Sunday, 25 June 2017

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

Celtic’s possible Champions league qualifying tie with Linfield FC has caused a lot of debate among the Celtic support with some being unhappy that the club is refusing to take any tickets for the tie. The Police Service of Northern Ireland were rightly concerned about the date of any possible match not coming at the height of the marching season when their resources are most stretched. A delay of a couple of days seems wise in that sense as many Scottish Orangemen and their camp followers would be in town too and that would only add to the cocktail of negative possibilities. The refusal of tickets means that an occasion which would have a real edge to it may well be toned down a little.

Celtic has played in Belfast in the past with the most recent occasion being the tie with Cliftonville a few years ago. On that occasion the Celtic support was welcomed like brothers and segregation was unnecessary. Indeed, many Belfast folk are huge Celtic fans and their disappointment about not getting to see the side in action against Linfield is obvious. Some live within a mile or two of Windsor Park and are understandably gutted about the decision not to allow Celtic fans to attend. These are committed fans who travel thousands of miles every season and spend thousands of pounds in the process to back Celtic. It’s bitterly ironic that now Celtic is playing in their home town they can’t get to see them. Celtic may worry about their reputation should any crowd issues materialise but surely the PSNI should be able to Police a game adequately?  It’s also possible some fans might purchase tickets anyway and take their chances on the night. That scenario could be more problematic than giving Celtic fans an end and keeping them all together.

Historically, Celtic played numerous matches in Belfast, particularly against the now defunct Belfast Celtic and their trips to Ireland were always eagerly anticipated. Belfast Celtic was a fine team in the inter-war years and they and Linfield fought it out for the title for most of that period. Their rivalry was of course played out against the historical backdrop of the events going on in Ireland at the time. Partition in 1922 had marooned a sizable nationalist population in the new six county state and their presence there wasn’t always welcomed. Poet Seamus Heaney said of growing up in those times…

‘You didn’t grow up in Lord Brookenborough’s Ulster without developing a ‘them and us’ mind-set. Even though there was no sectarian talk or prejudice at home there was still an indignation at the political status quo. We knew and were given to know that Ulster wasn’t meant for us, that the British connection was meant to displace us.’

That it irked some to know that a third of the people in the new northern state were not of ‘their kind’ is an understatement. That third has now grown to be almost half the population of the six counties. The future will increasingly see those once excluded and gerrymandered out of influence taking a full and leading part in decisions affecting their people.

In those years after the war though Belfast Celtic were, like their Glasgow cousins, a symbol of a community and a source of pride to a people expected to ‘know their place’ but as in Glasgow these Croppies were not ones for lying down. For others Belfast Celtic like their Glasgow counterparts were a symbol of all they disliked.

In terms of their rivalry with Linfield, things came to a head in December 1948 when they met in a keenly anticipated league match. When Jimmy Jones, Belfast Celtic’s young forward tackled Bob Bryson, the later went down heavily and was stretchered off. It was an innocuous tackle with no real malice but the crowd were on Jones’ back from that moment on. Things were hardly helped by the public address system announcing to an already volatile crowd at half time that Bryson’s leg had been broken. The second half saw fighting in the crowd and two players sent off as things got heated on the pitch too. Belfast Celtic took the lead from a penalty but in the dying seconds Billy Simpson scored an equaliser. Simpson was later to play for Rangers, scoring their only goal in the 1957 League Cup Final which they lost 7-1 to Celtic.

As the final whistle sounded fans spilled onto the field and several Belfast Celtic players were, to use the euphemistic language of the time, ‘jostled’ by hostile Linfield fans. The ire of the more virulent sort though was saved for Jimmy Jones who was thrown over the parapet wall into the enclosure and beaten by the mob. Jones leg was badly broken. He recalled what happened the following day as he lay in hospital…

‘When they came towards me I could see nothing but heads. I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t find a Policeman. Somehow I made it onto the running track but was thrown over the parapet wall into the enclosure. I got up and ran and I was kicked. I tried to get up again but it was hopeless. My leg wobbled. I heard a Policeman say (to the mob) ‘If you don’t stop kicking I’ll use my baton.’ I think the crowd must have held it against me for the Bryson incident.’

Linfield FC was horrified at these events and rightly castigated the thugs among their support for the violence. They apologised to Jones and made it known that the incident with Bryson was a complete accident. For Belfast Celtic, there were hard decisions ahead and in the end the club withdrew from the League and left football in Northern Ireland all the poorer for their absence.

Times have moved on since those dark days even if some still cling to old attitudes. Policing is better, stadiums more conducive to crowd control and supporters generally know that they will be brought to book for any public displays of disorder. Indeed a year after the disorder following the Hibs-Rangers Scottish Cup Final the all seeing eye of CCTV was still bringing culprits to court.

It’s a little sad that the ordinary, decent supporters of Celtic and Linfield can’t go watch a European tie between their sides. Of course it would be tie laced with tribal rivalry but football thrives on such contests. Personally I’d have switched the first leg tie to Celtic Park but I can see why Linfield want the home tie first. A spanking in Glasgow might kill the tie and lessen interest there. Celtic may well have their fans safety in mind with their decision to refuse a ticket allocation but perhaps they also have one eye on UEFA who have fined them 9 times in the past 10 years or so for fan behaviour, much of it admittedly fairly mild by standards elsewhere. As the club plans to continue its growth as a global brand, bad publicity is not what they desire.

Whatever happens in Belfast it remains imperative that the club progresses to the next phase of the Champions League. The money and exposure Celtic receives for making it to the group stages is important but so too is its impact on potential signings who see the allure of those big nights in Europe. It’s also a huge boost for the support who simply love these big nights under the lights. Should Celtic make it then few will remember the tie with Linfield as the Champions League anthem reverberates around the stadium and 60,000 Celtic fans split the east end sky with that almighty roar. Nothing in domestic football can match it.

Eyes on the prize Bhoys, eyes on the prize.

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