All self- respecting Irish League fans (and perhaps a few general sports fans too) should be aware of Cliftonville as Ireland’s oldest league club. All the way back to 1879 and as you would hope and expect, one finds a well – rounded and colourful CV and aura. It should be borne in mind as well that their name does not always conjure up the beautiful game either as golf, cricket and bowls not only share the name, but enjoy respect, success and history in those respective fairways, wickets and greens. So we are off to a good start then.
But back to the football club and they are a very strong feature of North Belfast. Sharing the barrio of that area with Crusaders, a strong rivalry has grown up in recent years with the success on the field running tightly with the geographical element as well. Most debates between fans of the clubs would centre on trophy success but I once heard someone mention that he was happier he was a Cliftonville fan, as it was more in the heart of North Belfast than Crusaders who “stood on the edge of the dance floor wanting to join in” Interesting take.
They have one of the more interesting ground names in ‘Solitude’ and this has caused different images for fans when the team do well and also when they don’t. It certainly is very evocative and lends itself to romance when some of the old photographs of games emerge from the late nineteenth century. The white picket fence around the pitch was very defining and behind the city side goal, ‘The Cage’ end had a rough and ready physiology that was the fans’ Kop, Shed and Jungle. The ground’s proximity to the local Waterworks and its proper football lair at the end of terraced streets, then and now, ensure it carries huge local character and history.
Character and history certainly, but it is quirky also. The dug-outs sit proudly in front of a touchline – long grass bank. Like the Oval, it doesn’t serve a whole lot of purpose but adds awkwardness and colour to these grounds. You would hate to lose it as you just don’t get these sort of things everywhere. Solitude was also one of the earlier grounds to get the artificial pitch as is well scripted but somehow it never seems to get the same abuse from rival managers as the one at Crusaders. Needs further investigation that one!
The other thing worth mentioning is the ‘car park’ across the pitch. It could be described as a buffer zone to separate home and away fans but once again it is just yet another classic piece of ‘unusuality’ that one finds in the Irish League. It deserves to have a word created for it. Roget quietly has a fit and bangs his head against his thesaurus.
Some may disagree, but to my mind the modern Cliftonville began their story in February 1978 when there was more than the usual buzz about their beating Glentoran 3-1 at Solitude in a league game. Up to then they tended to be one of the league’s more regular whipping boys. They had retained amateur status long after many of their contemporaries and this seemed to haunt many of their results to plenty of onlookers. This particular result seemed to light a fire and today’s Red Army would have a few who own a campaign medal from that match. Support and story seemed to seep down the Cliftonville Road and out into greater consciousness from that match, and armed with the goals of John Platt and Peter McCusker of that period, this was consummated with the epic Irish Cup final win over Portadown in 1979.
Whilst on a different scale to Carrick in 1976, this win nevertheless was a similar sort of footballing landmark for the club. Reds fans ever since see the root of the tree they stand under start there. The yellow and blue strip worn that day became as epochal as the Cup final kit that Arsenal wore against Liverpool in their 1971 final. For Charlie George, read Tony Bell. The club settled into better respectability winning the odd Shield or minor Cup but their next big moment was to come nineteen years later with the winning of the league in 1998. Managed by 1979 stalwart Marty Quinn and captained by Marty Donnelly they won the league on a famous sunny April afternoon, as the whole of North Belfast held their breath on the pitch as Linfield played out a later kick off up at Coleraine to no good avail. Marty Donnelly will never lift anything higher in his life. Unfortunately the 1999 Cup run and Simon Gribben is an unfortunate addition to their history but there you go.
Another feature relevant is how our local difficulties had resulted in Linfield fans being banned from the ground for many years and whilst this was a police decision, it did not sit well with other fans who felt this advantaged Linfield. When this was relaxed in 1998 a famous banner greeted them on their return to Solitude. ‘Cead mile failte Linfield’. Many an epic game has occurred between the two clubs since culminating with the title winning match in April 2013 when George McMullan put the penalty into the Cage net for the end of a fifteen year wait. It will live long in the memory. The team had been started by manager Eddie Patterson but was finally honed by his assistant and ex – player, Tommy Breslin. It was a team built on the midfield axis of Catney and Johnston and the goals of Joe Gormley and Liam Boyce.
Not content with that this team won a second title the next year and cushioned these great years with four League Cup wins in a row. People, time and place. Some of those names will continue to glow in scarlet but they take their place with others that resonate down the years. Some who can join the names mentioned for me would be John Flanagan, Tony McCall, Peter Murray, Tim McCann and the Scannell brothers. Their more famous fans that I know of would include journalist Henry McDonald, IFA and FIFA bigwig Jim Boyce, actor and comedian Tim McGarry (‘Da’ from the Hole in the Wall gang) who had a famous goal scoring relative that played for the club and media presenter and commentator Joe Lindsay I think may squeeze in there too. Long standing physiotherapist Freddie Jardine deserves a mention and club chairman Gerard Lawlor is also Chairman of the NIFL Premiership Management committee.
For me though Joe Gormley’s mural on a north Belfast street is one of the best in Irish League tribute locally. It is how it should be – local celebration on a wall. This is our club and it is Cliftonville FC on the Cliftonville Road, North Belfast. Joe’s goals say so.