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 two: 1992-1999
After winning the league in 1992 we went into a bit of freefall as age caught up with the great players from the 80s who were still there. How did that feel to a player who was still to reach his peak?
I think the problem was that we weren’t able to replace great players like Barney, Jamie, Terry, Casko and Nuts and if you look at the great clubs they’re always strengthening while they’re still successful. Maybe it was financial, I honestly don’t know. But if you think back to that time the likes of Portadown, Glenavon and the Blues were spending a lot of money and signing up most of the best players and we were getting left behind. Maybe there was a mentality that because it was Glentoran and a bigger club players would automatically want to come to us.
What was the mood like around the Oval then?
It was a case of just having to get on with things. It wasn’t nice for me or for Tommy after we’d been so successful for so long, but we were still there as players and we had to focus on that and look after our own game. Player recruitment is never something the players can influence. But Tommy was right in his interview that at that time, with the money he had to spend compared to other clubs, he could only attract a certain type of player to the club. When you’re operating at that level you still need to sign players. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. For that couple of seasons, it mostly didn’t work out for Glentoran.
Jacko went at the end of that season after 17 trophies. You were there for most of his time so what would you say were his greatest strengths and his legacy?
Personally, he put me in the team when I was 18 so I have everything to thank Tommy for. I like to think he had the foresight to see something in me very early on and he committed to me. So, I totally committed to Tommy and the club and it was a great time. His legacy is that he won the Glens their first Double in over 30 years and we haven’t won it in the 32 years since. So, no one but Tommy can claim that. It’s a travesty that Glentoran haven’t won more doubles as with some of the players and teams the club has had since that era, they should have won a few more.
Robert Strain took over that summer in what everyone would agree was a very difficult set of circumstances. What would you say about Strainer’s year in charge?
Really it was 2 years because he stayed on for a year with Tommy Cassidy. As you say it was a very difficult task for him to come in and build a squad, especially with the start of the 2-year relegation process. But really, Strainer had to be given the job after what he had achieved with the Seconds and what they won over the previous seasons when he was in charge. Also, with being an ex-Glens player and captain he had the pedigree and background for the job. He was the perfect man to manage Glentoran but maybe he was just the right manager at the wrong time. When he took over the club was a long way off winning trophies. also, there weren’t a lot of young players coming through and with the money going around the league then and the other good teams around, there maybe weren’t a lot of good players who wanted to come to the Glens. Its always much easier to attract the best players when you’re already good. Like Tommy had, Strainer did bring a lot of players in that season, but it was very hit and miss with them.
Tommy Cassidy came in next. We touched on that in the recent review of his era, but we in dire risk of relegation when he came in. How did he make a difference, as we eventually stayed up?
It was a big shock when he was appointed because there were no rumours or no speculation about it beforehand. As I said in the previous interview, he’d learned a lot of high standards with Newcastle, Burnley and Northern Ireland, and he tried right away to bring those sort of standards and disciplines to Glentoran. Tommy Jackson had brought me into the team and Strainer had brought me into the seconds, so it was the first time I’d played for a manager I didn’t already know. So, while Tommy tried to make Glentoran more professional there was definitely a wee bit less familiarity than there would have been before. For example, we had to call him “Gaffer” as a mark of respect.
Obviously that season was dominated by the fight to avoid relegation and the great end of season run that saved us. How did the players handle that unique situation?
We had quite a few new players in that summer, like Declan Devine, Donal O’Brien. Trevor Smith and Eddie Cunnington, and we actually got off to an okay start, winning the Gold Cup early on. Then we dipped a bit in the middle of the season, with some players losing form and maybe some confidence. So, with 6 or 7 games to go we were in a bad place after finishing ninth the season before. So, we knew what we had to do, and we knew there was no real margin for error or for any slip-ups in the last month or so of the season.
We were playing okay coming into that run, but I think we got our first real sense that we could do it after Chris Walker’s goal against the Whites. We’d had 3 pretty good wins leading up to that, but it was really late when Chris hit that one to win that match. It was a really special goal and I think that’s when the momentum really started to build for us. By that stage, the mentality we’d developed meant we didn’t feel that anyone could beat us. The team more or less picked itself by then. We had a steady back for of George Neill, Michael Smith Big Chris and me and we had Wee Andy playing very well in midfield. Then we had Cookie, Trevor, Glenn and Justy all scoring goals during the run. We were under no illusions what relegation would mean to the club, so I think we handled it very well.
What was the feeling like going into that penultimate game, away to Crusaders?
That day at Seaview we played a really good Crusaders and they didn’t do us any favours. They’d just won the league and were very worthy champions. So, they knocked us about a bi that day then they took the lead with a free kick. We handled that really well and once Cookie equalised, we really felt we could get it done. We deserved the penalty late on and it was a tricky one because I think Trevor actually mishit the penalty off one post then it hit the other before going in. But in terms of how we felt going into it, as I said earlier by that stage, we felt we could have played anybody and beaten them that month. Crusaders had a brilliant team under Roy Walker full of great players. But on the day, we gave them everything they wanted, and we definitely deserved our victory and deserved to stay up.
By that stage you were captain.
Yes. Barney had been captain for years and we all respected him as a great player who’d done a lot for the club. But he didn’t play much in the season he had with Tommy and George Neill was getting older too, so it was clear Tommy was going to appoint a new captain at some point. For a while Tommy rotated the captaincy before deciding what do longer term. He tried Donal O’Brien and Trevor Smith, then at one training session he came to me and said ‘listen John I want you to be captain, You’re well established at the club, you’re going to play every week and I know what you’ll bring to the job. Then he told me exactly what he wanted from his captain. Obviously, I was delighted to take on the job and I think that was the start of a successful era at the club.
In your first full season we won the cup for the first time in 6 years.
We weren’t great in the league that year, but everyone really managed to buy into the tradition that surrounds Glentoran in the cup. It was a great cup run and there were matches where we were just sweeping teams aside. The semi final against Crusaders went to a replay and a great goal from Liam Coyle won it for us late on. Before that Glenn Little had put in a great performance at Ballymena where he got a fantastic hat trick to win a tough match.
I really shouldn’t have played in the final. I’d jarred my knee against Linfield a couple of weeks earlier and in the week leading up to it I was 60:40 against playing. Then I went to see a physio on the Holywood Road that morning. He bandaged me up and told me I’d get through it, But the pitch at Windsor was shocking that day. Really bumpy. But we settled very quickly, played well against Glenavon and were well worth the win and the cup. It was a fantastic goal from Big Glenn to win it for us.
Irish Cup winners 1998
We also had a great 4-0 win over the Blues at Windsor that season.
Yes, at that time we were inconsistent but when we hit form we could beat anybody. That night was great. You’d players like John Kennedy and Pete Batey who’d just come in, big Glenn was outstanding that night, Justy got one and wee Eddie Cunnington scored a great goal. He was a very good player for us. He was left footed, but he scored that one with his right. He did really well for us, but it all went a bit sour between him and Tommy at the end and I think he went to Coleraine and back to Scotland. On his day Glenn Little was as good as anyone I’ve seen in the league. He really deserved his move to Burnley and that was his level. We had 2 very good flanks with Nicky and Glenn on the right and Michael Smyth and Eddie on the left. Plus, you had Chris Walker bedding in beside me in the centre.
Did you know from the start Big Chris would make it?
Yes I did. I played a couple of matches beside him for the seconds when I was coming back from injury. Tommy came to them to see how I was progressing and also to see who was coming through. He liked what he saw in Big Chris, who’d just come in from First Liverpool. So he got in the team and I think that was a big part of why they sold Gary Smyth to Glenavon.
When Tommy went, Roy Coyle came in as manager. How different did you find Roy’s style?
Completely different. From day one when he and Jimmy Brown came in, he laid down the low. His attitude was basically “listen, you’re at a big club and you either deliver or you’ll be out. He ruled with a bit of fear too, which was different from what I’d known. We knew he’d do that because we knew he’d done it at his other clubs. But his approach had brought him a lot of success at them and it brought him a lot of success at Glentoran as well. He definitely brought a lot more mental toughness to the club, the sort of thing you really need at a big club like Glentoran. That rubbed off on everyone.
One thing Roy did early one was give a lot more game time to Paul Leeman, Stuart Elliott and Andy Kirk, with Nicky already well established. What was it like to have 4 such great young players come through at the same time?
They were 4 great lads and the fact that 3 of them went to Ashfield together meant they were all close. They were great lads but more importantly they were great players. My brother played for the Colts at the time, so I went to watch them a fair bit and to me it was obvious even then that they all had something. I think Tommy Cassidy was a bit unlucky there because he put a lot into helping them develop but they just weren’t quite ready by the time Tommy went, so Roy Coyle really got the benefit of them. He got them at the right time and nurtured them into better players who all had great careers.
The next season was the last of your 3 title wins with us. Plus, you were double Player of the Year. How would you describe that team?
Yes, I won both the Ulster Player of the Year and the Football Writers, which was great on a personal level. That was a great team too. We got off to a good start, winning plenty of matches. But we were scraping a lot of them by one goal. But as the season went on, we got stronger and stronger. He’d already brought in Scott Young to shore up the midfield and bring more skill to the team, then I think around Christmas he brought in Tim McCann. What players they both were for Glentoran. David Rainey had also come in and done very well for us, scoring a fair few important goals. The goals were coming from everywhere. As well as Davy we had wee Kirker scoring them. Stuarty Elliott, Rory Hamill and Wee Justy all hit double figures, I chipped in with a few and Nicky was already scoring from right back by then. Plus, we had Wayne Russell who was the best keeper in the league. So you’d lots of good quality young players, all full of energy, plenty of enthusiasm and no fear. That’s what got us over the line.
John Devine and Paul Leeman attack a certain Paul Millar in the 1998-99 league winning season
Then at the end of the season you were away to Coleraine. That came as a big shock to all of us, Was it a shock to you as well?
Massive. I knew my contract was up at the end of the season and I went to Roy about it at Christmas. He told me not to worry, there’d be a contract for me. When I was offered it at the end of the season it was 2 years and I asked for 3. Roy agreed to that but when I saw the terms I turned them down because they weren’t good. But to be honest, and without reopening old wounds, there had been a couple of discussions within the club that season and one the season before, and I think those were held against me when the time came to renegotiate. So they refused to budge, and I went to Coleraine. There was a lot said in the press by the club and obviously some of that turned the supporters against me when I left. That’s understandable when a player leaves, and I never blamed them for it. But that’s all water under the bridge and over the last 15 years or so I’ve always been made very welcome by supporters when I come to the Oval and I’ve loved it any time I’ve played for the Glentoran Legends. Ultimately, I had a great career at Glentoran. I loved every minute of it, and I love the club, so I can’t have too many complaints about Glentoran at all.
Finally John, how do you feel about what you’ve seen from Glentoran this season?
They’re definitely on the right track. The old adage is that you have to invest for success and that’s what the new owner has done. Mick McDermott and Windy have really freshened the place up and on their day, they look as if they can beat anybody. They just need to add that bit of consistency to help them go for the league.