Celtic's not-so-golden anniversary

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Next Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the game that marked the beginning of the end for one of the greatest football clubs this island has ever seen. Irish League football has never fully recovered from its demise, and many of its current woes can be traced back to that traumatic day half a century ago.

The team was Belfast Celtic and the match was the then traditional St Stephen's Day derby with Linfield. Christmas Day in 1948 was a Saturday, and because Irish League regulations prohibited the playing of any fixtures on a Sunday (a rule that continues to this day) the meeting of Celtic and Linfield at Windsor Park was switched to Monday the 27th.

But that was the only thing that changed. All the sectarianism and rancour that had grown up around any encounter between Celtic, from Catholic west Belfast, and the stridently Protestant Linfield side was present and correct on that winter's afternoon. What happened in the course of the game and its immediate aftermath makes chillingly familiar and depressing reading.

Thirty-five minutes in, Linfield defender Bob Bryson was taken off with an ankle injury after a collision with the Celtic centre forward, Jimmy Jones. The clash was accidental but was to have terrible repercussions for Jones later in the afternoon. Another Linfield player was then injured and could no longer continue, so, as this was before the concept of substitutes had been introduced, Linfield had to continue with nine men.

It was obvious at this stage that the slightest spark would light the touch-paper: that duly arrived with the announcement over the public address system by Linfield secretary, Joe Mackey, that Bryson's leg had been broken in the tackle with Jones and that he had been taken to hospital. With the rival sets of supporters becoming ever more restless, the sequence of events that followed took on an air of inevitability.

Two players, one from each side, were sent off. Harry Walker scored a penalty for Celtic and with just minutes to go the Linfield fans began to stream off the terraces. But they were drawn inexorably back by a Billy Simpson equaliser, and then continued their surge on to the pitch where Jimmy Jones became the focus of their ire as a result of the incident with Bryson.

Jones was just 20 in December 1948 and a prodigious talent. A Protestant from Co Armagh, he had once scored a hat-trick in a trial game for Linfield but finished up with Belfast Celtic under the tutelage of their legendary manager, Elisha Scott. The young striker had the presence of mind to make quickly for the dressing-room as the hordes descended.

But his escape route was cut off and he was quickly engulfed by Linfield supporters and knocked to the ground. He was then kicked repeatedly, an attack that ended only after the intervention of some of his team-mates and a policeman wielding a baton. When he woke up in hospital the following morning his right leg was broken, any realistic hopes he had of a top flight career in England were over and Belfast Celtic were on their way out not only of the Irish League but also of existence.

As the extent of Jones' injuries emerged, the gravity of the situation became clear to the directors of both Belfast Celtic and Linfield. The Celtic chairman, Austin Donnelly, made "the strongest possible protest" and focused in particular on the inadequacy of the safety measures that had been made for his players in the face of the concerted attack. The writing was on the wall for Belfast Celtic.

The club continued into 1949, and at the end of that season embarked on what has now become a celebrated tour of America. The highlight of that trip was a 2-0 win over the full Scotland international side, who were at that time British champions. But this was to be Belfast Celtic's last day in the sun. The club, which had been formed in 1891, withdrew formally from the Irish League soon after, never to return. Jones, though, did return, defying all contemporary medical logic to resume his senior career at another Irish League club, Glenavon. There was still ample evidence of his talent there, including one season in which he scored an amazing 79 goals.

The extinction of Belfast Celtic, a process clearly precipitated by the events at Windsor Park 50 years ago this week, has left a void in Irish League football, a void that is felt more keenly with every passing year and with every new problem for the present day set-up. In the short term it deprived players of the calibre of Jones, Peter McAlinden and Johnny Campbell of further success at Celtic. But in the longer term, Celtic's absence has meant that all of west Belfast and all of the substantial Catholic population of that part of the city has no football team with which to align itself in the Irish League.

Interest in football within that community is as strong as ever. The proliferation of junior teams and the huge fan-base for the "other Celtic" in Glasgow are proof of this. But there is no focus. Donegal Celtic has tried manfully to fill the gaping hole, but their hopes of senior status look certain to be stymied by the recent controversy over their aborted cup-tie with the RUC.

Without a Belfast Celtic drawing on a large Catholic fan-base in the west of the city, there was nothing to counterbalance the huge swathes of support attracted to the likes of Linfield, Glentoran and Crusaders, all based in predominantly Protestant areas. The situation was exacerbated with the withdrawal of Derry City from the Irish League 25 years after Belfast Celtic, which meant that there was no senior club with substantial support west of Portadown.

The Irish League has inevitably been devalued as a result. For better or worse, in the years since it has come to be viewed as the almost exclusive preserve of one section of the community here. Only Cliftonville can convincingly claim to draw widespread Catholic support, and that has produced problems all of its own; the recently removed ban on home games with Linfield and the intermittent street protests are just two examples. Instead of being forced to promote itself, the Irish League has been able to limp along, all the time looking inwards. The aftershocks of December 27th, 1948, went far beyond Jimmy Jones' broken leg and Belfast Celtic's exit from the Irish League.

Jimmy Jones is 70 now. A few years ago a shopping centre was built on Celtic Park, Belfast Celtic's old home.