Earlier this month I made the short trip across the water for a few days in Belfast. Somewhat conveniently, Belfast-based Cliftonville were playing a play-off semi-final at their unassuming home ground, Solitude, against Coleraine on the evening of the day we arrived. Realising both the importance of this game and the modest ticket prices, we decided to head out to the game for a dose of sporting action untainted by the riches of the modern game. The breathtaking 120 minutes of football that would follow epitomised the wonderfully raw and unrefined nature of Northern Ireland’s capital city.
A Belfast taxi driver and a fallen pigeon
Go to Liverpool and ask a taxi driver to take you to Anfield and he’ll think nothing of it. Go to Belfast however and ask a taxi driver to take you to Solitude and he’ll probably greet you with a scarcely concealed look of disbelief. “Solitude? You sure? Why on earth would a tourist like you want to go to Solitude?” Go to Belfast and ask that same taxi driver to take you to Solitude on the same night that Liverpool are facing Barcelona in a highly-anticipated Champions League semi-final second leg, a match that would be beamed across multiple pubs and bars throughout the city, and he may well pass out from shock.
Perhaps tellingly, our taxi driver seemed overly reliant on his trusty sat-nav to direct him on the brief journey from the city centre to the home of Cliftonville Football Club. I got the distinct impression that this was not his usual Tuesday night fare. Still comically perplexed, our driver dropped us off on the narrow street that runs parallel to the main stand at Solitude and wished us a good game. He reversed gingerly and set off towards the city centre, no doubt grateful to be heading back to the more mundane pub-to-hotel and hotel-to-pub runs that he had probably expected to be the extent of his work for the evening when he started his shift a few hours earlier.
The stadium itself possessed a character and a quirkiness decidedly lacking in all-too-many modern-day arenas. The ageing facade to the stadium reminded me of the entrance to the Main Stand at Patrick Thistle’s Firhill Stadium with it’s dilapidated appearance, it’s old-school painted bricks and it’s even older-school turnstiles. After paying the £11 entry, we made our way into the ground and positioned ourselves in the middle of the lower tier of the Main Stand. To our left was a small stand that would house the 300 or so away fans from Coleraine. To our right was a more modern looking stand with what appeared to be the Directors Box. Across from where we were standing, there were two lonely dugouts hugging the touchline. Beyond those dugouts, there was no stand: only a corrugated iron fence, a television gantry and some overgrown greenery. Directly behind us, there was a cob-webbed window, complete with rusting metal bars that had at one point been painted red, offering a glimpse into what looked like a clubhouse and a solitary television in the far corner.
Somewhat endearingly, one of the spectators that evening was a dead pigeon strewn across the top of the stairs leading to a desolate upper tier in the Main Stand. That unfortunate ornithological soul aside, the crowd at Solitude was fully alive. Before the game started, I spoke to a Cliftonville season-ticket holder who hailed from London, had studied in Manchester, supported Plymouth Argyle and now worked in Belfast. We spoke about the club. We spoke about the city of Belfast. We spoke about Liverpool’s remote chances of staging the most breathtaking of comebacks in the sideshow for the evening. We spoke about how, as an outsider, I had inadvertently made myself comfortable in a spot that a group of regulars had made their own over the years. A quick apology, a few sheepish steps to the right and some small-talk with the now-appeased die-hards later, the two teams emerged onto the artificial pitch fully aware of what was at stake.
Cliftonville came into this game on the back of two resounding away defeats, losing 5-1 and 4-0 to Linfield and Glenavon respectively. That defensive vulnerability was evident once again as Coleraine were allowed to race into a two-goal lead inside the opening thirty minutes. For both of those goals, the task of duelling for an aerial cross with James McLaughlin, a concrete slab of a centre forward with a physique not too dissimilar to that of the ever-graceful Jon Parkin, fell inexplicably to left-back Levi Ives – seemingly the shortest player in the Cliftonville back-line. It was north Belfast’s very own David against Goliath, except this time there was to be no biblical ending. Twice McLaughlin was found with a high cross from the left, twice McLaughlin won the aerial mismatch with nonchalant ease and twice McLaughlin found the back of the net with a well-placed header. Cliftonville suddenly looked in danger of suffering a third heavy loss in succession.
Moments later, the home side were however gifted a golden chance to pull a goal back. Coleraine goalkeeper Chris Johns’ poor clearance fell kindly to Ryan Curran in the middle of the Coleraine half. Currans hooked the ball forward towards team-mate Joe Gormley, once of St Johnstone. Gormley shrugged off the attentions of two Coleraine defenders, knocked the ball fortuitously past the red-faced Johns and scrambled the ball over the line much to the dismay of the travelling Coleraine support behind the goal.
Onions and drink-drivers
Cliftonville started the second half as brightly as they had ended the first half. A goal kick was flicked on by Curran into the path of Rory Donnelly. Donnelly prodded the ball through to an unmarked Gormley on the left hand side of the box, but the forward could only blaze his effort high and wide of the target. Undeterred by that guilt-edged miss, Gormley played a key role in creating another clear opportunity for his side. When the industrious forward teed himself up nicely on the edge of the box, his effort ricocheted towards Conor McMenamin six yards from goal. Off-balance, McMenamin somehow skewed a left-footed volley beyond the post, much to the relief of the static Coleraine defence.
When Jamie Harney’s header following a corner was cleared off the line by a conveniently-positioned Coleraine defender, the home fans were beginning to grow frustrated. The referee was quite brilliantly branded a “fecking onion” by a member of the Cliftonville support. The linesman unfortunate enough to be on the touchline nearest the Main Stand, only a matter of feet from the baying crowd, had his parentage questioned repeatedly. A Coleraine player was aggressively reminded on more than one occasion of his conviction for drink-driving in 2018. With each fresh barrage of insults, my newfound friend from London turned round to face me, a sheepish grin etched across his face, and shrugged his shoulders. It was both relentless and marvellous.
The misery of the home fans was compounded in the 72 minute when a quite brilliant effort from McLaughlin extended the away side’s lead and bagged him the match ball. A deep, floated cross from the right found the striker with his back to goal. Controlling the ball with his head, the 29-year-old then found the far corner with a magnificent overhead-kick that left Cliftonville keeper Richard Brush totally helpless and the Coleraine fans behind the goal dreaming of a trip to Europe.
3-1 down and with less than twenty minutes remaining, the home side were in dire need of a quick response. They got exactly that in the 76th minute. A low cross found the tireless Gormley in a crowded penalty area. Evading the Coleraine defence, Gormley poked an inviting ball through to McMenamin in a dangerous position. McMenamin, unfazed by his earlier miss, took a delicate touch to steady himself inside the six yard box before slotting the ball past Chris Johns and bring his side back to within one goal of their visitors.
With just under fifteen minutes to find an equaliser, Cliftonville mounted a sustained attack on the Coleraine goal. The away side brought on ex-Kilmarnock midfielder Dean Shiels but that change did nothing to quell the relentless pressure. When six precious minutes of injury time were announced, there was a renewed stampede of vocal support from the Cliftonville support. But as each of those minutes slipped away, so too did the home crowd’s hopes of a place in the play-off final. It seemed for all the world that the footballing gods had exhausted their efforts for the evening inspiring Trent Alexander-Arnold and his Liverpool team-mates to a memorable comeback.
Footballing gods working overtime
However, as is so often the case when a team is applying frantic late pressure, the dying moments inevitably produced one final opportunity. When the ball spun away from goal following a good old-fashioned stramash in the Coleraine box, the away side could have been forgiven for thinking the danger had passed. Ryan Curran refused to dismiss the chance as a lost cause, and when he tangled with Josh Carson near the by-line, the fans around me appealed vehemently for a penalty. Nonplussed by his new root vegetable status, the referee duly answered those calls and pointed to the spot. The Coleraine players were incensed; the Cliftonville players could barely contain their disbelief. Curran stepped up and rifled the ball into the bottom left-hand corner to level the score at 3-3 in the 97th minute and send the game into extra time.
The momentum was now fully with the home side and with barely sixty seconds of extra time on the clock, Cliftonville took the lead for the first time. Levi Ives had the freedom of north Belfast to wander through the Coleraine defence and fire a low effort past Chris Johns from the edge of the area. Just as Liverpool were staging their own miracle at Anfield, so too were the Reds of Northern Ireland now defying all odds to hone in on a place in the play-off final.
Connor McMenamim made sure of victory in the 111th minute, racing through on goal after getting the better of a dangerously high Coleraine backline. The linesman’s flag stayed down as McMenamin gleefully rounded the stranded Johns and slotted the ball into the empty net. Seeing a player bare down on goal like that with your side already in the lead, only a few minutes remaining, clutching your pals next to you as you watch on in expectation, and then exploding into a blur of sheer jubilation as the ball trundles into the empty net and you tumble wildly and care-free over seats and bodies and limbs, will always be one of the most enjoyable feelings watching football. The unbridled joy from the home support as McMenamim raced over to the corner of the Main Stand showed just how much this meant to the club as a whole, a moment befitting of what had been a totally pulsating game of football. Cliftonville would go on to secure a place in the Preliminary Round of qualifying for the Europa League with a 2-0 win over Glentoran a few days later, their fans now looking forward to another European journey.
Full time: Cliftonville 5 – 3 Coleraine 3
Man of the Match: Joe Gormley
Of course, Northern Ireland is a nation that has not yet managed to fully consign the turmoil of the Troubles and the subsequent fallout to the history books. The recent murder of Lyra McKee on the other side of the country and the inherent danger in taking a wander down Falls Road or Shankhill Road wearing the wrong colour of jersey are testament to that. And yet, for 120 minutes in north Belfast that night it would have been easy to forget as much. Admittedly, Northern Irish football itself has been far from without its own issues rooted in sectarianism: as much is shown by the extensive police presence deemed necessary for Celtic’s visit to face Linfield in 2017.
However, there was enough evidence at Solitude to suggest that the sport can have a positive role to play in helping the country to both distance itself and learn from a turbulent and troubled past. One reprehensible and regrettable slur from the Main Stand aside, there was an encouraging absence of sectarian language. Where once Celtic tops might have been prevalent, there was now only a smattering of naive youngsters who didn’t know any better wearing green and white hooped tops; the majority of replica jerseys around me adorned the Cliftonville badge. Not once was I grilled or interrogated menacingly on which side of Glasgow, blue or green, I supported. The atmosphere was vibrant and passionate and innocently malicious. The chants were sung loud and clear; the crowd did not at any point resort to the sad sectarian songbook synonymous with certain sets of Scottish supporters.
A poignant reminder
There is something wonderfully untouched and natural about football in Northern Ireland, a million metaphorical miles from the oil-drenched plains of the English Premier League. In the 2017/2018 season, Cliftonville picked up a reported £28,650 in total for finishing 5th in the league. Compare that with the weekly wage of Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne: £350,000. That De Bruyne earns more than ten times in one week what one club earned in prize money for an entire season is a worrying indictment on the modern game.
The meagre prize money available domestically in Northern Ireland served only to highlight the importance for Cliftonville of securing a place in the Preliminary Round of qualifiers for the Europa League and the £220,000 that came with it. For Manchester City, that sum would be no more than small change, enough perhaps to cover Spanish midfielder David Silva’s wages for one week. For Cliftonville however, it will represent a significant injection of cash that could potentially pave the way for the club to go full-time.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Solitude and I fully intend to return one day. The fans are clearly proud of their team and, based on what I saw that evening at least, the team should be proud of its fans. In an age of ludicrous transfer fees, obscene broadcasting packages and Manchester United fans posing for selfies with Lucas Moura after an embarrassing 3-0 defeat, clubs like Cliftonville and their quite charming fanbase are a heart-warming reminder of just why we call it the beautiful game.