In this new series we plan to bring extended interviews with some of Glentoran’s greatest ever players, speaking to Media Director Ian Clarke about many interesting aspects of their long, trophy laden careers with the Glens.
Part one: 1987-1992
John Devine’s story was remarkable. In our double season 1987-88 we had an injury crisis at centre back so, on Boxing Day we arrived at the Oval with no idea who would play beside Terry Moore against Ards. Then Tommy Jackson picked an eighteen-year-old we had never heard of and basically, he kept his place for the rest of the season and barely lost it for the next twelve! In those twelve years the Larne man went on to make 468 appearances, scoring 35 goals. He won 15 winners medals with the Glens, including three league titles and four Irish Cups. He also won his only full Northern Ireland cap while with Glentoran. In his last season John captained the Glens to the league championship also winning both the Castlereagh GSC and Football Writers’ Ulster Player of the Year Award. So, no shortage of things to discuss with Big John.
How did you get to Glentoran as a young player?
Billy Spence signed me but what happened was I’d been playing for the BB in Whitehead and one of the officers worked with Jim Cleary. Alan mentioned me to Jimmy, so the Glens sent out Billy Spence, who was scout at the time. I was playing for Carnmoney Colts against the Glens in a friendly that day. They beat us 5-2 but I scored both the goals as I was a centre forward at the time. So, then I was asked down for training and after a night training the Glens signed me as a centre forward.
How long were you at the Oval before you made the breakthrough? Not many of us had heard of you when you made your first team debut.
At the start of that 1987-88 season I was actually playing for the Colts. Billy McCullough had been running them, but he moved up to be Tommy Jackson’s Assistant Manager with the firsts and Billy Spence took over. I was playing centre half by that stage. By a couple of months into the season I was up to the Seconds then by Boxing Day I was in the first team. So yes, it was very quick.
Who else was in the Seconds at that time?
Wee Andy (Mathieson) played a lot for the Seconds around then. Gary Smyth was coming through the Colts then as well. Davy West was a couple of years younger than me, but he made it through to the first team. You had the backup first team players like Dean Smyth and Davy Montgomery. Yorkie was playing a lot for the Seconds as well around that time. It was a good Seconds team, run by Robert Strain. I think they won the Steel & Sons a couple of times. So, there were plenty of good players around to learn from.
You got into the first team at 18. How did that come about?
Barney had broken his leg and that let Norman McGreevy into the team. Then Norman pulled a hamstring against Ballymena. That was just before Christmas and I got a phone call from Robert Strain telling me Tommy Jackson wanted me to train with the first team on the Tuesday night. I went up and got changed by myself in the changing room the Seconds always used, I trained but Tommy said nothing and when my Dad asked me how it went, I genuinely didn’t know. Then on the Thursday Tommy told me I was playing against Ards on Boxing Day. I played that day and I must have done alright because Tommy kept me in, and I don’t think I missed a match for the rest of the season.
Glens one week away from the league title, April 1988 (John Devine back left)
Were you surprised how well it went?
Honestly, I thought I was just coming up to cover for Norman and that I’d be straight back to the Seconds once he’d recovered. Turns out Norman didn’t overcome his injury as quickly as expected so that gave me the chance to establish myself a bit. I was told on Christmas Eve and I played on Boxing Day, so I didn’t really have much time for it to sink in or for me to get nervous. Also, when you’re young you don’t tend to worry too much bout things. You take them more in your stride and just get on with things.
You came into a great team in 1987. Who would you say were the most helpful as you settled in?
Honestly, I could name all of them. Terry Moore was great beside me at centre half. Jimmy was very positive too since I half knew him through a mutual friend. Paddy in goals gave us all confidence and Alfie Stewart was great too. He wasn’t an awful lot older than me and he’d come through the same way I did so he was a great help too. But remember I came into a team with four full internationals in it - Jimmy Cleary, Terry Moore, Billy Caskey and Gerry Mullan – plus Johnny Jameson had been to the World Cup Finals with Northern Ireland. So, there were a lot of top quality players there. Their attitude as basically to go out and do my own thing and they’d look after me. Really a look and learn approach.
We won the Double in your first season. That’s not something the Glens are in a position to do very often. What was the feeling like around the club while we were going for it?
When I came in, we hadn’t gone top yet, but we went on a great run in both the league and the cup. I don’t think we conceded a goal in the cup until the semi-final. We had a lot of resilience too and scraped a lot of results when we needed to. I remember one horrible night down at Newry we scraped it 2-1. Then the Linfield match was fogged off when were losing 2-1 and we won the rearranged one 2-0 on a freezing cold night at Windsor Park. Given that it went to the last day, if that first game had been played to a finish and we’d lost it then we could have lost the league. When you have a lot of experience in the team then that holds you in good stead.
You’d a lot of experience in the management team of Tommy Jackson and Billy McCullough. How were they to play for?
I can’t thank Tommy enough for giving me my chance. He’d a lot of experience at Glentoran first, then across the water and with Northern Ireland and because of that he had the confidence to put me in and stand by me. All he really said to me was something like “You’re in John, give it your very best and we’ll see how it goes”. He had a lot of confidence in me and I’ll always appreciate that.
When Barney was back you played a lot at full back or midfield over the next couple of seasons. What do you think that did for your game?
Ultimately, I always saw myself as a centre half but when you’re in a squad like that you’re always just happy to get in the team. I felt I did okay at right back at times, but I never really felt that comfortable in midfield. I was never a box to box sort of player the way Nuts or Casko or Barney would have been. Although I did play there in an Irish Cup Final that we won! Really though if Jacko had told me I was playing in goals I’d have done it. It was horses for courses. I remember keeping George Neill out of the team at right back for a while, including the two European games against Dundee United. He was a great right back so I must have been doing something right. Then I know some of the supporters wondered why I was in midfield and Barney was at the back, since he was such a great midfielder. But I think there were times when Jacko maybe wanted a bit more height in midfield. You still had Casko and Nuts as box to box players then you’d Jamie on the right, Jimmy on the left then after Jimmy retired Soupy Campbell. So maybe Tommy just wanted a more obviously defensive player there.
How did you feel when Jim Cleary retired?
It was a massive shock to everyone since he was 32 but football took up a lot of time for someone with a young family. I think if you asked anyone in our era or a decade or so before it who was the best Glens player they’d seen, they’d all say it was Jimmy.
Our first season without Jimmy we won three trophies including the Irish Cup against a really good Portadown team. Plus of course in was the 7-Up season. What do you remember about that year?
I played in midfield a lot that season. Raymond Campbell and Steven Douglas came in from Bangor. Dougie did really well for us and scored a lot of goals. But it was still the nucleus of the Double winning team with those couple of good additions. I know it all turned very sour when he went to Linfield, but while he was with us, he did really well. Simply he could do things most other players couldn’t and he was a very important player for those 3 or 4 years. Conor McCaffrey came in too. I’d played a bit with him in the Seconds. He was great in the Cup Final against Portadown that season. He left the Glens far too soon and should have played a lot more games for us.
The 7-up was great. I think it was Roy Coyle’s last season with them and they were a good team. It’s hard to beat any team seven times in a row but its especially hard and especially nice when its Linfield. What made it even better was that there were a couple of Cup Finals in that run, including a penalty shoot out in the Shield final when Conor McCaffrey scored the winning penalty.
The next time we won the league, in 1992, you were firmly established as our first-choice number five and it was a much changed team. How would you compare that with your previous league win?
I wouldn’t say we had a better quality squad than in 1988, but we definitely had a much bigger squad and Tommy used it very well. I think we used well over 20 players with a lot of good players maybe getting 25 or 16 matches in the league. the goals were coming from everywhere in that team as we’d 5 or 6 players scoring 20 or so goals. Wee Andy was on fire that season. Gary Hillis scored a lot of goals that season. So did Gary Macartney and I think Nuts got quite a few as well. Plus, we Justin had =just come in and he was touching 20 goals. The thing was that if someone got injured or suspended, we could bring in someone of equal quality whereas in the double season it was more difficult. I think Raymond Morrison got the Player of the Year that season but for me Andy Mathieson was the one. He scored a lot of goals upfront or in midfield, but I think he also filled in at right back a fair bit and was still scoring. Gary Smyth played a lot that season and was brilliant too. He got a really bad injury and was never really the same until he went to Glenavon. But then he was great for the Glens in the two later spells with the club. But that was a great championship. We were never losing it, and, in the end, we won it at a canter with 4 or 5 games still to go.
1991-92 League Champions