The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

A friendly “fortress” called Solitude

Posted by steigs on December 10, 2007

One of my favorite soccer sites is UEFA’s official web site.  It’s a great way to investigate some of the lesser leagues of Europe, to learn about obscure UEFA Cup sides or lively title races or checking in on teams I once saw play.

I was pleased, and startled, to find that Cliftonville is leading the Northern Irish league.

The what?  Yes, little Northern Ireland has its own league, with teams that rarely dent the sporting pages of the UK, let alone that of the rest of Europe.  But I spent a particularly pleasant evening watching the Reds of Cliftonville at their “stadium” known as Solitude.  After the jump, learn more about murals and historic pubs and some comedic defending…

 Belfast – May 2004

Sometimes traveling as a soccer fan can be like eating in a small bistro with only a limited menu, not a rich variety of flavors and tastes. If you want to see a game, you take what is on offer or go hungry. Sometimes it is wonderful. Sometimes it’s…not.

This weekend falls more into the “not” column. I am in Belfast – that long-familiar name from the nightly news – more for work purposes than for play. The season of the Northern Irish league has actually just concluded, leaving there a single solitary game to catch. In fact, I am lucky to find any at all.

The game is a promotion/relegation playoff between Cliftonville and Armagh City. Cliftonville, based in the Belfast neighborhood of the same name, finished second-to-last among the 16 teams in the top division of the league here in Northern Ireland. (The Republic of Ireland to the south has its own league.) Armagh City were runners-up in the second division. Armagh, southwest of Belfast, is steeped in Irish history – St. Patrick having established his church there in the 5th century – and, with both a concentration of Catholics and a proximity to the border, it has seen more than its share of “the Troubles.” In the league set-up here, the worst team in the top division and the winners of the second division automatically switch places. The other spot in the top division is resolved over a two-game play-off, one in each home park.

The falling light of Friday evening finds me walking northwest out of downtown Belfast to the neighborhood of Cliftonville. I hum various Van Morrison songs to myself since the Celtic soul singer was born in East Belfast. I have low expectations for the game, I have to confess. Soccer in Northern Ireland does not have much of a reputation and has been particularly lowly of late. In fact, the national team – like Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland competes on its own internationally – recently managed to go about 14 games without registering a goal, a truly pathetic stretch of soccer. And the bulk of the players who make up the Northern Irish national team ply their trade elsewhere, usually in the lower divisions of English and Scottish soccer, leaving the Northern Irish league largely to enthusiastic semi-pros. The biggest name player on the national team right now might be Roy Carroll, currently the back-up goalie of mighty Manchester United.

It has not always been this bleak. Northern Ireland did pull off one of the all-time great World Cup upsets, beating Spain 1-0 during the 1982 tournament the Spanish hosted. (Typical of the underachieving Spanish, perhaps, to choke one like that at home.) That result was no fluke – the team advanced out of the first round, with draws in their other two games.

Belfast also gave the game one of its legendary figures of glamour and tragedy, winger George Best of Manchester United, a Mickey Mantle-like figure of immense talent and high-living. One of the first sports stars to acquire a rock star level of celebrity, Best also lived like a rock star, supposedly once quipping, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars – the rest I squandered.” He was at his finest in the late 1960s and early 1970s but played on for years, a charming mess, including some time in our NASL. These days, alas, he is a troubled alcoholic. (Best died, to much public mourning, in 2006.)

The current Northern Irish player I have seen play the most often – and perhaps their best of the moment – is Neil Lennon, Celtic’s industrious midfielder. But he no longer plays for the national team because of the death threats he received. Lennon is, you see, a Catholic playing for Celtic and this is, of course, Northern Ireland, land of the Troubles.

Sectarian violence is much less prevalent than in years past, following the Good Friday Agreement that was signed in 1998. Belfast’s downtown seems little different than other British cities to me, devoted to shopping and historic pubs. Belfast is particularly blessed in the pub department, with several dating back to the 19th century, such as the famous Crown Liquor Saloon, a joint so landmark it is owned by the National Trust. (Imagine if our National Park Service ran historic bars!) When you have a pint at the Crown it is easy to image it is still the glory days of the British Empire. Just across the street from the Crown is the Europa Centre, a shopping mall/hotel/bus station complex, where I find an internet café to use during my visit. It is only while consulting my guidebook that I learn the Europa was repeatedly bombed during the Troubles. It appears perfectly normal now.

Beyond the downtown is the waterfront. Belfast used to earn its keep making ships. The city sits in the northeastern corner of the island, just a short way across the water from southwestern Scotland. (There are frequent ferries and short-hop flights.) It is a real city, with a population of about 275,000 – nearly 600,000 live in greater Belfast – which makes it far and away the largest city in Northern Ireland and larger than every other city on the island save Dublin. The Titanic was built here, something they are quick to remind one of – but now the goal of the waterfront seems to be luring young professionals to live down by the water.

Not far away, though the hard men of the old conflict remain. Earlier in the day I went to Falls Road, the heart of the Catholic community. It is a mix of modest townhouses and rundown shops, all sporting significant security. A tall chain-link fence surrounds a strip mall. I came across a marble-rich “Garden of Remembrance” with the names of fallen Irish Republican Army members. It looks like any small town war memorial except that it is noticeably freshly shined and it sits in front of a housing project, not in a central city square. I passed discount furniture stores, newsagent/convenience shops, grimy takeaway chip shops, and a pub that looked as much a fortress as a bar.

Scattered all along Falls Road are murals, political statements splashed on walls. Hunger striker Bobby Sands looks down from one, mysteriously proclaiming “our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” Others support the Palestinians and jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Oppressed people of the world unite, appears to be the thought. I haven’t been to a neighborhood this politicized since I left Berkeley. Flyers are posted for a speech by a visiting Nigerian socialist.

Through a no-man’s land of grass-covered vacant lots – formerly the site of a security wall – is the Protestant stronghold of Shankhill Road. It is a bare 10 minute walk from Falls Road. A metal gate contraption remains, permitting authorities to block travel between the neighborhoods if circumstances demand it. The wall may be gone but the Troubles aren’t entirely behind them.

Shankhill Road is more of a business district than Falls Road but it does not appear any more prosperous. The Loyalists have murals of their own, such as an ominous “Red Hand of Ulster.” Another shows a World War I Ulster regiment “going over the top” at the Somme. The late beloved Queen Mum gets the side of another building. They are more British here than the English. (The murals have become an authentic local form of artistic expression – I later come across a coffee table book devoted to Belfast’s murals in a downtown bookshop.)

Inevitably I pass a series of children in Rangers jerseys and even a fan club chapter headquarters for the Protestant champions of Glasgow. The ferries to Scotland each weekend are filled with Rangers and Celtics season ticket holders bound for games in Glasgow. I pass several betting shops too, ever the refuge of the British working class. I also pass a plaque marking the location of a chip shop destroyed in an early 1990s bombing, an unsuccessful attack on Loyalist paramilitaries. Nine people died in the shop instead. It made for a rather depressing afternoon excursion, if an educational one.

That evening, Cliftonville proves more cheerful. As I near the stadium an ice cream truck putters down a side street, chiming “You Are My Sunshine” to drum up business. Kids are playing soccer in the street, shouting to one another. (I later read that the neighborhood, a mixture of religious backgrounds, saw more deaths than just about any other in town during the Troubles – one nickname for it being “the murder mile.”) Just off Cliftonville Avenue, tucked in a corner, I see the stadium.

Cliftonville is a historic team, the oldest still going in Northern Ireland, founded way back in 1879. Despite this long history, the team has only three league titles to their credit, and eight cups, mostly because they stayed amateur for decades, only going semi-pro in the early 1970s.

Well, stadium is a grand word for the structure. More like a barn. Cliftonville play in the wonderfully-named Solitude, which calls to my mind an expert-level ski slope, not a soccer stadium. Solitude is about the same size as my high school football team’s home field. I find no pubs nearby – how can this be in Ireland or United Kingdom? – and the fans seem to be just parking their cars and going straight to Solitude.

Inside, Solitude is spartan. There is a single large stand with seats – that’s the barn visible from Cliftonville Avenue. Below it is a level of stone steps even with the playing field. This section is busy with young boys, chasing balls – and each other – about. Behind the goals are terraces for standing. Only one is open tonight – both, I learn, are actually condemned structures. (I also learn later that, remarkably, Solitude was renovated in 2002 – it must have verged on being a haunted house of a stadium before that.) A handful of fans drift over onto the steps of the open terrace anyway. Across the field there are only the team benches, no stands at all. This affords a pastoral view of trees and, through a gap, a section of pond. Off to the left, a green Irish hill rises out of a residential neighborhood.

Although a place in the top level is riding on the outcome of the game, the scene lacks tension. Cliftonville won the first leg in Armagh 3-0. It would take a really awful performance from Cliftonville just to give Armagh City a chance. So it is a game for the diehards, the last of a long and disappointing season. I estimate attendance at perhaps 500. I see a lot of kids, some in packs, some with parents. I can imagine local boys talking parents into letting them go on their own. “It’s just down the street, mum!” I remember doing the same for Friday night high school football games at that age. There are some teenaged couples as well, it being Friday night and all. It would make for a relatively cheap date – my ticket was less than $10. I end up near the inevitable clump of old-timers, the kind who have probably been coming to Solitude since the 1960s, but it turns out my real neighbors are a group of 10 year old boys, who spend the evening engaged in playing jokes on each other.

The teams have been warming up. As they trot off the field to receive last minute instructions from their coaches, a line of boys seek autographs. They may be semi-pro players in a lowly league but these players are still heroes to some. The sound system is cheap and loud. We get a badly distorted “99 Luftballoons” and a version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” by what sounds like an Irish piper, not Elvis.

The teams quickly return. Cliftonville players are in red tops and white shorts; Armagh City’s players are in jerseys with blue and black stripes, like Inter Milan. The game kicks off as the light fades into twilight. There are a few banks of overhead lights but they prove strong enough to let us see what is going on. Early on in the game Cliftonville push forward, repeatedly falling afoul of Armagh City’s offside trap.

From time to time there are attempts at organized mass cheers. Down near the far end of the stand a pack of teenagers, perhaps a dozen in all, try songs to the tune of the old Cuban song “Guantanamera.” One of them, who looks rather like Harry Potter, pounds a drum. The rest of the crowd is more amused by them than willing to join in. In between, the place gets so quiet you can hear the players yelling at each other on the field. Solitude seems closer to Silence.

Cliftonville has a tall balding forward who almost scores from a cross early, prompting a round of cheers. I see a banner celebrating Cliftonville’s supporters as “The Red Army.” Oh, the potential of such a supporters club! Mao puns, Chinese chic, guerrilla warfare slogans…the mind reels. It doesn’t seem to have been embraced that way here. I imagine the requisite level of ironic distancing may be harder to come by in a city which so recently had – or maybe still has – armed terrorists of its own.

The game shifts into comedy mode. A Cliftonville midfielder attempts to one-time a fast-paced rebound and end up kicking it not only well over the goal…but entirely over the terrace stand behind the goal and out into the street. “Hooray!” comes the laughing cheer from the crowd, as a string of small boys mobilize to retrieve the ball.

A couple of minutes later the Cliftonville goalie, one Paul Straney, punts the ball high into the evening air. It bounces near the Armagh City box and there’s a confusion between the keeper and a defender, perhaps intensified by the glare of the setting sun, which lets the ball bounce free, over the keeper, and…into the goal! 1-0, Cliftonville, on what must be the first goal of Straney’s career.

The fans dissolve into mass hysterical laughter. One of the old-timers manages to say “That goal! Never saw that in kids football!” The teenagers break into song. Several people toss rolls of toilet paper onto the field.

The goal makes it 4-0 to Cliftonville on aggregate, really settling which team will be in the top division next season. Still, the Armagh City players show some pride and keep pressing. The soccer is not of quality, even I can tell that much. There are a lot of misdirected passes and players regularly get dispossessed of the ball. But they do have energy and heart, as if trying to make up for their lesser level of skill. It’s physical soccer, a rough game. There is a collision between the goal-scoring Cliftonville keeper and an Armagh City forward which is of sufficient violence that the game stops for five minutes while the forward is tended to. He gets subbed out of the game as a result.

Just before the half, Armagh City gets a corner. There’s a scramble for the ball and the Cliftonville keeper can’t hold on. Defender Alan Murphy puts it in the back of the net. 1-1!

At half-time, the eternal anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” comes on the sound system, all scratchy and distorted, as if someone upstairs has put on an old-fashioned vinyl album. The adults in the happy Solitude crowd descend to a clubhouse bar in the depths of the stand. I follow. Walls of old team photos aside, it has an American Legion post feel as friends mingle, shoot pool, crack jokes about the goal. I see that Cliftonville were league champions as recently as 1997-1998.

The big team in the Northern Irish league is Linfield – “the Blues” – who have won more than 40 league titles. I have seen some Celtic jerseys on kids in the stand – more of them than Cliftonville jerseys in fact. Cliftonville has a predominantly Catholic fanbase. I would be seeing Rangers jerseys at Windsor Park, Linfield’s home ground. Linfield is so identified with the Protestant community that, much like Rangers, they used to refuse to sign Catholic players.

Once upon a time this version of Rangers had its own Celtic – Belfast Celtic, in fact. They won a string of league titles in the years prior to World War II, dueling with Linfield. But they folded soon after World War II, in part due to sectarian violence. (The incident often cited as representing the final straw involved a pitch invasion to attack a Belfast Celtic forward.) In other words, the Belfast version of the Old Firm rivalry gave up the ghost because it was even worse that the one in Glasgow, just too intense and violent.

Another factor may have been that Republican-minded Catholics were never that supportive – as a political matter – of Belfast Celtic playing in a Northern Irish league since they didn’t believe in there being a separate Northern Ireland anything. Today, as my Rough Guide puts it, “The biggest club sides in Belfast – paradoxically enough – are Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers, supported respectively by Catholics and Protestants, as well as Liverpool and Manchester United….” By some estimates, as many as 20,000 Northern Irish make the trip over to Scotland and England to watch those teams. Road trip! Or, I suppose, ferry trip! Better for the drinking, I suppose…

Another team seen as Catholic, Derry City, was banned from playing home games in the early 1970s after a series of violent incidents and ended up quitting top-league football as a result. They were resurrected in the 1980s as a team playing in the Republic of Ireland league. Derry City have achieved a minor celebrity for being associated with local MP John Hume, the Catholic leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Hume helped arrange for teams like Manchester United and, of course, Celtic of Glasgow to visit Derry to play friendlies.

Since Cliftonville is rarely a contender, as well as not as avowedly Catholic as Belfast Celtic, the Linfield rivalry these days is more often with Glentoran, another Belfast team, with supporters prone to debating who is more purely Protestant than the other. Still, for close to 30 years, the annual Linfield visit to Solitude was played elsewhere for security reasons, until the changing atmosphere that came with the Good Friday peace agreements.

Linfield and Glentoran manage to generate bouts of hooligan brawling even without the religious differences, perhaps not so difficult in a community as long steeped in violence as Belfast. The local newspaper has a front page story on a near-miss “blood bath” fight between rival groups of Glentoran supporters at a recent celebration of their victory in the Northern Irish cup. “Soccer’s Irish Cup almost overflowed – with BLOOD,” reads the first line. Ah, tabloids…

I find stories of hard man paramilitary characters – in prison, out of prison, long dead – throughout the press during my stay. They remind me of the coverage of the drug lords of my own Washington, D.C., tales of murders and informers and bloody revenge, ostensibly meant to single them out as criminals while simultaneously lending them a dark glamor.

As I quickly drink a half-time pint, I get to talking to a Cliftonville fan who, from my beer order, had managed to not only identify me as an American – not so hard in these parts – but as a Californian. Thomas is his name, a middle-aged man going pudgy, who in his youth spent several years in San Francisco. We end up talking Irish pubs of San Francisco, without managing to find one we both know. (Granted, there are a lot of Irish pubs in San Francisco…) He congratulates me on the American performance at the last World Cup, concluding the game has come a long way in the States since he was there. I ask him about Belfast life. “Ah,” he says, “it’s home. I missed me mates.” He says things are much better than they used to be here – and that I should encourage my friends to visit. “We have great pubs here, better than down south!”

The hard-edged rivalries seem far away from Solitude as we go back out for a perfunctory second half. With the score at 4-1 aggregate, it is hard to see Armagh City mounting a serious threat. The game restarts with the intensity a notch lower. Perhaps Armagh City feel slightly less embarrassed now that they have managed a goal. Cliftonville is more content to hold the ball and eat the clock, giving their opponents less chance to attack anyway. At one slow point I catch myself watching the swans on the distant pond instead of the game. The boys next to me grow bored and wander off in search of mischief.

It grows dark. The lights start to matter. Armagh City do come close to a second goal on a corner about minute 65. It would have woken up the match. Instead, Cliftonville become a bit more aggressive and manage a near miss of their own. The crowd decides to make its own entertainment and begins chanting for Mickey Donnelly to be subbed into the game. I’m told by one of the old fellows that he’s a 17 year veteran retiring after the game and he is just back from an injury. Around minute 80 – there’s no scoreboard of any kind so I’m guessing here – the Cliftonville coach gives them what they want and Donnelly trots into the game. Standing ovation. The paper the next day mentions talk of Donnelly as a future coach of the team. Judging from the Solitude crowd he would be a popular choice.

A group in the terrace sets off a string of fireworks. Boys disappear from all around the grand stand, as if summoned. The stewards reach the scene about the same time as they do, much to their disappointment.

The game ends 1-1, 4-1 to Cliftonville on aggregate. The crowd departs cheerfully. I head back to the city center and those historic pubs, curious to try out a couple that Thomas has recommended.


One Response to “A friendly “fortress” called Solitude”

  1. […] by steigs on April 17, 2008 Awhile back, I noted that Cliftonville of Northern Ireland was off to an especially good start this season.  They’ve faded a bit recently, down to third in the most recent table, eight points back of […]

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