The mighty Whites. Distillery FC. Lisburn Distillery FC. Of course a club with a name like that would only be in Ireland or Scotland. No doubt many fancy a tour of the ground and a nice whiskey after. Not quite. But let that not take away from an integral and proud club that stride the corridors of Irish League history with intent and a story.
Now for blokes of my vintage or should that be cask age, Distillery have a huge hinterland that adds colour to that first sentence at the top of this page. In times of doubt as to where to begin on these pieces I will revert to my own arrival in the Irish League as these commentaries are not histories. In this case that is a pretty good place to start. In the dark days of the seventies I quickly became conscious that along with Derry City, Distillery were the other big casualties of the Troubles. The name Grosvenor Park loomed large over all they did. At the time they had moved to play their games at Skegoneill Avenue in the north of the city and not knowing Belfast too well as a youngster, you didn’t set out easily in those days if you didn’t know where you were going.
Their story came into clearer view for me as time went on and I got older. It was clear that Grosvenor Park at the lower end of the Grosvenor Road had been greatly loved and cherished by many and this was very much a feature as to why many followed Distillery. Over the years they could be described as a club that was the Fulham of the Irish League in that they tended to attract the more ‘relaxed’ fan – a phrase suggested to me by a Distillery supporter once. If you’ve ever been to a Fulham game you’ll know what I mean. In my time I would have to go along with this analogy. It’s not that New Grosvenor to give Ballyskeagh its proper name is some sort of sanitised tennis club. But certainly their fans can seem to take defeat and an incomprehensible refereeing decision more comfortably in their stride than those that follow other clubs.
This is not to suggest that they were anything but competitive on the pitch. Indeed I learned quickly that they had won both the league in 1963 and the Irish Cup in 1971. At that time they had produced two giants of my immediate football world. Firstly the celebrated and larger than life moustache that was sported by the colossus of a Linfield centre – half, Peter Rafferty. Also the Nottingham Forest European Cup winning midfielder, NI captain and future manager of achievement Martin O’ Neill – he was a graduate you would be proud of.
Talking of those two footballing achievements on the pitch they did fairly well in the respective European draws accruing. Benfica and Barcelona suggest the latter stages of the Champions League. A 3-3 draw in Belfast against Benfica more than suggests that scenario and that is a piece of history that others would die for in the local league. O’Neill also was the man who scored against Barcelona as well to set his European career off to a good start.
But Barcelona in 1971 was about the last glamour Distillery and Belfast were to see for many years as local difficulties set their stranglehold on the province and the game itself. The previous year the club was forced to leave Grosvenor Park and set on a journey of years of relative and real struggle that continue to this day. After their sojourn in North Belfast they moved to Ballyskeagh outside Lisburn amidst plenty of fanfare. I think I remember a bit of a story around this period when their new badge was being considered and it resulted in a phoenix rising to signify their new beginning. Looking at their present badge mind you it appears that said bird might have put on a pound or two but I could be wrong in my reflections here. I recollect attending their first competitive game there in 1980.
That ground is very much part of their perception nowadays. It is very much Drumbo dog track as well. It is still fairly rough and ready and has a great mix of urban and country when you watch the game. The tower blocks of Seymour Hill contest the sky with the swaying treetops and the Drumbo hills. Do you park on the road or do you park in the car park?
Again is it just me or is there a touch of the ‘Shawshank’ about the perimeter wall. If you’ve ever seen the film ‘Midnight Express’ you may remember the criminally insane in the jail walking round and round in a circle in one scene. The fact they are wearing white is entirely coincidental though Distillery fans may wish to offer their thoughts here on Saturday afternoons inside the wall. That wall just always reminds me of the word ‘recreation’ when I see it. The gates do open at 1650 on Saturday afternoons though.
Other things that stick – Paul Kirk during his lengthy period of management was a huge character for the club. There are many who feel that the club’s present difficulties start from the day he lost his job there. Tommy Wright, now manager of St. Johnstone certainly left a huge imprint there overseeing an immense relegation escape and winning the League Cup in 2011. He takes his place alongside another famous NI international in Billy Hamilton who also managed the club and at this point we should probably mention another previous international in present joint manager George O’ Boyle.
Some names down the years just scream Distillery at you. Roy Welsh and Bertie McMinn for starters but for some reason never has a sponsor had a stronger club association for me than Lagan Valley Steels. The club very nearly went financially under a decade or so ago and the game desperately hopes that they can once again rise to climb back from the third flight. They are a club that incur great affection amongst those who follow the game here. This writer is no different.