Brendan Crossan: Lurgan Celtic's demise may be tip of the iceberg in football's middle tier
IN the mid-90s/early 200s local football was blessed with two of the finest intermediate teams that ever graced the field.
Donegal Celtic and Lurgan Celtic were going places.
DC had built a pitch at their Suffolk Road home that was as good as Wembley and a small group of west Belfast men set about trying to bring sporting excellence to the area.
Raymie Bonner, Paddy Kelly, Marty McKiernan, Packie McAllister, Andy McIlhattan and Gerard Loughran were just some of the figures who believed it was possible to see a Celtic team competing in senior football for the first time since Belfast Celtic.
Led by Paddy Kelly, DC produced some stunning talents none more so than Paul ‘Maxi’ McVeigh – a striker that could have played at a higher level much earlier in his career but stayed loyal to his local club.
Down in Lurgan a man called Barry Douglas lit the flame and dreamed of his Celtic team breaking into the top flight.
Barry picked the team, lined up the pitch, washed the kit. For a few years, Barry Douglas was Lurgan Celtic.
Barry liked players who could play and who were tough.
He had Gary Haire, ‘Soupy’ Campbell, Gareth Murphy, Stephen Magennis, Ciaran O’Kane and later Thomas Duffy.
He also had Tony and Sean Creaney – two brilliant footballers who bled green and white.
Tony, a central midfielder, was tough as old boots and could play a bit of ball too.
Sean was a supremely gifted centre forward who scored all types of goals and broke the hearts of most central defenders he faced.
In November 2000, he scored the winning goal against Loughgall in the Bob Radcliffe Cup semi-finals but had been complaining of abdominal pains prior to the game.
A few days later, Sean was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
The most remarkable sight I’ve ever witnessed in sport was his second-half substitute appearance in the Radcliffe Cup final on St Stephen’s Day against Tandragee Rovers.
Applause rang around Lakeview Park that morning for the courage Sean had shown as he’d left his hospital bed to play in the game.
Barry later recalled: “Sean was doing sit-ups in hospital to try and be fit for the game. He was a remarkable young man.”
A few weeks later Sean Creaney passed away.
Barry Douglas was a stand up guy.
He was the energy, the brains, the charisma behind Lurgan Celtic – and the man who put his name on the court papers citing discrimination against the two Celtics by the old Irish Football League.
Both DC and Lurgan Celtic won all before them and shared some fantastic battles in the Northern Ireland Intermediate League but it was clear they’d outgrown the competition in football’s middle tier.
In years gone by, Irish League clubs could vote in secret to invite or decline new clubs into their ranks. Lurgan Celtic and Donegal Celtic were always ‘black-balled’ – until Douglas took their fight to the newly formed Equality Commission.
Soon enough, the Irish League flung open its doors and their archaic voting system was scrapped.
But the gradient on Donegal Celtic and Lurgan Celtic’s road became steeper.
They started climbing the Irish League rungs. DC made it to the top league, beating Institute in a two-legged relegation/promotion play-off in 2006.
During their time in the top flight they gave a couple of the big clubs an occasional bloody nose and they managed to reach an Irish Cup semi-final one year.
But the financial impact in the higher leagues was troubling.
Lurgan Celtic got close a couple of times but their pitch facilities at Grattan Park always fell short of the necessary criteria.
There are many reasons for the demise of both clubs over the last number of years, one of which is the people who carried the torch for so long simply ran out of steam.
DC tumbled out of the Irish League ranks and were unable to field for a recent Irish Cup match. On Wednesday night they lost 9-1 to St James Swifts. The future looks bleak for the Suffolk Road club.
Worse still was last week’s news that Lurgan Celtic were withdrawing from NIFL Intermediate League due to financial pressures.
It’s desperately sad news as the men behind both clubs 20 years ago dreamed of better days.
But it’s not just Donegal Celtic and Lurgan Celtic who have struggled; the middle tier of local football is in trouble.
Dig deeper to the lower echelons of intermediate football and you’ll find many clubs struggling to make ends meet.
The chief reason for this is that the amateur ethos has been completely compromised over time.
Clubs who never dreamed of paying their players are now paying their players.
Some clubs are even offering signing-on incentives.
And yet, the vast majority of these clubs are run by volunteers who don’t have the skills to develop a financial blueprint beyond the odd fundraising night, so clubs generally live beyond their means and can barely cover the costs of the match officials from one week to the next.
Years ago, Amateur League players paid £5 subs to help with the running costs of the club.
You were more than just a player. You were a member of a club. You were part of something bigger than just playing football on a Saturday afternoon.
Each member was a fundraising unit. You were part of a collective. Paying £5 subs meant you were contributing to the common good.
Paying subs fostered loyalty. You cared about the welfare of the club you represented.
Over time the amateur ethos of local football has been chipped away at.
Nowadays, only a minority of clubs insist on their players playing for nothing.
A mercenary culture has infected the intermediate ranks.
Silly money is being thrown around for players that really aren’t worth a snip of what they’re being paid.
Players happily move from club to club in search of an extra tenner.
As a consequence, player loyalty diminishes and dampens the volunteer spirit within clubs.
Nobody feels part of anything bigger than themselves any more.
It’s all about the money as rank average players hoover up the volunteers’ shillings and in doing so suck the life out of the club and the badge they profess to represent.
Otto Peltzer, a German middle distance runner who competed at the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, was once offered $250,000 to run in exhibition races in America.
He declined because he felt he would be forfeiting his amateur status.
“A sportsman,” Peltzer said, “does not need financial compensation, since the act carries its own rewards.”