WHEN Joe Meldrum plunders through his trophy cabinet, it opens a treasure chest of memories.
He may not have arrived on the local soccer scene as early as some of his colleagues, but he certainly made up for lost time.
Joe can reflect on a magical spell at Distillery, where he was part of the team that carved out its only little piece of history by winning the Irish League title for the one and only time.
Then, when he made the journey across town to join Crusaders, Meldrum got caught up in two astonishing cup finals in successive years against Belfast’s Big Two giants, Glentoran and Linfield.
It was sheer ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff. Meldrum admits he still has to pinch himself when he lets his mind float back to the early 60s, when local grounds were packed to the rafters.
“Grosvenor Park was a great little venue,” recalls Joe. “The games, especially against Linfield, were marvellous. The crowd was shoehorned in – they were right on top of the players. The atmosphere was electric. It was marvellous.”
Joe’s career took off in 1960, when the legendary George Eastham came knocking on his door. He adds: “I began my playing days with Dungannon Swifts – they competed in the Irish Alliance League in those days in the late 50s.
“Even though I joined Portadown as a 15 year old, I had to devote most of my time to playing rugby as I attended Dungannon Royal School. I eventually moved to Distillery when I left school.
“Unfortunately, I sustained a serious knee injury – a dislocation that ruled me out for several seasons. Having joined the RUC, I starting playing for the police until George (Eastham) turned up on my doorstep one afternoon, just before Christmas.
“George invited me to Distillery to ‘help him out’ over the festive fixtures. He handed me a debut against Ards and, over the first four games, I managed to bag eight goals.
“It was the start of a great four or five years at Grosvenor Park. We, of course, won the league title in the 1962-63 season for the first time in the club’s history.
“I actually scored 53 goals that season. The second highest with 27 was my brother in law, Billy Johnston, who was playing with Glenavon.
“We had to beat Linfield to win the title – it was a winner takes all affair. We won 4-2.
“George assembled a great squad of players – the two John Kennedys, one a goalkeeper, the other a half back, Stan Gregg, Roy Welsh, Kenny Hamilton, Phil Scott and my brother Derek. We were also beaten in the Irish Cup final by Linfield (2-1) in front of 20,000 fans at the Oval.
“We went on to meet Benfica in the European Cup, drawing 3-3 at Windsor Park. George signed up the legendary Tom Finney for that game.
Tom had retired from the game a few months earlier, but was persuaded back for a cameo appearance, having formed a good friendship with George from his days in England.
“Not surprisingly, Benfica defeated us 5-0 in Portugal, but it was a wonderful experience.”
Joe eventually drifted back to playing for the RUC until another unexpected opportunity popped up in 1966 when Crusaders boss, the late Ted Smyth, offered him terms.
“It was another magical era for me personally – and for the club, of course,” adds Meldrum, who is still hailed a hero at Seaview.
“The following year we claimed in place in the Irish Cup final, but were given little hope against a great Glentoran team – Albert Finlay, Billy McCullough, Tommy Jackson, Arthur Stewart, Tommy Morrow, Walter Bruce, Eric Ross - a smashing side.
“But we weren’t bad either. Ted had put together a good squad, which included Terry Nicholson, Joe Patterson, John McPolin, Albert Campbell, Alan McNeill and Danny Trainor.
“We beat the Glens 3-1 – probably one of the biggest cup upsets for some time.”
Crusaders, however, were back in the final 12 months later – this time against the other half of Belfast’s Big Two, Linfield.
Meldrum’s two goals helped the Hatchet Men to an even more memorable 2-0 victory at the Oval.
Joe, who now resides in Norfolk, England, recalls vividly that famous day in east Belfast.
“We won the cup two years in succession - but under two different managers,” says Meldrum. “Ted Smyth left and was replaced by Jimmy Todd.
“In many ways, it was probably a greater achievement (the second cup win).
“When a new boss comes in, he has his own ideas, so Jimmy wanted to build his own side. To my recollection, only about four players from our previous cup winning team were on show against Linfield - Albert Campbell, John McPolin, Danny Trainor and myself.
“The atmosphere was electric. Every part of the ground appeared to be packed, probably 30,000-odd people in the stadium.
“I managed to score both goals. I think I hit the first one from the 18 yard line and I headed home the second. It was quite a feat to beat Belfast’s Big Two in two consecutive cup finals.
“The Linfield team was also packed with stars – Isaac Andrews, Ronnie Wood, Billy Ferguson, Bryan Hamilton, Sammy Pavis and Phil Scott. They actually missed two penalties – I think it was Ronnie Wood and Dessie Cathcart.”
Meldrum, who retired from the game at 34 back in 1970, also took great pride in representing the Irish League against an England team that featured many of the World Cup winning side at Carrow Road, Norwich.
“It was prior to the 1966 World Cup and the English League team paraded many of Alf Ramsay’s squad,” recalls Joe. “They beat us 2-1 – I scored our goal.
“Ironically, I live quite near to Carrow Road nowadays.
“I also have great memories of playing for the RUC in the early 1960s in the final of the European Police Cup. We were beaten 3-1 by Belgium.
“I may have been a late starter, but I had a great career. The title success for Distillery was certainly one of my proudest moments, along with the two cup wins for Crusaders. I cherish the medals.”