A Strange Season in Solitude


Meet the Wee Reds. The hardest working team in football, the most inexpensive championship winning side in the world. The oldest soccer club in Ireland. Cliftonville. Champions for the first time in 89 years. Marty Quinn, manager of genius and soccer politician extraordinaire, is our Master of Ceremonies.

"In goal we have Paul Reece. Paul came on a free from non-league football on a recommendation from an ex player. Stephen Small came on an amateur contract for free from Distillery. Our left back, Gerry Flynn, joined six years ago for £3,000 from Ballyclare Comrades. Centre half Marty Tabb came to us from Coleraine on a free. Damian Davey came up through the youth team. Gary Sliney is a Dublin lad signed as a free agent from Home Farm, and Barry O'Connor came from Drogheda free on the Bosman ruling, leading scorer. He's our leading scorer.

"Michael Collins in midfield came home from Sheffield United, so again he was free. Martin McCann came from Finn Harps on the Bosman ruing. Free. Up front again, the main boy is Tim McCann, who came up through the ranks. Jody Tolan was recommended by a guy who played with me in 1979, fellow called Peter McCusker. Harry McCourt came from Ards for £4,000.

"Then there's the subs. James McDonald, called the judge. Keith Mulvenna came off an amateur contract from Chimney Corner, another free. Stevie Douglas is another, he was in Canada for a few years and came home, so he was free."

So that's it: £3,000 a few years ago for Gerry Flynn and £4,000 this year for Harry McCourt and the most beleaguered team in football are tooled up for the season.

"It's not about spending top quality money. If you don't get the right people and the right dressing room spirit. We lost a few in the summer. Lost Mark O'Neill and Paul Stokes. Ian Hill went to Drogheda. A couple went to Australia. We got off to a bad start and I thought to myself, `The boys are not going to do me.' But . . . I wasn't sure. That spirit . . ."

That spirit is invaluable. Especially when every paper which covers the Irish League tips you for relegation in August.

"We went to Salthill to pay in a tournament with Salthill Devons. We took our football seriously and, for want of another phrase, we took our boozing seriously. We just had a ball. Served us well. We were written of by certain experts in the north as going into relegation play-offs with Bangor, and probably getting beaten by Bangor."

August 30th, Solitude

Cliftonville: 2, Crusaders: 2

Third round of the league and Cliftonville are steadying the ship after one loss and one win. Before the game the ashes of former Cliftonville kitman Ron Rauhaus are spread on the pitch. Cliftonville fans care about their team more than they care about the presence of oxygen in the air.

"They are the greatest fans in the world," says Marty Quinn. "That's a cliche, but literally no other fans suffer so much, put up with so much, have to take so much and still keep coming back."

November 15th, Windsor Park

Cliftonville: 2, Linfield: 1

They put up with a lot. Played at Windsor Park, but a home game for the Wee Reds. There was an incident in the early 1970s when Solitude was being used as a neutral venue for an Irish Cup match involving Linfield, and a Linfield supporter got injured in the vicinity of the ground. In order to guarantee the safety of Linfield fans, the police ordered that all of Cliftonville's home games with Linfield be played on Linfield's patch.

Nothing new. Once Cliftonville fans had a grenade thrown at them. In Portadown, they had their bus attacked. Once, in the same town, a mob prevented Cliftonville supporters getting into the ground. The team, scared for their lives, refused to come out for the second half. In September 1996, a protest group of Loyalists blocked the passage of Cliftonville fans on their way to a neutral ground for a Cup tie. Police turned the fans back. There's more. Lots.

Marty Quinn has seen it all. He was part of the fabled Cliftonville team which won the Cup in the club's centenary year, 1979. Things get no better.

"Restrictions on the supporters just get worse. Things are probably much the same. I don't like sectarianism, but it's still there. The football is a lot better, but the Northern Ireland problem just hasn't gone away yet. Some people come out of the woodwork on a Saturday and get it all off their chest.

"Sectarianism and bigotry gets my goat. We don't bother about people's colour or religion at Cliftonville. It annoys me when we go places and we get dogs abuse. It annoys me. People calling you Fenian bastard, and worse things which I can't go into. There's more to it. What goes on off the pitch. "I can look after myself though. I think most people in football are decent sports people. Most of it comes from the terraces. If someone comes to the ground and pays their few bob, they are entitled to vent their feelings. But there is a limit."

Oh yes, the game. One sent off, six booked, two penalties. Quiet.

November 22nd, Solitude

Cliftonville: 0, Glentoran: 2

A bad loss leaves Cliftonville one point off the pace. Meanwhile, at the Coleraine Showgrounds, Linfield are down to nine men and losing by a goal. The referee, Alan Snoddy, comes under attack from some bottles and stones launched from the terrace. The game is stopped and a loudspeaker issues a warning. The response is an increased volume of projectiles. The RUC intervene. The game is abandoned.

Cliftonville are just minding their own business.

December 14th, Showgrounds

Ballymena: 4, Cliftonville: 0

Cliftonville are at Ballymena. Another story goes into the pot of legends. A well-dressed Cliftonville supporter directed to the wrong entrance by the local constabulary finds himself in the company of more than a dozen Ballymena supporters. This could be a tricky situation. The match is already started. All entrances are shut. Tempers are high. The well-dressed Cliftonville supporter tries his luck pulling up a steel shutter. Success.

The Ballymena fans form an orderly queue beside the man in the suit and, thinking quickly, he says, "Tell you what boys, it's £6 in today, but seeing as how you missed the start a fiver will do ye." The well-dressed Cliftonville supporter is still grinning manicly when the local constabulary show up again and take him for a ride.

Inside, things aren't going so well. Cliftonville are losing 4-0 and the referee, Mr Frank Hiles, is accused by five players (including dismissed striker Jody Tolan) and a senior official of using abusive language towards them. Hiles denies the complaints. Cliftonville, wearily phlegmatic about such things, compile a dossier but don't pursue the matter. Later, in December, Hiles is called up before the IFA disciplinary committee following a complaint from another club. Cliftonville have quite a record with Frank Hiles and there is talk of supporters clubs complaining. After the Ballymena game, both sets of supporters are allowed to leave the ground simultaneously. The inevitable happens.

"I don't want to go into it too much in case I get taken up to the disciplinary committee. There is a lot I could say about that, but I am tongue tied really. We never really backed up the complaint. We had to let it go away."

Hiles is later suspended by the IFA.

December 13th, Windsor Park

Cliftonville: 0, Linfield: 0

(Linfield win on penalties)

As football competitions go the Antrim Shield is not a name to be conjured with. This is a midweek match and it is tedious, apart from one incident involving Cliftonville goalkeeper Paul Reece. The English goalie who flies in from London every week is suffering the usual torrent of abuse from behind him on the terraces, but is responding unusually. Eventually Marty Quinn has to call him over for a sharp quick word.

"Paul Reece. Hmmm. It's all new to Paul. I had to chastise Paul for blessing himself repeatedly. Paul didn't realise just what he was playing with. He's not a lad who within his religion would bless himself. He was doing it as a wind-up. He didn't realise the significance of what he was doing. Our crowd would cheer when Reecey would bless himself and he would be encouraged and do it again."

January 3rd, 1998, Solitude

Cliftonville: 1, Glenavon: 1

(match abandoned)

Here's the story, straight from Marty's mouth.

"They said there was a frozen linesman. A frozen linesman. We had faced a gale force wind for 45 minutes and went in at half-time one down, and the weather was still there when we came out after half-time. We took back a goal two or three minutes into the second half. I thought, happy days, we are going to win this game by five or six. Then a few minutes later the referee says `That's it, I'm taking the players in.'

"I said, `What?', and he says, `I'm taking them in for 10 minutes till this blows over.'

"I said, `There's no point in taking the players in.'

"He said, `Look I'm abandoning the game.'

"I said, `Well why are you doing that?'

"And he said, `I think my linesman is suffering from exposure.'

"Couldn't work that one out to be honest with you. Couldn't work it out at all."

February 10th, Solitude

Cliftonville: 0, Crusaders: 1

The frozen linesman costs Cliftonville some points. The replayed game is staged at Solitude and totally against the run of play Crusaders score from a free kick late in the second half. In the 65th minute things get tense when substitute Kirk Hunter elbows Micky Donnelly in the face while Jody Tolan is still lying prostrate on the ground from another incident. Hunter is sent off. A bottle is thrown. Tolan has to be taken to hospital.

Kick-off is delayed for 15 minutes to allow the crowd to get in. A clumsily erected RUC checkpoint 500 yards down the road hasn't helped and no cars are allowed near the ground.

February 14th, Solitude

Cliftonville: 5, Ballymena: 2

Big win against a bogey team and Marty Quinn's managerial acuity pays off. Harry McCourt, signed for a whopping £4,000 from relegation destined Ards, scores twice. He will go on to score a hat-full of key goals. On transfer deadline day, not long later, Marty Quinn is quoted thus:

"If Alan Shearer was available to me on a free I wouldn't take him. I couldn't look the boys in the eye after all they've done."

March 7th, Seaview

Crusaders: 0, Cliftonville: 2

Jody Tolan scores after 11 minutes. Big Marty Tabb adds another before half-time. Then the fun begins. Kirk Hunter of Crusaders isn't a household name. Except for Cliftonville fans. When the sides played in February Kirk's afternoon lasted seven minutes. Today he breaks his record. Within a minute of coming on as substitute he attempts to deck Damian Davey. A fine melee follows. Some of the Crusaders support take their lead from the pitch and bottles and stones are flung at Cliftonville supporters. Helpful police baton-charge the Cliftonville supporters to help them to safety. In the final minute of the game Crusaders goalkeeper Davy O'Hare is sent off having made off-the-ball contact with a Cliftonville player.

Afterwards the Cliftonville chairman, Jim Boyce, is verbally abused and police have to intervene.

"Kirk Hunter?" says Marty Quinn. "Well, I don't want to blacken anyone's name. It wouldn't be fair on me to start blackening anyone's name, saying Kirk Hunter this or Kirk Hunter that. There was an incident, our young centre half Damian stood his ground. I said to him, `Never lift your hands again, if anyone hits you like that again go down and stay there. But I tell you what, I admire your balls son, because you stood up to it.' Which he did."

Over at Windsor Park meanwhile, Glentoran lose to Linfield. Three players (all Glentoran) are sent off and 20 policemen are injured in rioting. The match is abandoned in the 86th minute. Glentoran boss Roy Coyle is allegedly assaulted. Three people are arrested. Ho hum.

April 11th, Windsor Park.

Cliftonville: 0, Linfield: 3

Oops. A huge game for Cliftonville which ends in heartbreak and controversy. Cliftonville fans are limited to 1,500 because of the damage done by Glentoran fans the previous month. Go figure.

The team go 2-0 down at half-time, 3-0 down a little way in to the second half. Then Jody Tolan gets sent off and, leaving the pitch, as he parades before the Linfield support, he blesses himself.

The game ends in heat. Marty Quinn exchanges words. The Linfield manager is filmed singing The Billy Boys. Down the road, the Good Friday deal is being held up to the light.

" Aye. Jody erupted. That was the only blemish over the season. And I had a dispute with the Linfield management on the day. Jody has a wee explosive nature. I said to him: `You were very stupid and you shouldn't have done that and if you ever do that again I will severely discipline you and you'll end up out of football at a young age.' He caused me and the club a lot of grief, but he took it face on. "The Linfield management people spent the game trying to cajole our players and get them booked and calling foul on every tackle, and I told the Linfield manager basically what I thought of him and, well, you can imagine what that was. I refused to accept his hand of friendship after the game. Couldn't be so hypocritical just to go along with a gesture because we were standing in front of the media and the public eye. I stand over that. The Billy Boys thing came up afterwards. This is a different league we are in. Unique."

April 18th, Solitude

Cliftonville: 1, Glentoran: 1

Cliftonville win the world's strangest league, an honour which has eluded them since early this century. Solitude is packed to its old rafters. The club celebrated 100 years of Solitude in 1990, but this is a greater landmark. Celebrations can't be uncorked till an hour after the final whistle, however, when the result from Linfield's game with Coleraine comes through. Now, most leagues would have played those games simultaneously. "Exactly," says Marty Quinn. "Their games kicked off at the normal 3 o'clock Saturday kick-off time. The justification was that the last time they played Coleraine the game was abandoned. So if anyone was going to get the benefit of the late kick-off you'd think it would be Cliftonville. But we had to kick off an hour earlier. Cliftonville were punished again for something that others done."

"We were punished earlier for what Glentoran fans did at Windsor Park. Not long after that, we visited Windsor for a game and we were restricted to 1,500 tickets for security reasons. Now there was a full scale riot at the Linfield-Glentoran game, and a week later they played each other again at Windsor Park and Glentoran fans were given 3,000 tickets. It's an ongoing thing and you just learn to accept it.


Here's where the story ends. Solitude on a chilly afternoon, the place filled with Reds and the team huddled together in the dressing room with the sound of song streaming in under the door.

"We had no radio in the dressing room. Too nerve-wracking. We just sat in there together and waited. We had a few beers and somebody would pop out every now and then and ask about the other game. I was scared to go out in case some bugger drank me beer.

"Getting that trophy was a very proud moment in front of our supporters. In all the years they have had to put up with a hell of a lot more than any other supporters, but they back us week in and week out. We don't misbehave. Any players coming to play for the opposition - if the best team win, we will clap them off the park. It gets put back in our face. If the situation up here changes, it will change."

Marty Quinn, miracle worker, won't hold his breath. Meanwhile, they are singing The Fields of Athenry.