The Times they are a Changing...
A lot has changed in the North of Ireland since the 1984 ‘riot’ at a friendly match between Celtic and Cliftonville in Belfast. The Summer of 1984 was a troubled time as political violence continued unabated in the six counties. Desmond White, the Celtic Chairman, watched the RUC wade into both sets of fans with batons flailing and plastic bullets firing and commented…’It was Gdansk all over again.’ His reference to the Polish City, which was the scene of serious Police brutality as the Polish ship yard workers led the struggle to free their country from the repressive grip of Soviet dominated communism, was pointed and some argue accurate. White promised that Celtic wouldn’t be returning to Northern Ireland again after witnessing the brutal actions of the RUC. That hot August night back in 1984 was the first time plastic bullets had been fired inside a football Stadium in these islands. Fans of both Cliftonville and Celtic pointed to Loyalists outside the ground throwing missiles inside and the brutal over reaction of the RUC as the chief cause of the trouble. What isn’t in doubt is that both sets of fans contained young men who were not prepared to take police aggression meekly. The ensuing violence was widely reported throughout the UK with the Scottish Press going for the ‘Hooligans’ angle and barely mentioning the actions of the RUC. Desmond White used the Celtic View to give a more balanced picture of events.
This July, for the first time, Celtic will meet Cliftonville in a competitive fixture. Just how far society has changed in the 29 years since the events of 1984 will soon become clear. Whether the game goes ahead at the rebuilt but small Solitude Stadium or is switched to a larger venue remains to be seen but interest in the tie will be massive. The RUC has been renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland and has worked hard to recruit a more balanced force which better reflects the population it serves. The peace which followed the Good Friday Agreement has largely held though sectarian tensions can still erupt, often around the marching season issues. Celtic’s visit to Belfast in Mid-July comes in the middle of the Orange marching season and will involve a major security operation to ensure things go smoothly. I am hopeful that the Police, the fans of both clubs and the wider Belfast community will see the game as an opportunity to show the world that things have moved on since 1984. I look forward to reading about the football and not any off field antics.
Having visited Belfast, I realise that a degree of local knowledge about the geography of the City is required to keep visiting Hoops fans safe. There are still areas which see the Hoops as a symbol all they hate and Bhoys and Ghirls visiting the City had best avoid these parts of town. However, I met a lot of Belfast folk on my last trip and most of them are as helpful and friendly as you’ll find anywhere. Football wise, Cliftonville have played 24 Ties in Europe winning just 3 and conceding over 60 goals. Celtic can’t afford to take them lightly but the first leg in Glasgow should be seen as an opportunity to put the Tie beyond Cliftonville and take much of the tension out of the second leg. A club like Celtic should expect to beat Cliftonville but events when we played Dundalk in 1979 (3-2, 0-0) demonstrate that no team is going to lie down just because we are Celtic. In fact teams often raise their game when the big clubs come to town. The last 10 minutes in Dundalk were fraught as Celtic realised that one goal for the hosts would put them out. Such a scenario must be avoided this time around. I think Lennon’s team will do a professional job and have too much for Cliftonville at Celtic Park.
Whatever happens, we all know the importance of Champions League football to Celtic and the Bhoys must do a professional job. I hope we see lots of Cliftonville fans at Celtic Park adding to the spectacle. I hope too Celtic fans add to the atmosphere in the second leg in Belfast. Times have changed for the better in the North of Ireland and few would want to return to the bad old days of the troubles. Let’s talk about the football and build Celtic’s reputation as having fans you can take anywhere without any problems. This is an exciting Tie for Cliftonville and an absolutely vital one for Celtic. Let’s enjoy it for all the right reasons.