Cliftonville welcome arch-rivals back after 28 years - to a politically correct score

 

The Linfield fans didn't know whether to jeer or cheer. "Cead Mile Failte Linfield" announced the banners, hung out by Cliftonville supporters to welcome their arch-rivals back after a 28-year absence.

The crowd was 12,000-strong last time Linfield was at Solitude, Cliftonville's north Belfast home ground. It was a much more modest affair on Saturday. The RUC limited the crowd to 1,500 and the kick-off was at 11 a.m. as a further precaution against trouble.

But at least it was happening. After 1970, the RUC decided it was too much of a security risk to allow Linfield supporters back to Solitude, and Cliftonville had to play all their matches against the Blues at Windsor Park.

There was a heavy police presence as the 1,000 Cliftonville fans and 350 Linfield supporters made their way into separate ends of the grounds. Amazingly, Linfield hadn't been able to sell all their tickets. The word was that fans, angry at the low allocation, had responded with a boycott.

The small band of Blues men laughed and joked loudly as they marched into Solitude, but they still seemed a little nervous. "It's a bit like a first date," confessed Brian Elliot. "You don't know what to expect but you have to seem confident." Some Linfield fans chanted sectarian obscenities and gave their usual rendition of being the "Billy Boys" up to their "necks in Fenian blood".

But the Cliftonville fans weren't found wanting. As Linfield took to the pitch they sang to the tune of the Monkees' Daydream Believer: "Oh what can it mean/For a sad Orange bastard/And a shite football team".

If the fans weren't quite ready for a love-in, the managers did their best. Marty Quinn of Cliftonville shared a warm handshake with David Jeffrey of Linfield. The match itself was free of controversy, although referee Leslie Irvine was denounced as a "Fenian bastard" several times by Linfield fans.

The 1-1 draw ensured that neither set of supporters had reason for triumphalism or anger. The architects of the Belfast Agreement couldn't have planned it better themselves.

"Hey, are you sure this match wasn't rigged?" joked a Cliftonville fan.