James Singleton on derby day buzz, past captain lessons and midweek mentality
James Singleton will step over the white line at Shamrock Park this weekend for the first time since 2017 with an unrivalled modern Mid-Ulster derby history.
The Ports’ relegation four years ago robbed fans and players of the opportunity to put parochial plaudits on the line alongside league points until this season and Glenavon captain Singleton stands as one of the few from either camp capable of drawing extra motivation from the memory of past trips over the few short miles between Lurgan and Portadown.
Singleton’s private derby showreel has had the 25-year-old cast in the role of both hero and villain thanks to a tally Irish League statistician Marshall Gillespie records as four goals scored and two red cards sustained in the Glenavon league fixture that serves up the highest stakes despite opportunities limited by the contrasting fortunes of the two old rivals in recent seasons.
“I’m not from the Lurgan area but have been connected to Glenavon for so long that, certainly, derby day is special to me and a big fixture,” said Singleton. “I’m buzzing about a derby, even if it didn’t take place on Boxing Day in front of a packed festive crowd.
“Shamrock Park is a great ground and, hopefully, conditions are good to allow for a really good game.
“I really missed Boxing Day this year, in the past few years we’ve played Dungannon Swifts or Warrenpoint Town and, without any disrespect to those clubs, it’s not been what you think of from a Boxing Day derby.
“It’s been strange this season (due to the impact on football of the coronavirus pandemic) and I really missed it but now we can all look forward to Saturday.
“I made my first-team debut at 16 in the league so have played in a number of Mid-Ulster derby games against Portadown.
“But even before my debut I remember being around the senior squad when called up to be part of the matchday experience for some derbies.
“Or back when in the Glenavon Academy we would then sometimes go and visit first-team games.
“Portadown is still a special game, with both sets of players looking to raise the levels I’m sure and it comes down to handling it on the day.”
Singleton enjoyed his first taste of a Mid-Ulster tussle in 2013 at the same Portadown venue he is hoping to return to twice across the next four days for back-to-back Danske Bank Premiership dates.
He featured last on the derby scoresheet in the clubs’ first fixture of this season’s schedule as a 4-2 defeat signalled the Mourneview Park visitors’ return to the senior stage in style.
“In the big games, especially a derby, you will certainly miss the fans - and we know how much our supporters are missing out on being at those fixtures,” he said. “The atmosphere is just different on derby day, the buzz before and after the game, just around everything.
“I’ve been at the club now for eight years and enjoyed some highs and lows from derby games.
“The absence of a crowd at Shamrock Park is bound to be a factor as players feed off the energy of the fans in these games.
“In the past you would go to places like Shamrock Park aiming to silence the home fans and, with everything ramped up, maybe even get the crowd to try and turn on the home team or give your own supporters something to get behind in that special atmosphere.
“I remember playing at Shamrock Park when we won 5-0 in the Irish Cup, I got a goal but mainly remember it could have gone the other way without us scoring first.
“We conceded early goals at Mourneview this season and that helped to increase Portadown’s confidence but since then we’ve a decent record of scoring first and I think the opening goal is always important in these major fixtures.
“It’s going to be so different without the fans...but it’s up to the players more than ever.
“Fans offer you that extra burst of energy and we’ve missed that at times this season.
“But also in the past when maybe we’ve played teams and opted to sit back at times rather than press as usual, I remember our supporters getting frustrated.
“Without fans it is a real shame of course but one outcome has been you play the game without reacting, good or bad, to whatever’s going on from the stands.
“Because of Portadown’s return after those few years in the Championship, only a few of us at Glenavon have played in a Mid-Ulster derby before this season.
“Plus, there’s not really that same familiarity between the two groups of players you’d normally expect.
“Portadown come back into the Premiership as a squad overall with those experiences together from before in the Championship.
“But also even those who may not have often played for Glenavon before against Portadown particularly still have experience of derbies at other clubs.”
Having progressed up the Glenavon ranks from reserves into the first-team squad, Singleton will bring into his Shamrock Park return not only a deep personal understanding of the value victory offers beyond any points but, thanks to the skipper’s armband, an appreciation he is tackling Portadown as a leading symbol of the Lurgan fanbase collective.
“Having the captain’s armband is a privilege and I just want to repay the fans and manager Gary Hamilton for that show of faith,” said Singleton. “But I think back to when I broke into the side and was able to learn from experienced players around me like Kris Lindsay and ‘Winkie’ Murphy.
“So that approach rubbed off on me and I’ve been around the firsts for a number of years, so certainly try to pass on that guidance to younger players.
“Gary is a manager who is always approachable, someone who listens and interacts with his players.
“I’m probably still getting used to having the captain’s armband but it’s certainly an honour.
“Out on the pitch we have players who are experienced and vocal but I try to lead by example on and off the field in terms of standards.
“Over my eight years at the club I’ve played under some great captains.
“Kris was a winner who had such a great attitude that never accepted defeat, even when struggling with injuries.
“I remember one game against Dungannon Swifts his knee came out and rather than go off he just said to pop it back in and he played on.
“Something like that sends out a message to the rest of the team.
“Jonny Tuffey was another great captain, someone who demanded the best and operated as a true professional.”
With Glenavon set to tackle Portadown at Shamrock Park twice in quick succession, Singleton highlights the unique elements served up by a season’s demanding fixture list offering so little breathing space between games and also how the head-to-head moments from the heat of the Saturday derby battle may transfer into Tuesday.
“Mentality is a big thing, especially when dealing with sustained fixtures each weekend and midweek over the course of this season,” he said. “But one plus from fixtures coming in quick succession is the positive momentum as you go from one to the next full of confidence.
“On the flip side, if you lose a match there’s another coming up straight around the corner, so you’ve not the same time to dwell on mistakes or that waiting game to try and put things right.
“The shorter timeframe between games is also helpful, I think, for new signings as you want on-the-field partnerships to build up as quickly as possible so minutes together on the pitch certainly help.
“Plus, this season’s squad has much greater versatility and I think that’s reflected in our performances, with teams not able to cut us open overall.
“In the first game we were well-beaten and made too many mistakes but go into Shamrock Park on a good run of form and not conceding those types of goals as often.
“We were masters of our own downfall.
“In that first meeting, we dominated possession but Portadown scored four goals from probably four chances on target.
“When trailing at different times you then become vulnerable to goals as you push on to chase the match.
“The first goal was important and remains important in any game, especially without fans at fixtures this season.
“Last season too often we struggled to get that cohesion and it was tough for us, as reflected in our results.
“I think back to last season and rate it as quite poor with the odd positive but this season it has been positive with the odd poor day.
“Playing twice in the space of four days adds another element and if one team gets a win on Saturday then that is bound to impact on how the opposition prepare for the Tuesday match.
“You will also have memories still fresh on Tuesday from the moments in the Saturday game...those individual battles, tackles and talking points between players from within the match.
“Personally, I like those games when you can get fired up and it has that extra something.
“Once you stop feeling that edge, especially for games like Portadown away, it’s time to quit.”