In the latest instalment of Omagh Town: The Rise and Fall, published in this week’s Ulster Herald, former secretary Pat McGlinchey tells of how three of the biggest clubs in world football Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea came to St Julian’s Road to play glamour friendlies to help lift spirits of a town and community that had been ripped apart by the 1998 Omagh Bomb.
The Real IRA atrocity claimed the lives of 29 people and that of unborn twins and McGlinchey and Omagh Town manager Roy McCreadie wrote to all the Premiership clubs in England and a number of leading SPL clubs in the hope that some of them would agree to come to Omagh for a friendly.
They couldn’t quite believe it when Liverpool, United and Chelsea replied requesting further details.
“We were gobsmacked by the response. It was beyond our wildest dreams when three of the top teams Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea gave us hope,” said McGlinchey.
“They asked to firm up the details and to forward further proposals around security and so on. There was a lot of follow up. Roy and myself flew to Manchester to meet the then United chairman Martin Edwards and secretary David Gill. They agreed to come and little did we know at that time that they would be coming to Omagh as treble champions.
“Chelsea and Liverpool also agreed to come and to be honest we were on cloud nine. At that point we sat down and asked ourselves what was this all about. We had three of the biggest clubs in English football coming to Omagh.
“And that was our primary aim that these teams were coming to Omagh. It wasn’t about fund-raising, it was about lifting spirits. By the same token we wanted to maximise the numbers who could attend the games.”
The games were hosted at St Julian’s in the second half of 1999 although initially McGlinchey and McCreadie explored the possibility of playing them at the home of Tyrone GAA Healy Park.
Local Omagh St Enda’s officials responded favourably to the request however the leading lights at Croke Park took a different view.
“At that time we put feelers out about hosting the games at Healy Park as we reckoned that could have trebled capacity and would have avoided any extra work to meet health and safety requirements,” continued Pat.
“I have to take my hat off to the officers of Omagh St Enda’s they were very much in favour of it however they were quickly overruled by Croke Park who said no GAA ground would be used for major soccer matches. Yet, a short time later Croke Park was used for Irish international matches!
“Linfield chairman David Campbell also offered us the use of Windsor Park free of charge but that would have defeated the purpose.
“This was about Omagh, we wanted people to be able to walk out of their houses, down the road and into a football game.”
The Chelsea game was played on Wednesday July 28 and the star-studded visitors who had recent World Cup winners Marcel Dessaily, Frank Leboeuf and Didier Deschamps sitting in the Omagh Town directors’ box alongside recent signing Chris Sutton and Gianfranco Zola, ran out convincing 8-0 winners with a hat-trick from Tore Andre Flo and goals by Dan Pretescu, Robert di Matteo, Mark Nicholls, Gustavo Poyet and Jody Morris with a delightful chip.
Six days later (August 3) recently crowned Champions League winners United went one better with England striker Teddy Sheringham netting four times.
Andy Cole and Michael Glegg grabbed braces apiece with an unfortunate own goal by Mark Wilson completing the scoring.
Liverpool, managed by Gerard Houllier, hit a magnificent seven on October 18 after Derry man McCourt had fired Town into a shock lead.
The Merseysiders responded in emphatic fashion with twin strikes by Titi Camara and Erik Meijer and goals by Vladimir Smicer, Patrick Berger and Jamie Redknapp.
With good reason McGlinchey fondly reflects on the staging of those incredible glamour games as the high point of his time as Town secretary. And Pat being Pat he recalls a couple of humorous anecdotes around the hosting some of the greatest footballers on the planet at that time.
He tells the story of looking into the clubhouse during the first half of the game against Chelsea with Mary Mellon, long-term caterer at Omagh Town and who was renowned for making the best sandwiches in the Irish League, lecturing some guy with a hang-dog look and telling him in no uncertain terms that there would be no refreshments until half-time.
Pat put his arm around Mary and begged her to meet the man’s simple request for a cup of her finest coffee as he was one of the best footballers in the world. It was none other than Gianfranco Zola!
He, too, tells the tale of Omagh captain Mark Donnelly, after swapping shirts at the end of the Liverpool game, throwing his into the crowd as it didn’t belong to one of the Merseysiders’ household names.
The shirt had been worn by one of the substitutes on that unforgettable October night, a fresh faced and largely unknown teenager called Steven Gerrard!
FULL STORY INCLUDING CONTROVERSY OVER FUNDS RAISED IN THIS WEEK’S ULSTER HERALD