Dearg Doom, Rainbow flags & The Beautiful Game at Solitude

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.

  • Doug

    Excellent article and genuinely enjoyable read.
    As a currently ” active ” ( in the loosest sense ) amateur player, I don’t get to as many local games as I should. A Westy who moved to Lisburn, any chance I get is split between D.C. ( the club I played for as a kid ) and Distillery ( currently local ).
    The progress made in terms of sectarianism since the 90’s should not be underestimated.
    It still happens – but as you ightly say Chris, it’s a relatively rare occurrence.
    Just on that, I’ve had the chance to attend a few international games at Windsor over the last few years and I have to say – The IFA have done a fantastic job there.
    I can see why several of my friends express shock when I go – the area and environs aren’t the most welcoming to someone born and raised on the Falls – but in the ground, I honestly have heard very little of the sectarian muck I was led to expect.
    Fair Play.

  • Gopher

    Move the league to the summer

  • derrydave

    Thoroughly enjoyable read – thanks Chris. I’m a massive football fan, and over the years I’ve attended hundreds of matches at Parkhead, Anfield, Old Trafford, etc etc as well as places as far afield as Stuttgart, Munich, Barcelona, Madrid, Singapore, and Malaysia. There’s absolutley no doubt however that my favourite football memories revolve around trips to the Brandywell to watch Owen DaGama, Nelson DaSilva, Alex Kristic, Johnny Speake, Liam Coyle et al. Even better were the away trips to Dalymount, Oriel Park, Sligo Showgrounds, Cork, Cobh, and even Newcastle west to support the ‘City’ – they really were the best days ! Hope that things keep improving to the point where you feel comfortable bringing your boy to experience all the away matches – nothin like an ‘away day’ with yer Da !

  • Floreat Ultonia

    Thanks Chris, interesting read. Although long exiled to Divisions 5-9 in England, I went to Cliftonville PS and first watched games at Solitude in the early 70s.

    Interested in any comments on the decision by Crusaders to move tomorrow’s game up the hill. I understand that

    a) it was Crues’ idea

    b) the Police advice agreed, as did Cliftonville

    c) Crues fans are almost all hostile, not least as the claim that no precedent has been set looks dodgy. Neither the Reds being successful with a large support, nor the Shore Road staging unionist demos is likely to stop anytime soon.

    PS Smitty is a sound lad. First met him at the Oswestry game where he managed to fall asleep standing up once Bucky supplies ran out 😉

  • keano10

    Floreat Ultonia,

    As a lifelong Reds fans myself, I would strongly disagree with your assertion that ” almost all Crues fans are hostile”. Crusaders may be our rivals, but they are a great little club. Genuinely non-sectarian and they have built up a strong association with NewingtonYouth Club over the past few years.

    Maybe you’ve away a wee bit too long…

  • iluvni

    Nice to read a positive article on the Irish league. Reds deserve their big day tomorrow. Hope the wee lad enjoys it.

  • The Gellick

    I have lots of great memories of going to Irish League football as a wean, albeit in less enlightened times! The kind of stuff that was said and done was almost unbelievable from today’s perspective. That being said, the edginess did at times give it a misplaced glamour. I’m glad my Old Man persisted in taking me despite the nonsense, and the element of danger: I remember the game you allude to with the bomb, as I was in the North Stand at the time. Some fans on the Kop celebrating an attempt to murder them stands out as particularly emblematic of how bonkers things were at moments back then.

    Solitude, sadly, was no go for us, and for years it was the only ground in the league I’d never visited, so it always held a bit of mystique. But I say embrace the away match – some of my fondest football memories were forged on foundering midweek evenings at the Oval’s City End, or some other crumbling terrace. The experience in terms of facilities at grounds has improved since then of course – and although I retain a bit of nostalgia for the old ramshackle places, I think you’re right that the experience could be improved.

    Congratulations to Cliftonville this season: from what I’ve seen they play the game in the right manner, and the club seems to be well run and generally thriving. There seems to be a new “Big Two” in Irish league football.

  • Floreat Ultonia

    @Keano- just to be clear, I meant that after a skim read of other social media- ILS and OWC- this morning, most Crues fans there seemed to be hostile to this specific decision, not generally to Cliftonville or more widely. I think we’re agreed on this one.

    Congratulations to the champions 😉

  • Charles_Gould

    Good piece! I also like Irish League. Attendances aren’t great but they seem to have stopped falling at least. There is some hope they may go up a bit when the stats are in at the end of the season.
    Ballymena united for the cup!

  • Red Lion

    Cliftonville are a club on the up no doubt about it. A young fanbase in N+W Belfast and indeed the team which the ‘green’ side of the tracks identify with in Gtr Belfast- a large, largely unsplit community

    They have an army of volunteers, have a rake of youth talent on an everflowing production line.

    They are tight with their money and have good business sense ie you can only pay out what u take in too bad other NI clubs couldn’t learn this.

    They have banked the Donnelly and Boyce transfer fees, not to mention payday money v Celtic and other big IL games.

    They have applied for and received every grant going.

    It is Linfield and Cliftonville at the top of the league for the next wee while.

    Which begs the question-are there any further plans to develop Solitude or perhaps even move ground?

    I would also like to agree with Doug in the first post-the IFA have done absolutely sterling work on football for all and cross-community work against at times a difficult backdrop. The last thing they can do is bring in a NI-specific anthem like Danny Boy before NI games, though I appreciate fully the hot potato. It will happen at some point so may as well make it sooner rather than later

    I would also say that I am very much enjoying watching the Glentoran team currently, full of kids trying to develop. There is no greater satisfaction as returning to my seat with my half time cuppa just as the 2nd half kicks off.

  • David Crookes

    We are the BU, the BUFC. Oul habits die hard…..

    I’ve found the same kind of camaraderie at much humbler levels on both sides of the Irish Sea. Must say I’d rather watch any real team play a match — Stranraer 2nds, last time I was staying in Portpatrick — than watch some illustrious team on a screen.

    A great deal of joyful health in this father-and-son tale. Thanks, Chris.

  • Here_Mate_Here_Mate

    As a middle class Catholic blimp originally from a leafy part of the Antrim Road I started going to Cliftonville games in 2011 with some trepidation but I needn’t have worried. There’s never been ANY bother at any game I’ve been at, and I must have gone to twenty or so now. Me and my mates looked on it as a cheaper alternative than spending £150 / £200 once a season to see Celtic. I remember the first game I was at cliftonville kicked off and the guy waited to play a ball downfield from the centre circle spot only for a glens man to nip in and take it off his toe! Really amateurish stuff, worse than PE at school and we were thinking what the hell have we just spent ten pounds on. But the reds have come on incredibly since then and some of the goals I’ve seen in the last couple of years have been Barcelona esque. Was disappointed that they didn’t acquit themselves better against Celtic at the start of the season, also disappointed not to get a ticket! Agree that the only sectarian language I’ve heard is the orange b*stard filler against d Jeffrey – maybe arguably some singing Aidan macanespie during minutes silence for rememberence Sunday (which the announcer had tried to sell as being a tribute to ALL those who died in ALL conflicts. Have yet to attend an away game, will have to break that duck next season. My son is only 3 but when he’s up a bit I would take him no bother – but probably initially to completely edge less home games like the ballinamallards of this world!!

  • Alan N/Ards

    Hi Chris
    An enjoyable piece. I have a soft spot for Cliftonville as my Grandfather was a big reds fan. He was born near the ground and lived in the area for many years and followed them when they had four men and a dog at home games. He told me that he had played a few games for them in the 1920’s but I have never been able to confirm it.
    I had the pleasure of playing at Solitude as a schoolboy ( 40 plus years ago). Alas, I never graced its hallowed turf again.

    Congratulations to Cliftonville!

  • Charles_Gould

    Somehow its all a lot more exciting when the same team isn’t dominating and winning every year. (Well for most of us non linfield people!)