Glentoran legend Gary Smyth begins legal fight against old club

The first public salvo has been fired in a legal battle between a top-flight Irish League team and a player-turned-manager.

Monday, 24th February 2020, 7:23 pm
Updated Monday, 24th February 2020, 8:03 pm
Defender Gary Smyth (pictured here in 2007) joined Glentoran aged just 18 and played 364 times between 1989 and 2008 before going on to manage Harland and Wolff Welders

An initial hearing setting out Gary Smyth’s case against Glentoran Recreation Co Ltd took place today, with claims and counter-claims aired about his departure from the east Belfast side last spring.

Mr Smyth (who as a Glentoran player won two League Championships, two Irish Cup medals, and was awarded Ulster Player of the Year 2002/03) claims unfair dismissal, breach of contract, and withheld wages.

The club denies wrongdoing and contends that Mr Smyth broke his own end of the contract.

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Former Glentoran player Gary Smyth outside the tribunal preliminary hearing

The hearing was told his dismissal followed the appointment of Mick McDermott as the team’s head coach (a term which the NI Football League uses interchangeably with “manager”).

Barrister Rachel Best, acting for the club, said Mr Smyth was employed on a three-year contract beginning in June 2018 and that his employment had ended by early May 2019.

Ronnie McFall quit as club manager in January 2019, and Mr Smyth began a period of “acting up”, the tribunal heard.

However his “substantive post” was always that of assistant manager and “his acting up was not a permanent solution”.

In late March 2019, when Glentoran named Mr McDermott as head coach, the hearing was told that Mr Smyth ceased coming to work.

A meeting was convened at the end of April to address this – but Mr Smyth remained “unwilling to honour his contract”, the hearing was told, and so the club took the decision to end his employment.

Ms Best also suggested Mr Smyth had breached his contract by “failing to ensure a top six finish” for the team (Glentoran finished in seventh place in the 2019/20 season, seven points behind Coleraine).

Ultimately, the case may hinge on exactly when the club knew about Mr Smyth’s claims.

The hearing was told Glentoran should have lodged a response to them in October, but did not do so until a month later.

Ms Best said this was because by the time a letter reached the club notifying it of the legal action, it was already too late to meet the deadline to respond.

The club contends that it has a “meritorious” case against Mr Smyth, and that once it became aware of his claims it acted “as expeditiously as possible”.

Another key element of the case is the duration of Mr Smyth’s employment, with the club saying he lacks a 12-month length of service which is required for an unfair dismissal claim.

The preliminary hearing before tribunal president Eileen McBride in Killymeal House, central Belfast, lasted for five hours, and went into intricate detail about who sent letters to who and at what time – and even spent some time discussing the shape and location of the club’s letterbox.

Throughout the hearing, Mr Smyth sat by himself on one side of the room with figures from Glentoran on the opposite side.

He gave no evidence directly, but his solicitor Judith Blair said that even once the club did become aware of Mr Smyth’s claims it still did not act swiftly enough, suggesting there was a “pattern of behaviour” in this regard.

The hearing concluded with no definitive timeframe for a decision being made about its next stages.