There are groundhoppers all over the world and everyone has their own favourite team or stadium to visit. But we can say without any doubt The Oval in Belfast, Northern Ireland can be considered to be somewhat of the holy grail in the world of groundhoppers. After years of dreaming, we finally made it to the city of Belfast to visit The Oval and witness a game of the glorious Glentoran FC. Especially since there are redevelopment talks going on. And yes, we know these have been going on for a while now. But it seems it's finally going to happen in the next couple of years.
It all started in 1882 for Glentoran FC and even though it's not the oldest team in Northern Ireland, it is still one of the oldest and a true legend in its kind. There is very little known of the first few decades, but when we see the titles and cups that have been won (the first being in 1894 - the championship) we must assume the team very quickly played in first division. This competition started in 1890 so they have been there from the start. In fact, together with Linfield FC, it's the only team to have always played in first division. How many teams globally can say that?
In 1914 Glentoran FC was the very first Irish team to have won a European cup, the Vienna Cup. This was one of the very first European cups but since it's not recognised by the UEFA Glentoran FC had to wait until 1962 before they could make their official UEFA European debut. As the decades went by and the cups and titles were won we arrive in the 60s when Glentoran FC probably made the biggest mistake in their history. Belfast boy George Best, life long fan of Glentoran FC, was considered too small and too light by the team. One year later he joined Manchester United and we believe the rest is history. He did play one game though in the shirt of Glentoran FC afterwards.
Their European games in the 60s gave the team also some nice history. They were the very first team to not qualify for the next round after two draws and the newly implemented rule of away goals. In 1967 they took their football to a completely different level. Under the name of Detroit Cougars they played football in the United States (formed with players from Glentoran FC), mostly to promote themselves and the game of football overseas.
After the dismissal of Belfast Celtic in 1949, Glentoran FC and Linfield FC derbies are named the Belfast's Big Two. These games usually attract the biggest crowds and Boxing Day has become traditionally derby day. It has happened twice for instance Glentoran fans brought a cockerel and a pig (in team colours) to the game and had it sit next to the sidelines for the complete game. In 1995 (on Boxing Day) the most peculiar things happened when they had to play with an orange ball on a completely with snow covered pitch. During half time the orange ball was damaged and since there was only one, the game had to be continued with a regular white ball. This incident caused a lot of frustration with the fans and everything escalated.
As soon as the new millennium started Glentoran FC started having financial problems and ever since it's an up and down game for the team. The money beast keeps following the team. In 2003 they were even advised to sell their stadium (which they did) in order to survive. Since then there have been a lot of talks to redevelop the ground or to even demolish it and build a completely new stadium elsewhere. So far nothing has happened, but every Glentoran fan and groundhoppers lives in fear demolition will be happening anytime soon.
Which brings us to The Oval. For ten years Glentoran FC played on two different locations, before finally moving into The Oval in 1892. In 1903 the pitch was rotated 90°. Everything was great until WWII was going on. In 1942 the stadium was destroyed by a bombing and a crater in the pitch caused floodings. It would take until 1949 before The Glens could go back to The Oval. In 1953 the main grandstand was built and since then The Oval is pretty much as it is right now. Pure porn for groundhoppers like us!
The team colours are legendary in the meantime, chosen when the team was founded in 1882. Where the cockerel symbol and the phrase "Le Jeu Avant Tout" (the game above everything) come from is more of a mystery. Nobody knows where this French influence (both items) comes from. It was first written down somewhere in the 60s when a postcard by a club official was sent. In 1965 the very first shirt showed up using the cockerel. It would take until 1982 before the phrase first appeared on their shirts. Ever since the 80s these have always appeared on any new shirt.
We were amazed with how friendly everyone was. Glentoran FC and The Oval definitely give you the feeling football is always coming home there. And even though harsh words are sometimes used, at the end fans and players always come together (to celebrate in our case - they won the game). We certainly love the fact The Glens embrace their groundhopping status and they even introduced a groundhopper tour in their stadium. Time limitations and a slight preference to experience the football in our way prevented us from taking this tour though.