15 months ago, I made a decision to start taking my (then) 5-year old son to football matches. I’d always thought it would be a fantastic hobby to develop with my boy but was somewhat reluctant to start him so young- partly as I thought he’d not have a clue about what was happening on the pitch, and partly due to the history of sectarianism associated with the local football scene.
My own experiences of being a pretty active Cliftonville fan way back in my late teens left me with mixed feelings about the idea.
Home games were largely unremarkable but, back then, away fixtures were too often marked with sectarian chanting from fans of both sides, foul and abusive language directed at players and fans, verbal spats with the RUC and- on one infamous occasion- even a bomb thrown at Cliftonville fans (myself included) in the old Spion Kop end of Windsor Park.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of fans of every team were interested solely in the football on offer, and in those lean years Cliftonville were invariably more often the plucky losers than triumphant winners when the ninety minutes had expired.
The first game I brought my boy along to was the Irish League Cup final in January 2013, and what a wonderful game it was to mark anyone’s introduction to the live football experience.
Cliftonville won the final, a north Belfast derby against Crusaders, strolling comfortably to a 4-0 victory. The atmosphere was electric and any concerns I had prior to the game proved unfounded.
We attended half a dozen or so games between then and the end of season in what proved to be a glorious run for the Reds, culminating in a 90th minute penalty scored in front of us against Linfield to clinch the first title since 1998.
Attendance at a summer of fixtures against the lad’s most beloved team, Glasgow Celtic, and our local amateur sides (Crumlin United and Crewe United) whetted the appetite perfectly for the new season.
By now the boy had become a bit of a football fanatic, and within months of the new season starting this would mean becoming accustomed to Friday night training for his own U8 side and much more frequent ad hoc penalty shootouts in the front and back gardens using imaginary goalposts which seemed to narrow considerably whenever it was his turn to stand between them.
Christmas would see the beginning of what will probably turn out to be a lifetime love affair with the EA Sports’ FIFA console game for the boy and we have since developed a shared passion for Match Attax cards and the World Cup sticker album. This has brought memories flooding back from the first few months of my life lived in Ireland, when I enthusiastically took to the 1986 version of the sticker album ahead of that wonderful World Cup which brought some disappointment for over-expectant Northern Ireland fans but joy for lovers of the beautiful game as one Diego Maradona confirmed his place in the pantheon of footballing geniuses with a number of spectacular performances.
This season, we have attended a majority of the home games in all competitions, assuming seats in the same vicinity of the Cage Stand with a friend and his son. The moment the guitar riff from Dearg Doom is boomed aloud over the tannoy brings an instinctive smile of anticipation to his face as the two teams follow their respective captains out of the tunnel and onto the field to that Horslips’ classic, and it is now compulsory to blast the tune out from my phone as we commence each penalty shootout competition, including the one I controversially lost late yesterday afternoon.
Having taken the decision to bring the boy to a select number of away games as the season progressed, I’d have to admit to being taken aback by the warmth of the greetings afforded Cliftonville fans at Dungannon for our fixtures there with both the Swifts and Warrenpoint.
There’s a great camaraderie amongst the local soccer fraternity, a consequence of the shared love of the beautiful game amongst a relatively small body of people who have consciously given so much of their time and energy into supporting local teams in a society which largely shuns the ‘hamburger’ fare on offer from the local game in favour of the ‘steak’ being provided by the Old Firm in Scotland and main teams from the English Premier League.
That being said, the quality of that ‘hamburger’ meat has been very impressive at times, and we have been extremely fortunate to be spectating at the ground in which the team possessing the greatest individual and collective talents in the league over the past two seasons plays its home fixtures. Players of the calibre of Liam Boyce and Conor Devlin have experience of albeit briefly plying their trade in Germany and England, but at the Irish League level it certainly shows. When a player does secure a contract across the water, there is a genuine and broadly shared sense of goodwill from fans of all teams, a desire to see one of the local lads prove himself by successfully making the leap to full-time football at a higher level.
I still draw the line at bringing him to away games involving the main Belfast teams, and the sectarian chanting which plagued one of the Windsor fixtures earlier in the season, coupled with the (albeit brief) violent attack on fans leaving Windsor following the most recent game, has meant that I am unlikely to change that policy for years to come. The difficulties being experienced by Crusaders in relation to hosting games with Cliftonville demonstrate just how far we remain removed from normality even in the sporting realm.
On BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback yesterday, one of Cliftonville’s most ardent fans (‘Smitty’ to his legion of Twitter followers) retold the story of how and why he and other Cliftonville fans decided to start bringing a Rainbow Flag to matches in solidarity with the gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender community. It was a brave decision, challenging the stereotypical view of the working-class male dominated world of the football terrace as the last bastion of intolerance, in essence capturing all that we should hope for a new society.
During only one fixture have I heard any sectarian chanting at Solitude, and that was the ‘Fat orange b@stard’ reference in a song targeting Linfield manager David Jeffrey to the tune of The Monkeys’ Daydream Believer which was sung on two occasions by a group of fans during one of the two home fixtures this season. I have a lot of time for Jeffrey as a football personality, but even if I didn’t I would find this reference to be offensive and out of place in our society- but one isolated incident in 15 months is very good going given where our society has come from.
Cliftonville’s traditional fan base has been swollen through the decades due to the demise of other teams attracting a largely nationalist following like Belfast Celtic, Distillery and Derry City, though the club has been successful in retaining an albeit smaller protestant fan base no doubt predating the demographic changes that have swept that part of north Belfast. Long may that continue.
It’s hard to ignore the issue of low attendances in the Irish League, though I appreciate that Cliftonville are experiencing an attendance boom over the past three seasons when compared with previous seasons, and I believe the club’s average attendance is surpassed only by Linfield. Yet the fact remains that, on one night, the Belfast Giants when playing in the Odyssey can attract a crowd which virtually matches the combined attendance for Irish Premier League fixtures held on the same day. That is an incredible statistic, not least when you consider that the Giants play a game utterly alien to our culture, and it suggests to me that there is a marketing issue as well as an issue relating to entertainment value on offer.
I know that home games at Solitude attract a fairly sizeable number of children from my own school, and we have sought to develop that relationship by bringing some of the most celebrated players into the school to speak with and present awards and prizes to the pupils, including past pupil Joe Gormley, as well as Conor Devlin and Liam Boyce. We also raffle a Cliftonville jersey on a monthly basis for pupils with 100% attendance and use Solitude for competitive fixtures with other schools.
I’d like to see some of the ‘glitz’ associated with American sports brought into the local game to improve the matchday experience for fans of all ages, though I know even mentioning that will provoke diehard traditionalists into pouring scorn on such a proposal. I’m not suggesting cheerleaders but rather more in the form of crossbar challenges, kids’ half time games and pre-game entertainment that might help even modestly to grow the support base for local clubs in a cost-effective way.
In any case, I know that my child will have fond memories in years to come of his earliest year as a football fan, and for that I owe the Irish League and Cliftonville FC a debt of gratitude.