Thursday, May 30, 2024

Explained: Cliftonville against Linfield and an Irish Cup final that reflects Belfast society

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The question was never if the attendance record would be broken, but how quickly.

All 15,000 tickets sold out within hours for this season’s Irish Cup final between Belfast clubs Cliftonville and Linfield. Instantly, social media and fan message boards filled with disgruntled supporters who had missed out.

Tickets for the highest-attended football match in Northern Ireland this century, surpassing the 14,190 who attended the 2001 Irish Cup showpiece between Linfield and Glentoran, are like gold dust. Cliftonville against Linfield pits the clubs from the capital city’s north and south, Ireland’s oldest club against Ireland’s most successful club, and treads the line that still divides Northern Irish society: a club with a predominantly nationalist fanbase against one with a mainly unionist background.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, alongside England, Scotland, and Wales. Its population of under two million represents less than three per cent of the UK’s total and 27 per cent of the island of Ireland, after being partitioned from the Republic of Ireland in 1921. For over a century, Northern Ireland has been broadly split — educationally, politically, and societally — into communities who wish either to see the island of Ireland reunited (nationalists) and those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK (unionists).

This division sparked an armed conflict that became known as The Troubles, lasting from the late 1960s until 1998. The ensuing decades have brought relative peace and stability. Citizens can choose to have British or Irish nationality or both. Yet the dividing lines still cut and define large parts of the country, with most towns or cities staunchly unionist or nationalist.

Belfast is both an exception and a microcosm of the issue.

The capital city, a 90-minute journey north of Dublin and a one-hour flight from London, is a melting pot of the two communities — sitting side-by-side, yet often separately — alongside migration levels which have steadily increased in recent decades.

No more so is this evident than at Windsor Park, the home of Linfield and the Northern Ireland national team. Based in inner south Belfast, its surrounding areas of the Donegall Road and Sandy Row have long been unionist strongholds. The imagery of this is evident through Union Jacks hanging from lampposts and murals of the British royal family.


Unionist tributes to Queen Elizabeth II on Belfast’s Shankill Road (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This part of the city is also the most diverse, just a 15-minute walk from Queen’s University and 20 minutes from the city centre. It is inhabited by students and migrants seeking affordable and convenient accommodation.

Cliftonville’s Solitude stadium is in the north of the city, off the Cliftonville Road. This part of Belfast has Irish flags flying from lampposts, but this was not always the case. The area was less politically polarised before The Troubles, with the football club’s support base also becoming more defined during this period. This was partly accelerated by the demise of Belfast Celtic, the representative club of nationalist-dominated west Belfast, who withdrew from the league in 1949 and folded entirely a decade later.

Linfield and Belfast Celtic had dominated Northern Irish football in the first half of the 20th century, forming a fierce rivalry that drew comparisons to the derby between Scottish clubs Rangers and Celtic. Glasgow and Belfast are port cities that share similar histories, cultures, and ethos; built on industries and their docks, the working-class populations grew and escapism through their football clubs led to expansions that saw them pull clear of domestic rivals.

The toxicity of sectarianism was never far away from their societies and the inevitability that this seeped into football fandom was inescapable.

Linfield’s rivalry with Belfast Celtic was established during a period absent of the violence and tensions that marked later decades, but it increasingly reflected a divided society with long-term instability. Belfast Celtic’s demise changed the landscape of Northern Irish football, with no club replacing their void in west Belfast. Instead, it was Glentoran from the east of the city — Belfast’s major unionist stronghold — that formed the nation’s defining football rivalry.

The derby between Linfield and Glentoran subsequently became known as ‘The Big Two’, with both clubs consistently posting the country’s highest attendances since.


(Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

Cliftonville are not Linfield’s main rivals, while Linfield are not Cliftonville’s main derby match either. Instead, Cliftonville play the North Belfast derby with Crusaders. The two clubs are separated by less than a 10-minute drive, but the distance felt significantly further during The Troubles, with north Belfast sharply divided by polarised extremes.

That was an era when sectarianism was prevalent and while the toxicity no longer exists at a comparable level, the locality of the sporting rivalry has remained.

The intensity peaked in the 2010s when Cliftonville won back-to-back league titles before Crusaders won three of the next four.


So why are tickets for this year’s Irish Cup final in such high demand?

The competition has been running for 143 years, but Cliftonville have met Linfield just twice in the final, and not since 1934. But the key element is that Cliftonville’s eighth and most recent Irish Cup success came in 1979. They have lost all four finals in which they have participated since, but their most painful experience came when they did not play a final at all.

In 1999, Cliftonville beat Linfield at the semi-final stage, but their substitute Simon Gribben played for amateur side Kilmore Rec in an earlier round, breaching the competition’s registration rules. As Linfield’s official complaint fell outside the 48-hour period allowed by the Irish Football Association, it was decided that neither side would contest the final — which was handed to Portadown as a walkover.

Cliftonville’s absence of success in the competition has become a self-deprecating theme in recent decades. One prominent supporter’s club is named the Spirit of ’79 after their last Irish Cup success, with the squad of that year held in higher reverence within Solitude than league title-winning sides.

It was Cliftonville’s allocation for this year’s final that sold out first, despite the club’s average attendance being the fifth-highest in the division: behind Linfield, Glentoran, Coleraine and Larne. Their Solitude stadium is the oldest in Ireland, opened in 1890. It could technically house over 6,000 fans, but capacity is restricted to 2,500 under safety legislation. With 500 of those seats withheld for away fans, Cliftonville’s capacity is restricted and the main stand, offering the best view of the pitch, is currently unusable.


Cliftonville are coached by former Northern Ireland midfielder Jim Magilton (Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Solitude also plays a central role in Cliftonville’s rivalry with Linfield.

The Irish Cup final between Linfield and Ballymena United was played at Cliftonville’s home in 1970, but trouble broke out with locals in the streets surrounding the stadium as fans tried to exit. Security forces decided that policing the situation was undesirable, so all future matches between Linfield and Cliftonville should instead be played at Linfield’s Windsor Park: a situation that only stopped in 1998, the same year Northern Ireland’s landmark power-sharing government between unionists and nationalists began (all police restrictions on Linfield fans visiting Solitude were only lifted in full in 2018).

The return of this normalisation was strongly welcomed by both clubs, who maintained strong relations.

That 28-year period was a consequence of Northern Ireland’s fractured society imposing itself on its football clubs. In 1991, during a match between Linfield and Cliftonville at Windsor Park, a hand grenade was thrown from outside the stadium and exploded at the turnstiles of the away end. The match had already started and there were no casualties, with both sets of supporters confused as to the source of the explosion.

The grenade was thrown by a loyalist paramilitary group, but such an attack by their republican counterparts on a football crowd was equally feasible. Just as with the incidents in north Belfast two decades earlier, football supporters had become a viable target of sectarian tensions.

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Fast forward to 2024 and there are no such concerns.

The two clubs meet half-a-dozen times every season and off-field incidents are rare. Sectarian chanting has provided a lingering presence over the years but has gradually reduced. Fans of both clubs have drowned out attempts by minorities to start songs glorifying paramilitary groups. As both sets of supporters are keen to point out, such chants are never heard during run-of-the-mill league fixtures.

The internal perception of Cliftonville playing Linfield is entirely different from how the fixture is viewed outside the clubs. They have an excellent relationship off the pitch, with a shared empathy for the difficulties of dealing with unwelcome elements harming their reputation. Cliftonville and Linfield see their rivalry solely through a sporting lens with mutual respect.

Many regular match-going fans share this view, with their respective rivalries with Crusaders and Glentoran trumping this match.

The recent emergence of external investment into the league has also changed perspectives; Larne, owned by Kenny Bruce — the co-founder of online estate agency Purplebricks — have just been crowned Irish League winners for the second successive season. On each occasion, Linfield finished second. Cliftonville came third this campaign.

The battle for talent in a limited pool of players has intensified. The success of Larne has placed greater emphasis on Saturday’s cup final; Cliftonville’s woes in the competition are well documented, but Linfield, perennial winners throughout their history, have lifted the Irish Cup just twice since 2012 and going two years without either of Northern Ireland’s two most prestigious trophies would hurt.

The mutual respect is extended to the dugouts.

Former Ipswich Town and Queens Park Rangers boss Jim Magilton was appointed as Cliftonville manager last summer, while Northern Ireland’s record international goalscorer David Healy has been in charge at his boyhood club Linfield since 2015. Their long-term friendship began when lining up together ahead of Northern Ireland international matches, which were preceded by the playing of the UK national anthem.


The Linfield head coach is former Northern Ireland striker David Healy (Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)

The anthem of God Save The King, appealing to unionists but opposed by nationalists, is another of the fissures that still define Northern Irish society.

The anthem is traditionally played ahead of the Irish Cup final; it will be sung by many Linfield fans and whistled by a section of Cliftonville fans. This is the reality of Northern Ireland, where the symbolism of division remains, fuelled by the environment in which it operates. When Cliftonville played in the 2009 and 2013 finals, the anthem was not played. In 2018, ahead of their defeat to Coleraine, it was performed, too. Cliftonville’s players and staff bowed their heads as many of the fans booed.

To some, this was an act of defiance. To others, it was disrespectful.

Both clubs view the anthem as a distraction. They are focused on the final and not a black-and-white narrative of simplification over which others can gawk. The volume of ticket sales and an increased profile is a much-welcome boost for Northern Irish football, but it is unlikely ever to fully escape the shadow of its politics and history.

For Cliftonville and Linfield, the match is all that matters.

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(Top photo: Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)

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