I’m fifty-two. There are only three things that still frighten me. Polystyrene packaging, those white-faced Pierrot clowns and Rab McCreery. If we were to play a word association game and I was to say Rab, you (if you are of a certain vintage) would undoubtedly reply, “hard man” and that would be without question, very true. Such was the reputation of the Glentoran right back of the Seventies and early Eighties though, that many people have tended to forget above anything else Rab was a smashing footballer.
A mainstay of the Glentoran sides in an era of bell bottom trousers, turtle necks and primate like side burns, Rab McCreery had command of more ground than Alexander the Great, prowling the flank and protecting a goal mouth that was only ever troubled by the bravest of the brave. In the 1970’s, football was a big boy’s game and Rab McCreery played it with swashbuckling gusto combined with the impetus of a runaway freight train. In 1974, Glentoran embarked on a European adventure that would take a group of predominantly east Belfast lands on an odyssey which started in the mountains of Bram Stoker’s Transylvania, meandered through the Norwegian fjords and ended on a cold, wet and extremely sombre night in Germany.
That year, Glentoran reached the quarter finals of the European Cup Winner’s Cup, which was a remarkable achievement for a part time club only just surviving in a country ravaged by civil war. Rab McCreery scored in the first round, first leg tie against the Romanians but was then dealt the cruellest of blows in the second round against the Norwegians of Brann Bergen, when his leg was snapped in two by no less than three Norwegian defenders. Hunting in packs, they pounced on the Belfast man’s shin as he failed to extract himself from the six inches of mud that covered the Bergen pitch. It snapped two different ways. For many players, the injury would be career ending but in his recovery and return to the side as an even more robust defender, the legend of Glentoran’s tungsten tempered number 2 was born.
And we loved him. As a twelve-year-old, I was delighted that he played for us and not the opposition. He looked the part and played up to his role with aplomb, and boy could he play.
So, sad to say, some forty years later I remain in awe of him and just a little bit frightened by his presence. Rab still turns out for the Glentoran Legends under the management of his great friend Philip Stevenson. He still bears the horrific scars of one night in Bergen, which I am informed he protects, when he forgets his shin guards, with a cardboard toilet tube ripped in two.
One night, in October 1977 Rab played a game so perfect in its execution that he tells me (and I believe him) that it is still talked about in the pubs and clubs of east Belfast. The fact that I’m writing about now is testimony to how engrained in my memory the night remains. I was always going to explore the story of the night on which Rab met Claudio, during this, the fortieth anniversary of one of the club’s biggest games; it is a good enough tale to stand alone, but then last month something truly remarkable happened and the tale took on a life of its own.
You see, when it comes to shirts, I’m an anorak.
Football shirts that is. Since 1992 I’ve been an avid collector of Glentoran football shirts. I thought I was unique in this regard until I first met my now great friend Clifford Logan who shared the same passion for V-neck collars, raglan sleeves, embroidered badges, cut and sew or sublimated patterns, styling that comes with the design of every single football shirt.
Our obsession reached its pinnacle when in 2010 we began a project to research and catalogue every single Glentoran shirt worn by the team since 1882. Even now, writing about it, we don’t sound well, do we?
Once the Playing for the Shirt website was completed people began to ask, “What’s your favourite Glentoran shirt of all time?” Invariably the answer must be the 1977 green Umbro kit specially commissioned for the night Glentoran would play Juventus of Italy in the second round of the European Cup at the Oval. It was a thing of pure beauty. Glentoran green accentuated by a striped red and black floppy collar with outrageous red and black Umbro diamonds running down the sleeves. The shirt was adorned by red, cloth numbers, an unheard-of combination. The maglia of Juventus was a work of Italian styling, but the Glens looked imperious in this wonderful creation. I had never seen the shirt before, or after. Glentoran played in a different green jersey for the away leg in the Stadio Communale and so it was gone in a blink of the eye.
Grainy colour photographs and shaky television pictures are all that remain of the night, and of course our memories.
You heard me right though, Juventus, la Vecchia Signora, the old lady of Turin, arrived in Belfast as the playboys of Italian football in the early winter of 1977. The team boasted ten internationals and a substitute valued back then at one million pounds. Amongst their number, a player renowned as the hardest, no let’s call a spade a spade, the dirtiest player in world football, Claudio Gentile.
The journalist Stuart Horsfield wrote of Gentile. His brutality was as effective as it was violent. The claustrophobia inflicted on his opponents was stifling to the point of suffocation. Reputations were swept away as easily as a standing leg when receiving the ball. Such was its effectiveness and the relentlessness with which it was pursued; Claudio Gentile’s performances in the second round of the 1982 World Cup were a juxtaposition of exquisite barbarism.
Gentile: perhaps the most inappropriate name ever afforded to a professional footballer. The Italian defender wore his reputation as a tough, uncompromising defender, or as the more clickbait YouTube video titles would have you believe, ‘The Hardest Man in Soccer’, as a badge of honour. But there was nothing gentle about the man born in Libya and raised in Italy on a diet of Catenaccio and traditional Italian physicality. “My character was not to intimidate, it was to show I was the boss on the field. You have to be gritty and determined. At certain times you have to know ‘how’ to foul,” once said the Italian.
Everyone knew of Claudio Gentile in 1977, even Rab McCreery. Unfortunately for Gentile he had never heard of Rab.
A flurry of email activity about a month ago alerted to me that someone had discovered an old Glentoran shirt in the loft of their home in Glengormley. The fellow in question was a Glentoran supporter and knew to look for details of the shirt on our website. Then he sent me the immortal line “I think this is the Glens shirt from the Juventus game at the Oval” I asked him what number the shirt carried. He sent me a set of photographs back. He was right.
There it was, a little bit faded, slightly the worse for all but then again, aren’t we all, forty years on, but it remained as glorious as I had remembered. The man had come to a point in his life where the shirt probably didn’t hold as much sentiment as it once had. He told me that as a boy he had written to the Oval complaining that Glentoran jerseys were not available to buy anywhere in Belfast at a time when replica football kits were just coming into existence. He was taken aback when Glentoran penned a letter back to him, invited him to the Oval for a tour at the end of which Ronnie McFall handed him a shirt. This shirt, sensationally, the number 2 top of Rab McCreery from the night on which they had played Juventus.
Over the last thirty years I have amassed a collection of over 200 Glentoran related jerseys. This shirt is the most significant and unique. A week or so after the initial messages I managed to secure Rab’s jersey for the collection and in turn incredibly on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of one of the most talked about games at the Oval I could re-unite Rab McCreery with it.
We met at the Oval on a Wednesday night in September. Rab McCreery and three men who, as boys had marvelled at how he had outgunned Claudio Gentile, we had talked about it in school next day to our friends.
John Moore, Philip Stevenson and I watched as Rab took the shirt out of the bag. “Whose is it?” he asked. “Yours” we replied in unison. The number on the back had been picked off over the years but the outline remained. I never thought I’d see the day when Rab was moved, but somehow holding the shirt he pulled on that night brought back so many memories.
He shook his head in complete disbelief.
Rab stood in the dressing holding his shirt and talked, as we listened intently.
“I was working as a welder in the yard back then, once people knew we had drawn Juventus there was a buzz about the place, both from the Glenmen who were delighted and the Bluemen who used to shout down from the gantries at me “Youse are gonna get chinned” or words to that effect.
“Course I knew about Gentile and Bettega, Causio and Dino Zoff but I didn’t know Gentile was an outside left. It was only when they lined up (that) I realised he was coming my way”
“Some people won’t understand that we didn’t do anything much differently in the run up to the match, they were Juventus, what could you do? Everybody I knew was going the game that night though, but we were just ordinary working lads. I went to work on the morning of the match as usual, I don’t think I even got out of work early. Our Linda had packed my kitbag. We met up to the Park Avenue Hotel for a cup of tea and a biscuit and then we went down to the ground.”
“Back then there was only the team, Arthur Stewart the player manager and Bobby McGregor our trainer in this dressing room, d’ya see when that door closed behind us and Juventus were what? ten yards away down the corridor, we all looked at each other, wondered what we were going to do and began to shake each other’s hands, we were playing for Glentoran, we were playing for that shirt and we looked at every game like that”
Rab lifted his green jersey and looked at it with a pride has not diminished one iota in four decades.
“Everyone outside of the dressing probably thought we were in for a tanking and rightly so, but we were honest players and all we could do was give it our best”
“When we got to the tunnel Juventus were coming out first, it was then that it hit you, the nearer we got to the steps, and there they were, in these black and white striped shirts that everybody knew. When we started to walk down the steps of the tunnel I’ll never forget the noise getting louder and louder”
The floodlights were bright that night and when I started to look around the stands and the terraces there wasn’t a space to be seen. You never think you’d see the Oval like that.” I asked Rab if he remembered the rock band playing on the pitch before the game, but there was no doubt that they were all only focussed on what lay ahead.
Forty years later I could walk you to the exact spot I watched Rab and the other heroes of 77 from, with my father. It’s a part of the ground that is closed off now, inhabited by weeds and ghosts, but it remains a very special place for me.
The late Malcolm Brodie covered the game for the Belfast Telelgraph. During his career Brodie had borne witness to many great nights of European football at the Oval. He listed them in his match report, Benfica, Glasgow Rangers and Arsenal however, in his words, these were surpassed, overshadowed by this stunning show against the Italian champions Juventus.
He described the Glentoran performance as an epic effort, one of grit and determination, Glentoran played with skill, confidence, understanding, controlled their passing and went at the Juventus defence like a bull at a gate.
Glentroran held out for thirty-eight minutes before the sea walls were breached by a Tardelli/Causio combination, but long before that Rab had set a marker, thrown down a gauntlet as only Rab could do.
McCreery had his eyes on Gentile from the first whistle. Early on, the Italian international got a touch on a ball on the wing that in turn gave Rab the chance he wanted, seizing it, he hit Gentile with one of the most ferocious shoulder charges I have ever witnessed at the Oval. Nowadays an incident like that would require door to door enquiries by the PSNI. It sent the Italian barrelling onto the perimeter track and into the advertising hoardings. The east Belfast welder had seriously hurt the notorious Italian’s feelings and probably every bone in his upper body.
Rab even had the audacity to pat him on the head on his way back into position
Once again Brodie wrote, McCreery, who relishes and practices the rigours of the game, refused to be overawed by reputations, stamped his authority from the start, tackling like iron, with that shoulder charge, hostile as it was hard, on Gentile near the start hoisting the “approach with trepidation” signals from the Italians.
By half time the legendary Italian had had enough of Rab’s attention, he failed to appear for the second half, replaced by Cabrini.
Unless you’ve grown up in a faraway galaxy, you’ll know the story of the night Juventus came to town. Glentoran had several chances to take the lead, coming closest when the wondrous Johnny Jamison clipped the underside of Dino Zoff’s crossbar, a right footed Feeney effort was stopped by the outstretched legs of the Juve keeper, his opposite number Dennis Matthews saved brilliantly from both Bettega and Bonnisegna who peppered the Glentoran goal from distance.
With the clock running down late in the second half and hysteria gripping sections of the Oval terraces in scenes I have never witnessed since, Glentoran’s player/manager Arthur Stewart, let’s say, created a penalty opportunity which the Dutch referee F.P. Derks bought and paid for.
I remember a surge in the crowd, the way it used to happen in the Anfield Kop during the Sixites when they sang She Loves You. A surge on the Oval terraces, imagine that? as Warren Feeney stepped up to take a spot kick that if he were to score it, would see Glentoran from the east side of Belfast on level terms with Juventus, the high kings of European football.
Feeney uncharacteristically struck the penalty badly (he’d never missed one before in his Glentoran career). Zoff dived correctly, pushing the ball around the goalpost for a corner.
And then it was all over, or was it? The game, as Rab rightly points out is still talked about when folk are gathered on bar stools, church pews, snooker halls and shopping centres of the east forty years later. Glentoran 0 Juventus 1, a game laced with sub plots and personal contests that are chiselled into the granite tablets that have become the history of Glentoran Football Club. I was there you see, and as long I can look across to that weed ridden section of closed ground in a segment of the Oval, I will never forget it, nor Rab, or the all the others who gave me one of the finest ninety minutes of my life.
In the time that has passed since that glorious night, I have been blessed to have met many famous and talented people from all walks of life, royalty, musicians, sporting greats and politicians. I have only asked for a photograph with one of that number on a handful of occasions, but as we were about to turn the neon lights off in the famous old dressing room I heard myself asking Rab if I could get a photograph with him and his shirt. “I’ll go one better Sam” he laughed “Give us it over, and I’ll put it back on.”
Football shirts from that era are notoriously compact and valuable garments. The forty-year-old Glentoran jersey was fragile in the extreme but there I was handing it over to him as if I were handing over my dinner money to an Orangefield fifth year at the bus stop in Clarawood. “Work away Rab, work away” I said, toes curling at the thought of fabric ripping and polyester disintegrating, but there wasn’t a chance. Rab McCreey has added less than half a stone to his playing weight in forty years. When he pulled it over his head, the man looked the part, more than capable of walking back down that tunnel once again and in that instant I wondered if Gentile fancied a re-match, because if he did, I’d put my house on Glentoran’s finest coming out on top, all day every day. I got the photograph I never thought I’d get. It means the world to me.
As my great uncle Billy Bo used to say, “Gentile couldn’t beat Casey’s drum” and as for Rab, I can tell you now, he could still get the lid off a jar of beetroot for you and he’s still looking for a word with those three Norwegian defenders, wherever they’re hiding.
(with thanks to Rab McCreery, Philip Stevenson, John Moore & the Glentoran Gazette)