Saturday’s Portadown v Glentoran Cup Final should have been a joyous occasion. A golden opportunity for the Irish Football Association (IFA) to promote the domestic game, with so many new Ports fans - men, women and children, granddads and grannies - at the Oval for a day out.
Portadown ran a fleet of buses to East Belfast, a sea of red and white. The expectations were for a 50-50 final, a tight encounter. But they returned home disillusioned – a combination of poor decisions from the match officials (see sports section), and poor infrastructure that reflected conditions of a Third World country.
The Ports lost 1-0. The fans and manager Ronnie McFall would have accepted that, had all things been equal, and had they been beaten fair and square. But the IFA scored a spectacular own goal, leaving Portadown at a distinct disadvantage from the start. It was played at the opposition’s home stadium, instead of a neutral venue.
Both Portadown and Glentoran wanted the tie played at the Kingspan rugby stadium, with its state-of-the-art facilities and around 9,000 covered seats. But it appears the IFA didn’t get round to asking the rugby powers-that-be for the use of the ground, even though permission had been granted for the NI v Romania European football qualifier on June 13. In the event, it won’t be needed, with Windsor Park beginning to emerge from the ashes of the crumbling West Stand.
The IFA went on record that the international was their only focus. They proved it by demolishing the doomed stand in plenty of time for the international encounter, leaving the cup final on the back burner. To be fair, they did a few cosmetic exercises like erecting giant pictures of Shamrock Park heroes at the Ports’ entrance, to mask the uninviting sight of the turnstiles at that side of the Oval. But the fans were not fooled.
The conditions that the 3,000-plus Portadown fans had to endure were totally unacceptable. One wonders where the health and safety zealots were hiding out. Too often they become involved in futile, almost laughable, projects. They must have been doing a Rip Van Winkle to allow this shambles.
For a start, most of the Ports fans were crowded into the visitors’ stand in seats which many had to wipe clean with Kleenex before they sat down. The one entrance (and exit) was a mere eight or nine feet wide. Had it required an evacuation, there would have been mayhem, followed by a scramble down the crumbling, slippery steps towards the caged walkway.
Then, there were the toilets. A communal male open-air urinal dominated the scene for a sort of mutual-relief kibbutz. And females – little girls to grannies – had to walk past that unseemly scene to get to their own portaloos. It was demeaning and degrading.
It’s all a consequence of Ulster sports associations refusing to back The Maze Stadium project. Everything has to be based in Belfast which led to the Windsor Park debacle and the Casement Park controversy. And Portadown have paid the penalty. It should never have happened.