Friday 8th September 2017
Northern Ireland Football League Premiership
Glenavon 2 Carrick Rangers 0 HT: 0-0 Att: 974
Clingan 66p, Mitchell 87
from Mourneview Park, Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland BT66 8EW
This was my first bout of ‘extreme’ hopping. Not knowing what I wanted for my birthday in August, I had about £125 cash. A few google searches later I found an attractive double in Northern Ireland, £46 return flight from Liverpool. Glenavon on the Friday night and Cliftonville on the Saturday.
If you’re a fortysomething, Northern Ireland drums up lots of iconic memories and feelings. Toxic politics, religious skirmishes, unrest, trouble, edginess – not a place you’d ordinarily choose to visit. Most of the troubles are in the past now, but the flash memories of ugly scenes in Belfast in the eighties were my only reference. I was interested to see what it was like now.
The flight was 34 minutes and I was out and at large in Belfast by 9am. First impressions were that it was surprisingly empty for morning rush hour. Whereas London and other growing cities are bursting at the seems and far too crowded, Belfast seemed too big, like a big family house where the children have flown the nest. It felt like it needed shrinking. Empty shops and areas of dereliction seemed to bear this point out.
I’d liked it, however. It was unpretentious and quiet – just how I like a city. It’s quite serene, the traffic isn’t bad, there are no queues, you can get cheap food and drink. Not the smug arrogant bastard that is London; with its supposed brilliant transport system where you shuffle at 1/2 mph through the underground in a big anthill mound of people through so many tunnels you may as well have walked; and its supposed amazing coffee shop and pub cluture where the simple act of getting a coffee or pint involves standing ten deep in a queue.
I enjoyed a very pleasant day in Belfast, the most unstressful big city I’ve ever visited. I did a mini tour of the best-rated craft beer hostelries. The Crown Liquor Saloon was an amazingly ornate unique building, worth visiting for the architecture alone. It dates back to the 1820s and was a Victorian gin palace. The exterior is decorated with polychromatic tiles, carved-mahogany booths, etched and stained glass, gas lamps and carved ceilings. The 10 booths or snugs each contain original gun metal plates for striking matches and an antique bell system for alerting staff.
It is now a Nicholson’s pub, and the beer choice wasn’t quite as flamboyant as the architecture, with only two or three guests plus some Belfast regular beers.
The Garrick is an 1870s pub that does a huge range in bottled beers and had a fair few on tap from local breweries.
My personal favourite was the Sunflower in the north of Belfast. A great selection of local beers and good ambience, with a hippy vibe going on.
The John Hewitt specialised in Keg beers and had a selection of about 5/6 local brews.
On the way to the station I stopped at Bittles Bar, a bar near the docks in a flatiron style building. Many murals adorn the wall showing the recent history of Ireland and it had cask and keg beers on offer.
Glenavon play in Lurgan, a town 25 miles south west of Belfast, a 50 minutes train ride and only £7.30. The town was once known for linen manufacturing, but is now suffering a decline, not least because of the ‘new’ town of Craigavon next door and its retail park. It has a population of 23,000 and is still more or less separated georaphically between protestant and catholics. It’s quite a walk from Lurgan station to Mourneview and I barely passed a soul down the quiet uniform streets.
The Mourneview Park floodlights were a welcome sight, coming in to the housing estate where it resides.
Sturdy floodlights with a European tinge. Just down from the ground a convenience store was adorned with murals. Kids hung around it and the nearby chip shop, like kids did in the eighties. There were some climbing on the roofs of the store.
Religion is still a major part of the Irish identity. As I approached the entrance to Mourneview Park I thought the old guy was selling either raffle tickets or first-goal-minute tickets; what he gave me was an leaflet inviting me to let Jesus Christ in to my life. Jesus Christ! Inside the stadium a huge mural on the back wall at one end proclaims ‘Life without Jesus makes no sense’. Maybe Man CIty could use that one this season?
The stadium is considered one of the best in the NI League. It has hosted Northern Ireland Under 21 Internationals and a League Cup Final. This was the only fallow end of the stadium. The rest were three sizable stands with a total capacity of 4,160 with 3,200 seats. The stadium dates back to 1895 but the stands are relatively recent. The team date back to 1889. They’ve won the Irish League three times, the last one being in 1959-60.
Glenavon could have gone into second place with a win, with Carrick Rangers, from Carrickfergus, having made a slow start with one win in five and only four goals scored. The game bore out the respective league positions. Carrick, disappointingly, came to defend in numbers and get a draw or a sneaky win. Such tactics I find torturous and disappointing – it is a spectator sport after all.
Glenavon looked much the better team and created many chances but were continually thwarted by an outstretched leg or poor finishing or last gasp tackle. 32 away fans stood down the bottom end of the Glenfield Road stand, which holds 2,000. Home fans congregated in the long high Geddis Stand (1,800) and the Crescent Stand behind the goal (400).
It was 0-0 at half time and had the feel of a frustrating evening of no goals and Carrick getting their point. However, on 67 Carrick defender Paddy McNally upended substitute Jordan Jenkins and Sammy Clingan put away the penalty. Totally deserved and a sense of schadenfreude at Carrick’s tactics backfiring. On 87 minutes the game was nicely wrapped up with a beauty from Josh Daniels, who skirted a few Carrick defenders on the edge of the box before curling a scorcher in to the corner.
Glenavon went second ahead of the Saturday afternoon games. Carrick made it hard for them and the three points were well earned. The only dampener on the evening the lack of programme – apparently they don’t issue them anymore. I had to settle for a teamsheet. Great venue and fascinating introduction to NI football.