Engulfed by sectarianism for much of its existence, Matthew Gault looks at the impact the religious divide in Northern Ireland has had on the nation's favourite sport, football.
It was late in the afternoon of August 21st, 2002, when the BBC’s office in Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, received a disturbing phone-call that would explode an already simmering football climate in Northern Ireland. The Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), one of the most extreme terrorist groups associated with sectarian violence, had threatened to “seriously hurt” Neil Lennon if he captained Northern Ireland against Cyprus at Windsor Park that night. It wasn’t the first incident involving Lennon in a tortured career of sectarian abuse and jeering towards him, but it was the definitive one.
The problem emanated directly from the religious identity of Lennon, a Catholic from Lurgan in County Armagh, who played his club football for Glasgow Celtic, a club directly associated with the Catholic population in Northern Ireland. For the LVF, and the majority of the Unionist and Loyalist population, the sight of Lennon captaining Northern Ireland on the same pitch where Linfield - an East Belfast football club associated mainly with the Protestant community - was unthinkable and needed to be addressed.
When Lennon joined Celtic, some Northern Irish Protestants were enraged. To them, wearing the green and white hoops was a greater crime than being Catholic. During Northern Ireland versus Norway at Belfast's Windsor Park in March 2001, Lennon was abused by a section of his own crowd. They sang traditional anti-Catholic songs, and chanted, "We've Got a Provo on Our Team", referring to the Provisional IRA.
Acting on their initial impulse of sectarian hatred, stopping Lennon from playing was something they knew they could prevent forcibly. The threat of sectarian violence, which created a melting pot of political and religious tension in Northern Ireland’s football scene around that time, was enough for Lennon to quit international football.
The case of the former midfielder is arguably the most famous example of sectarian tension boiling over into football in recent times; however, it is not the first occurrence, nor will it be the last. Unfortunately for the health of Northern Irish football, politics and football will remain inextricably bound for the foreseeable future as communities struggle to overcome the divide even in times of peace.
From the beginning of association football in Northern Ireland, there has always been the overriding sense that the football pitch is the appropriate platform for supporters to illustrate their political affiliation. As it were, Glasgow Celtic was not the only Celtic as the Belfast equivalent, simply named Belfast Celtic, was founded three years after their Scottish counterparts in 1891.
From their inception, they contested a fierce rivalry with Linfield as the west met the east of Belfast in Northern Ireland’s version of the Old Firm derby. Belfast Celtic was based on Donegal Road in west Belfast and boasted a mainly Irish nationalist base of supporters whilst Linfield represented the Protestant contingent of the population; the two quickly became nemeses.
Staying true to the historical narrative of football in the nation, the threat of sectarian-fuelled violence never veered too far from the surface. That threat of violence came to a head in one the blackest days in the history of Northern Irish football as a match between the two Belfast clubs descended into scenes of pitch invasions, beatings on players and uncontrollable sectarian aggression.
The rivalry was always fraught with tension but what happened on Boxing Day 1948 at Windsor Park stands out as one the most reprehensible acts in Northern Ireland’s sporting history.
As players locked themselves in the dressing rooms, other ran for refuge, while some lay unconscious, helpless to the rampage of angry fans flooding on to the pitch from the terraces. The insurgence of supporters was prompted by the awarding of a penalty to Belfast Celtic, with Linfield leading 1-0. As Harry Walker stood up to take the penalty, hundreds of Linfield fans broke through police batons and rushed on to the pitch, attacking some of the Belfast Celtic players.
The primary target for the mob was Jimmy Jones, Belfast Celtic’s top scorer and prized possession. A supremely gifted 20-year-old, Jones had been involved in a clash earlier in the match with Linfield’s defender Bob Bryson, which led to the latter being stretchered from the pitch with the subsequent announcement revealing that the player had broken his leg. This immediately placed a target on the Jones’ back, as he found himself at the mercy of the revolting Linfield fans.
They dragged him from the pitch and beat him repeatedly on the head and legs as the police attempted to clear the pitch. By the time the police dispelled the perpetrators, Jones’ leg was shattered. The irony remains to this day that Jones was in fact a Protestant being attacked by Protestants. However, because he played for Belfast Celtic, which was viewed as a totem of Irish nationalism, he was nevertheless beaten. The incident remains a shocking example of how sectarian tensions have surrounded football in Northern Ireland throughout its history.
For Belfast Celtic, it was the end. They quickly became defunct after withdrawing from the Irish League to prevent any other incidents of such gravity and subsequently crumbled under intense financial issues. As for sectarian violence in Northern Irish league football, 1948 was only a seminal chapter in a long story of dishonourable incidents, persisting to mar the game at local and international level throughout the troubles and beyond, into the 1990’s.
Following the extinction of Belfast Celtic, Linfield developed another intense rivalry with a Belfast club, only this time it was Glentoran. As the twentieth century rolled on, Linfield became almost exclusively Protestant while Glentoran endorsed a policy of employing Catholics. The rivalry between the two clubs also had the added, volatile dimension of religious indoctrination. It showed that, even without Belfast Celtic representing the Catholic side, Linfield supporters remained determined to use football as a way of reflecting their sectarian predispositions.
DERRY CITY DURING THE TROUBLES
The story of Derry City F.C is perhaps just as famous as Belfast Celtic’s story in Northern Ireland’s troubled history of sectarianism in football. Derry City were founded in 1928, and won their first Irish League title in the 1964/65 season but trouble was afoot for another club making waves in the local game.
Their ground, the Brandywell, was situated in the heart of Derry’s Catholic Bogside and during the most explosive years of the troubles in Northern Ireland, it found itself at the centre of a battleground for the radical forces of nationalism, most notably the Provisional IRA and the ranks of Stormont, which included the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the British Army. Considering the extreme circumstances, Derry City were forced to play their home matches thirty miles away at the Coleraine Showgrounds.
Following a period of thirteen months displaced from their home, Derry City formally requested that they return to their original stadium as playing at the Showgrounds resulted in dwindling crowds as many Derry fans were unwilling to risk the long journey during the hardest times.
A fresh assessment of the area surrounding Brandywell concluded that it was no longer too dangerous to host Irish League matches. However, the Irish Football Association (IFA) and its predominantly Protestant council failed to reinstate Brandywell as the home ground for Derry City. The club were forced to withdraw from the league in similar vein to Belfast Celtic more than twenty years earlier, leaving the perception that sectarianism remained rife in Northern Irish football.
A NEW NORTHERN IRELAND?
Sadly, despite the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the existence of a Peace Process in Northern Ireland, football has been unable to wholly extinguish the issue of sectarianism. In 1996, a league match between Cliftonville and Portadown was abandoned following bouts of stone-throwing on a Cliftonville supporters’ bus on its way to the match. The incident was condemned in most quarters, with the attack an example of how quickly trouble can flare in such a highly-charged community.
Conversely, Cliftonville themselves were guilty of sectarian chanting during a two-minute silence in remembrance for people killed in world conflicts before a match against Linfield. It illustrates that to this day the sectarian-inflicted stain on football remains, stunting the growth and development of the sport, while simultaneously tarnishing the image of Northern Ireland as a footballing community.
A glance at the condition of the modern game bears the scars from years battling the sectarian divide. The Danske Bank Premiership shows that Cliftonville stand out as the only predominantly Catholic club in the league. Acts of sectarian violence may not be as fierce or frequent as they once were, but they have left an indelible mark on the state of football in Northern Ireland. Football as a sport of religious inclusion has largely failed and the governance, support and quality has suffered as a result.
Efforts have been made by the IFA - partly due to its failure in supporting Belfast Celtic all those years ago - to stamp out violence and undergo a sectarian cleansing of the football community. Rebuilding its image in the Catholic community from the time when its response to the Boxing Day disaster was deemed by many as severely inadequate, the IFA sanctioned the sharing of the Seaview stadium in Belfast for both Crusaders F.C and Newington Youth: Protestant and Catholic clubs, respectively.
This cross-community initiative is the IFA’s concerted effort in trying to drive the sport away from sectarian divide as well as pursuing a programme different to the one that saw the body sign a 100-year agreement that kept Linfield’s Windsor Park as the home of the Northern Ireland national team.
Naturally this angered Catholics and exacerbated their mistrust of the IFA as the agreement stipulated that Linfield receive 15% of gate receipts from the international matches played at Windsor Park, signifying a major financial advantage over other clubs as a result. However, coupled with the cross-community initiatives, the IFA signed a new deal which eradicated Linfield’s 15% pot as well as stipulating that millions of pounds be directed towards a redevelopment of Derry City’s Brandywell stadium. A necessary change, even if it was long overdue.
The existence of football has always been another method of broadcasting political and religious association, leaving the game as an instrument of division between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Football, of course, still possesses an integrative, cross-community power in modern society but that power has been overwhelmed by the deeply entrenched issues of sectarian tension and antagonism which still exist.
The IFA have made efforts to bridge the sectarian divide but with intense sectarian tensions remaining between Protestants and Catholics, particularly Linfield and Cliftonville, it is difficult to envisage a footballing community in Northern Ireland free of this unfortunate division.
By Matthew Gault. Follow Matt on Twitter @MattGault11
A few factual inaccuracies. Linfield are based in south WEST Belfast , not EAST Belfast . So they were cheek by jowl geographically with Belfast Celtic whose ground was on the Donegall Road ( incidentally the first greyhound track in Ireland , north or south ). Distillery were 'in between '.
Linfield did not have a policy of exclusive employment of protestants , while their supporters may have aspired to that sentiment . A family connection friend ( who taught me the rudiments of soccer betimes ) famously jumped ship and joined 'the Blues' from Belfast Celtic . Daily communicant was Tommy , and lived on the Falls Road. My wife's boss before we were married also wore the Linfield shirt , again a respected member of the catholic community , he wouldn't have got his job had he not been ( PP was chairman of the school of which he was principal ) .
Belfast Celtic had no qualms about employment of anyone , irrespective of religion , football ability was the only criterion , but their directors were notoriously tight fisted despite the huge income they must have derived from such a successful and well supported club . Plus their 'greyhound income ' , Celtic Park hosted 42,000 paying patrons at a greyhound meeting in the thirties , second biggest attendance anywhere in the world , EVER, for a greyhound meeting . Hundreds of bookies on the 'outside' at those meetings .
Soccer in Northern Ireland died largely that day in Windsor Park , attendances at lots of matches up to then were 30,000 plus regularly , from the seventies onwards there would be fewer and fewer regular supporters at local matches , the sectarian support nature involved being but one of the major factors ,other attractions being the main culprit.
Took my kids to see Northern Ireland play Holland at Windsor in the seventies , just the once , terrace behaviour was diabolical , mainly directed at the (Linfield) stewards by the Glens supporters I was told when I queried what was going on . Northern Ireland people ( a lot of them anyway ) have to have someone to hate , religion is often a convenient method .
Things have changed a bit , one of the 'senior' clubs with a thriving 'junior' section ( subsidised largely by the tax payer unlike GAA ) had to postpone a match a while back because 7 of the 11 first picks were otherwise engaged playing Gaelic football ( wife' nieces son one of those involved) .
It will take a long time though before 'normality' sets in .
A few factual inaccuracies. Linfield are based in south WEST Belfast , not EAST Belfast . So they were cheek by jowl geographically with Belfast Celtic whose ground was on the Donegall Road ( incidentally the first greyhound track in Ireland , nort