The reign of European football’s longest-serving manager came to an end after 29 years on Saturday when Ronnie McFall resigned as boss of Portadown FC after his side’s shock 3-2 Irish Cup defeat by Lurgan Celtic. Veteran journalist and Ports fan VICTOR GORDON takes a look back on a remarkable three decades of success at Shamrock Park.
It was a sad, ignominious end to the career of Ronnie McFall, by far the most successful manager in the history of Portadown Football Club – 29 years in charge, four Irish League titles, three Irish Cups and an Aladdin’s Cave of ‘minor’ silverware. More than 20 in all.
Wearing a sombre black coat and woolly hat that reflected the mood, McFall made his weary way to the dressing-room at full-time on Saturday, with the jeers of a section of the Ports fans and the wild cheers of the Lurgan Celtic supporters ringing in his ears.
The Ports had been ousted from the Irish Cup by the juniors – a 3-2 reversal that, to be honest as a lifelong Portadown fanatic, just about reflected the 90 minutes. The Ports had fought back from 2-0 down, but an injury time penalty kick winner settled it.
Minutes after the most difficult walk of his soccer life, McFall resigned. It was the sensible thing to do – go with dignity and give yourself and wife Anne time to reflect on the good times. And when the history of the Ports is written and analysed, the records will concentrate on the halcyon days.
The initial red letter day was in April 1990, when McFall masterminded the first major trophy in Shamrock Park history. A 2-0 home victory in the last league match (against Linfield) secured the Gibson Cup. None of us wanted to go home that day as we wallowed in the glory. McFall’s first thoughts were with the elderly fans who didn’t live to savour the success.
He’d inherited a poor side, but signed the likes of Brian Strain, their wonderful captain, Alfie Stewart, Stevie Cowan, Sandy Fraser and Greg Davidson. The Ports were on their way, but, perhaps too euphoric after that league triumph, lost the following week to Glentoran in the cup final.
The next year was THE vintage year, winning the league with six matches to spare (and 10 points ahead of the pack) followed by an historic 2-1 cup final victory over Glenavon, with Cowan netting a superb brace. Four trophies landed at Shamrock Park that year – and the good times continued to roll.
Another couple of league titles followed – 1995-96 (four points ahead of Crusaders) and 2001-02 (one point ahead of the Glens) – as well as two more Irish Cups. The most bizarre was in 1999 when Cliftonville were disqualified after fielding a ‘ringer’ and Brian Strain held up the cup at Shamrock, wearing a bespoke, quality suit! The last cup win was in 2005, a 5-1 drubbing of Larne.
Along the way, there was a succession of near misses – runners-up spots – with all that success built upon the talents of the likes of Mickey Keenan, super strikers like Cowan, Fraser, Vinny Arkins, Gary Hamilton, and key players all over the park. And great European sides like FC Porto, Standard Liege and Red Star Belgrade were welcomed to Portadown.
But it was too much for any provincial club to sustain, with McFall having raised expectation to impossible levels. They maintained a respectable position in league and cup since that 2005 cup win – but it all unravelled last year with the controversial 1-0 cup final defeat by Glentoran at The Oval.
A dubious refereeing decision did for the Ports that day – it denied them access to Europe and its lucrative funds, and denied McFall the chance of bringing in new faces. He never really recovered, and it was announced he’d be leaving at the end of the current season. But Saturday changed all that.
The true fans won’t forget what McFall has done for the club – and neither must he.
He was Europe’s longest-serving manager after the great Alex Ferguson retired from Manchester United in 2013, and the McFall mantle has passed on to Arsene Wenger of Arsenal. Not a bad pedigree…