs of the lost souls. When the singing began it was time for me to beg my da’ to take me home.

Following the Glens for many was for many, not about watching the game at all but sitting in brown rooms filled with a cloud of tobacco smoke and the stench of alcohol. There were many who went with the intention of seeing the match but after a few pints when the lust for alcohol took hold ("I've got the taste for it now..."), they would sit for the duration of the match in the social club. The men would go home and tell their wives what the score was and how it was a brilliant match, while living in hidden fear of her asking them how much money they had spent while at the game. Many rows followed the Saturday football excursion once the wife had gone through her husband’s pockets to discover he had spent most of his week’s wages.

I remember a well-known sports writer for a local newspaper getting drunk in the bar many times at the football match he was supposedly reporting on. He would often never leave the bar at all to watch the game preferring to sink drink after drink. As people would come into the bar to escape the vicious cold of a winter afternoon he would ask them what the latest score was, who scored what goals and who was booked or sent off. His match reports for Northern Ireland’s leading sports newspaper were more than often compiled from accounts taken from randomly selected strangers coming into the social club. People knew his form and with vicious Ulster wit they would quite often tell him the wrong score to wind him up. One person would tell him the Glens are winning 5-0. The next would tell him it was 4-1. The next would quote another different score. By the end of the game his match report was a mess of confusion. The reporter would wait until the match had finished and speak to someone who could give him an account of the game. This would often be a drunken biased report and far from the actual truth.

Following Glentoran meant hating Linfield. Glentoran versus Linfield games were violent affairs with rioting and spilled blood present at almost every game between these two factions from the East and South parts of Belfast. This was odd considering that both sets of supporters were from the Protestant community yet the hatred was and still is cut deep into the minds of these two groups. I heard quite a few Glens fans declare that "I'd rather be a Taig than a Blueman" - such was the level of hatred. In a religiously divided Ulster, Protestant unity was put to one side to be replaced with a tribal division of hatred which used football as its front.

Such was my father's intolerance of Linfield and the ‘other side of town’ that he once threw a friend of mine out of our house because I told him that he was a ‘blue man’ from the Shankill. My friend wasn't a Linfield supporter from the Shankill at all. He was from east Belfast and knew nothing at all about football – he was a hairdresser. We were simply winding my drunken father up. As my da’ physically pushed Andy up the hallway and out of the front door yelling "fuck off back to the Shankill" we both were in fits of uncontrollable laughter at the stupidity of the man.

There are many who had a similar baptism into the world of Irish League football and there are many who carry it on generation after generation through their children. I chose not to but that's my prerogative. Looking back at the past and the brown tobacco smoke filled drinking dens, there was a strange warmth and solidarity amongst those who supported the Glens. In the constant up-hill battle to be better than Linfield there was an odd form of love that required booze to bring it forth. In tiny bars and clubs men sat with arms around each other’s shoulders singing songs about Glentoran triumphs of the past. For a couple of hours each Saturday they all shared a sense of purpose – cheering on Glentoran, hating Linfield and getting drunk.

…and as long as the drinks kept coming, the love between them kept flowing.