The future is uncertain for a club exploited by bigots

 

THE GOALPOSTS on the Gaelic pitch along the side of the Cliftonville Road are a constant reminder of how events have changed the face of Belfast over the years. This, the area around the Antrim Road, used to be predominantly Protestant territory in a divided city, but not anymore. The troubles came and, as a result of the increasing segregation in the working class areas, so did the Catholics, while those who had long occupied the houses sold up to move out further into the suburbs.

By 1974 the cricket club had started to look a little remote and when the clubhouse was fire-bombed after a couple of threats the field was left vacant for a while before being put to use as a venue for sports more closely identified with the newly installed majority in the area.

Across the road from the old cricket club and down a short sidestreet lies Solitude, a typically decaying Irish soccer ground - one stand constructed mainly of corrugated iron and a great deal of grassy concrete - that has the distinction of being the home of Ireland's first soccer team.

Established in 1879 Cliftonville's main claim to fame prior to the start of the 1970s had remained the fact that it was the island's first club side (its first game was against a local rugby team). Its achievements in competition had been modest to say the least and the club's status as the local game's favourite laughing stock was reinforced by the fact that just about every year since 1953 it had had to seek re-election to the league.

While the cricketers, however had been forced to abandon their traditional home as a result of the shifting demographics, things as gradually became apparent, were about take a turn for the better for the Reds.

Having numbered professionals of just about all sorts except footballers among their players during their first 95 years, the club decided in 1974 to start paying those who wore its colours. The improvement in its performances on the pitch quickly attracted the attention of the growing local Catholic community who, since the departure in 1949 of Belfast Celtic from senior soccer, had not had a team of their own in Belfast to cheer about.

"From around that point on," recalls club chairman Jim Boyce, "up until we took 7,000 fans to the Irish Cup final which we won against Portadown in our centenary year I watched the numbers of people coming to the games rise steadily. Because we had been amateur and so had in the previous years eve had virtually no support at all until then, but gradually word spread through the local area that the side was getting better and a few more seemed to arrive at the ground for each home game."

The new arrivals brought money to the club at a time it really needed it. But they also brought an identification with the nationalist Community which, in turn, was always likely to mean the occasional spot of bother in a league dominated by clubs with considerable support within the North's Protestant communities.

Even before the club had really had time to, establish its new identity an indication of what was to come had been given by the 1971 Cup final between Linfield and Ballymena at Solitude.

After fans of the city's best supported side became embroiled in clashes with local residents on the way home from the match the

RUC decided that policing such situations in the area was impossible. Even though the club had not been involved in any way whatsoever, Cliftonville were told that they must play all of their matches against Linfield at Windsor Park. A quarter of a century on, they still do.

By 1979, when the club enjoyed its most successful season ever Cliftonville's support was clearly drawn almost exclusively from the Catholic community. Local Protestants still used the club bar for a social night once a week but on the terraces the number of tricolours grew dramatically. So did the antagonism displayed by the supporters of some opposing teams, as was demonstrated when goalkeeper Brian Johnson completed the Antrim Shield final after having a dart removed from his leg.

TROUBLE tended to flare up from either side and just about everybody is agreed that the majority of it came not from the core supporters of any club but rather from the large numbers who showed up for the contentious matches.

"Jim Boyce would be the first one to admit that his team's support is poor a lot of the time but, like a few of the other clubs, it gets much bigger when there is something like a trip to Linfield involved. But that's the way it is when the likes of Glentoran and Linfield meet too," says Irish League president Morton McKnight.

The sentiment is echoed by Boyce who remarks that there is a lot of hatred between some of the people going to other games but when it is two Protestants knocking the hell out of each other it's just hooliganism, as soon as it's a Catholic and a Protestant it becomes sectarianism". Boyce, who is also President of the Irish Football Association is a somewhat larger than makes him virtually impossible to dislike, but occasionally a little difficult to fully believe.

A Protestant himself, he is widely well thought of by Cliftonville fans although he remains disappointed by their traditional affinity for the Republic of Ireland rather than a Northern Ireland side that is perceived to be representative only of the majority community. He is also well respected within the Northern game but, like his colleagues at the IFA he is often criticised for playing down the problems that have afflicted his club in the apparent hope that better times lie around the corner.

Asked about the various incidents that have occurred he is vague and remarks about football in general that "you get one or two people causing trouble but that's to be expected. I'm living in Northern Ireland, not cloud cuckoo land and there are bigots on both sides here".

That, of course, has never been in dispute but the fact that Cliftonville's matches, and particularly their travels, have so regularly provided the opportunity for the least desirable elements from both sides of the community to run into each other had left the club with considerable problems long before the club's fans were attacked on the way to last week's league fixture at Portadown.

Last weekend wasn't the first time that following Cliftonville to an away match went close to costing some people their lives. A particular incident in 1991 at Windsor Park when a grenade was thrown into an area close to visiting fans but exploded without injuring anyone stands out. Two years ago a cup match at Shamrock Park (Portadown's ground) ended in a large scale battle between both sets of fans which was apparently started by some of the visitors.

Even during the ceasefire, when Boyce says he noticed "no problems at all" regular fans recall that they were stoned as they left Larne, had bricks thrown at them on the way back from Ards and returned to their buses after the match at Carrickfergus to find than an attempt had been made to petrol bomb them during the game.

And this is a club who have simply been adopted by a migrant Catholic community. Derry City and Belfast Celtic who had a far clearer orientation towards Catholics withdrew from the Irish League after violent conflicts, while Donegal Celtic from west Belfast have been passed over for promotion into the senior game several times because of security fears. They have replied to follow Derry into the National League in the Republic in recent years.

One of the traditional problems for Clittonville's supporters has been the attitude of the police who many feel, have tended to be too quick to blame them for everything that goes wrong, overly aggressive towards the club's predominantly nationalist supporters or, as seemed to be the case last Saturday, hopelessly ill-prepared to protect genuine supporters from attacks.

Last season, when the ceasefire was still in place, fans sang "on the dole, on the dole, on the dole" to the police on the terraces of Windsor Park, but generally the supporters' encounters with the security forces have been far less humorous.

"I've had plenty of smacks across the head with batons while I was at matches," says Cliftonville supporter and editor of the club fanzine The Wee Red, Fintan Murray, "usually because some headbins from one side or the other have started trouble and everybody else had ended up getting caught in the middle.

"At Mourneview Park the two sets of fans are separated by a line of Land Rovers as they leave the ground and there is usually a bit of stone throwing going on until the RUC chases people out of range. Well last year, after our match with Glenavon I was being chased up the toad and I'm a big lad so I was puffing away, trying to keep up and I looked around and saw that the fella behind me was an inspector or something. You know, he had a few pips on his shoulder - so I said `ah listen, there must be a better way than this and he just pointed at me, shouted `Get him!' and one of the others beat the hell out of me."

Even that, it seems, was a bit of picnic compared to last week's events at Shamrock Park. Things had not been helped by the tact a couple of the club's supporters (nobody has managed to identify them yet) stopped off on the way to a match against Loughgall to lay a wreath at the spot where eight IRA men had been killed by the SAS in 1988.

It was a deeply embarrassing incident for club officials which both they and senior league officers asked members of the press not to write about. But it was one which everyone at the club, including team manager Marty Quinn, dismisses as having nothing to do with the real supporters. It was, in any ease, he maintains, simply an excuse for what has happened in recent weeks, with the move by residents near the Oval to prevent supporters getting to the Ulster Cup semi-final with Crusaders at the start of September and last week's "protest" in Portadown being far more firmly rooted in the events that started over the second weekend in July at Drumcree.

"THERE'S no doubt but that the current situation is rooted in all of this stuff about consent and everything else that came up at Drumcree. The line is that they couldn't walk down that road so these supporters aren't going to come down our road. It's becoming a really crazy situation, says Quinn, a member of the 1979 team.

Events at the Oval had prompted negotiations between officials from the club and Irish League, the police and local residents in other areas of Belfast to ensure that other matches could go ahead. Briefly, the problems seemed to recede but the night before the trip to Portadown it emerged that this was where the next confrontation was going to take place.

Leaflets were delivered to houses in the town calling for a peaceful demonstration against the visiting fans while some posters publicising the event reportedly carried the phrase "Kick Republican scum out of Ulster". A number of fans who normally travel to matches decided against it when a small article mentioning the likelihood of a protest appeared in the first edition of the Belfast Telegraph, but the two buses organised by the North Belfast supporters clubs set off as planned and these were the main target for the rocks that were thrown by the mob that waited outside Shamrock Park.

Several RUC men, who had arrived at the ground, without their riot gear, were among those injured in the ensuing violence.

While some of those present alleged that the trouble had been "provoked" by a tricolour with IRA across it on the bus, a number of the injured said it had been clear that the violence was planned.

Inside the ground the Cliftonville team, many of whom had been criticised by fans for playing against Crusaders despite the fact that the supporters had not made it into the ground, refused to come out for the second half. Those supporters who had travelled early in cars and had therefore made it inside the ground had to be escorted away to safety.

"You think some of our lads are hard men but talking to them afterwards, they'd obviously feared for their lives, says player Tim McCann, whose parents made it into the ground while his fiancee turned back after her car was surrounded.

Now it appears that the game will be allowed to be re ed at the ground and, in the wake of strong condemnations from Boyce of sectarianism on both sides and a strong effort by the club chairman to distance his side from the wreath laying incident, a spokesman for the organisers of the Portadown protest, Barrie Bradbury, has said that the club's fans will be permitted to enter the ground next time.

Despite this, some have simply have had enough. Gary Arthurs, a season ticket holder for 12 years and a club member for more than five says he won't be back. "It's only a matter of time before some body is killed and no football match is worth that," he says.

Others intend to plough on but they remain desperately anxious about what will happen in the wake of this latest conflict. Some progress appears to have been made on the policing front with the increased use of club stewards allowing a lower RUC profile at games, while an extension of the ticket-only policy applied by Cliftonville on their own fans for games might improve things. But it will be by the fans, and more particularly the fringe elements who turn up simply to exploit the game, that the future will be decided.

"We're just looking for some restraint from other clubs because that's what we've been trying to show. There were only two buses from Cliftonville at Portadown because we only allow real fans to go but when it was obvious that there was going to be trouble we could have packed out eight of 10 with headbins and sent them out first to start a full scale riot.

"What we need now, though, is for people to stop dressing up what is going on and start looking at what is really going on here. The reaction so far has been more constructive than usual but the IFA have to do something concrete now if we are to avoid all of this happening again in a few weeks," says Boyce.

The visit of Crusaders today should give an early indication of whether a club with a guaranteed place in Irish football history has any long-term future.