Northern Ireland must recover its ‘Celtic’ roots

Interesting reflection from Andersonstown News editor Robin Livingstone on last weekend’s Northern Ireland Wales match. He notes that all sports codes are in competition for new players and that, as things stand, few Catholics are making their way to Windsor Park.He argues that making Windsor Park a warm place for Catholics should be an important objective for Northern Ireland matches, for the most pragmatic of reasons:

With the largest percentage of young people in Europe and a population that’s 98% Catholic, the harsh fact of the matter is that Rip-Off Rovers will continue to pull the crowds and the money in, whether the game’s played at the cattle mart masquerading as a football ground that is Lansdowne Road, or in the theatre of very expensive dreams that is Croker. The Ulster soccer team, though, can’t survive without the very Fenians that are so regularly reviled on the South Belfast terraces for the very simple reason that the population of the North is nearing 50-50.

Fair enough, THP are regularly pulling in ten to twelve thousand for games at Windsor, a ground which makes Lansdowne look like the Stade de France. But even as they’re patting themselves on the back, the IFA shouldn’t forget that GAA club finals involving parish teams from the back of beyond pull in crowds of that size and larger. The four- or fivefold increase required to fill a new sports stadium for THP matches ain’t gonna happen with just Prods fella, and the green-wigged faithful are going to have to spread out a fair bit if they don’t want international soccer nights at the new stadium to resemble Royal Avenue on a Sunday evening.

Here’s the bottom line. The part of the city I live in has a huge population, but I don’t know anybody, not a single person, who goes to Windsor Park to support This Here Province. I expect you might find one or two if you looked hard enough, just as you might find a Grimsby Town supporter or a beekeeper. But that degree of apathy – hostility, even – among half of the population is ultimately unsustainable. It terrifies potential sponsors, advertisers and broadcasters and means that every match will be followed not by analysis of performance or tactics, but by a debilitating post-mortem of the kind we’ve seen this week and so many times before.

The point is neither trivial nor new. The Catholics of West Belfast fell out of love with Windsor Park many years ago. Charlie Tully, a former Belfast Celtic player, is quoted in Padraig Coyle’s excellent history of the West Belfast club which unilaterally left the Irish League (and football) at the end of the 1947/48 season. Tully wrote in 1958:

I know how much Celtic means to Ulster. The game needs them badly. Even Linfield supporters will tell you that. And the fans of every other club will tell you that with nobs on. My old club gave some star material to the English club football and to Ireland’s international side. But where are those players that Celtic used to discover and develop?

I say that because Belfast Celtic no longer operate, many young local lads are lost to football. For many of them it’s a case of if they cannot join the green and whites they would rather not play for anyone. And they just drift out of football.