Seasoned fans of local football have become accustomed to expecting the unexpected and the past ten days have unearthed another slice of unforeseen absurdity.
The news that the Kop Stand at Windsor Park could potentially be suffering from serious subsidence came 24 hours too early for a cleverly-constructed Easter Fools, and just when the positivity surrounding the progress in the upgraded stadium and the results on the field was becoming infectious.
Northern Ireland are edging towards the brink of a historic qualification for the 2016 European Championships and have a scheduled mammoth home clash with Romania in June, with the only viable alternative – should the national stadium, as expected, not be passed fit for purpose – being the Kingspan Stadium, home of Ulster Rugby.
The dilemma was a more pressing issue for local clubs. Linfield’s final two home games of the season have now been moved to the Ballymena Showgrounds, but the Irish Cup final was always going to trickier to reschedule.
Traditionally the showpiece even of the local season attracts the biggest attendance of the season, with club’s attendances generally more than doubling for the televised fixture.
The general consensus had been that the Kingspan would be the chosen venue for the 2nd May final, with all other alternatives seemingly wrapped in complications. With this in mind, the announcement that The Oval would be the host venue took most fans off-guard.
Glentoran’s stadium has played host to some famous fixtures over the years, but the highly-controversial and widespread Health and Safety legislation in local football in recent years has crippled the ground’s ‘safe’ capacity. No longer can upwards of 10,000 be safely accommodated in The Glens home and as things stand it can house no more than 5,300 spectators. (though this figure is not official, and official estimates range from 5,200 to 6,400)
There are a number of talking points surrounding the venue, most notably if it gives Glentoran an edge having the game in their own back yard (although it can be argued that the added pressure on the hosts and the sense of injustice will assist Portadown). However, without doubt the clubs now need to unite and put pressure on the relevant authorities to ensure that as many fans can be accommodated as possible.
Last year’s final between Glenavon and Ballymena United have 7282 paying fans and if the ground’s capacity cannot be increased then the drop of 2,000 will be profound. Greater comparison can be drawn to the 2013 decider – where Glentoran defeated Cliftonville in front of 9,825. The current ‘safe’ capacity of the East Belfast venue is an insult to the clubs and their fans who will be so eagerly awaiting the contest.
So what can be done to guarantee more fans can get out there and support their club? Under the legislation, development of a number of organisational features will allow the attendance to increase. More turnstiles being available for the greater volume of fans and an increase in the entrances and exits to the ground would be a start.
In the terraces behind each goal, crash barriers should be modified and upgraded. A number of portacabin toilets can be temporarily introduced, while more security and stewarding is a given.
At a time when attendances are up across the top flight and the Irish Cup the only chance for either side to secure a major piece of silverware this campaign, the interest in this final is already intense. But with three weeks to go both Glentoran and Portadown now need to work together to mutually benefit the legions of fans who will be decked out for what is sure to be a special occasion.
It has been exactly twenty years since the Irish Cup was last lifted in East Belfast, on that day it was Glentoran’s bitter rivals Linfield who triumphed over Carrick Rangers. Now it is in the hands of the administrators and organisers to ensure the unique event will be open to house as many loyal fans as is within their power.