Football: More than a game, a religion

FAN'S EYE VIEW NO 246 Cliftonville
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OUR first chance of a league title in 98 years and I am working in England. Bloody typical. As a supporter for over 30 years I have certainly seen a lot of changes in Cliftonville. As the only team with a Catholic following in Northern Ireland sometimes it has been hard although, to be honest, some of it has been our own fault. But still, a league title. To understand the full significance of this a short history lesson is needed.

Cliftonville FC is the oldest football club in Ireland. It is based precariously in North Belfast in the infamous murder mile. Only last month two people were shot, one dead, in the Clifton Tavern, directly opposite our ground, called, would you believe, Solitude. One of life's little ironies that, considering the crowds we used to get in the 1970s.

Now, however, the good times are back. We average about 2,000 per home game and can take up to 1,000 away. The Irish League is split up into a Premier and First Division. The Premier has 10 teams who play each other four times. Of these 10, no less than four, including ourselves, are Belfast teams. So local derbies are common. What makes them different than, say, Manchester United v Manchester City or even Bristol Rovers v Bristol City is that it is not just local pride that is at stake. Cliftonville are supported by mainly Nationalists; the other three- Linfield, Glentoran and Crusaders - by Unionists. Indeed, Linfield, who own Windsor Park, the home of Northern Ireland, had until recently a clause in their constitution forbidding them to sign Catholics. Crusaders have had a policeman shot while on crowd duty and Glentoran are situated in the Protestant heartland of East Belfast. When Bill Shankly uttered his famous adage that "football is more important than life" he may have had Northern Ireland in mind.

Cliftonville represent Nationalist hopes in the Irish League by dint of the fact that the other two predominantly Catholic supported clubs are no longer in the league. Derry City, who can attract crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000, now play in the League of Ireland. There are rumours that their application to rejoin the Irish League was scuppered by persons unknown for sectarian reasons. The other club, Belfast Celtic, disbanded in 1956 after a sectarian mob invaded the pitch and attacked the players during a game with Linfield. This incident was replicated in the early 1990s when junior club Donegal Celtic played Linfield in the Irish Cup and players were attacked on the pitch.

That is the nature of following a club here. It is not just football. It is about cultural identity and more, and, if it goes all the way to the wire, our last game of the season is at Portadown. This is the home town of the murdered Loyalist Volunteer Force leader, Billy Wright. Last year our coaches were stoned on the way to the ground and the match abandoned at half-time when our players refused to come out for the second half, fearing for the safety of the crowd. Politics and sport don't mix, eh? Explain that to the followers of clubs here.

But what of our league chances. Four points clear with eight to play. Just imagine, Cliftonville could be in the European Cup. What a dream. And who could we get in the preliminary round... Rangers. Now that is a thought.