There’s nothing like a bit of travel to inject some much-needed happiness in life to combat the post-Christmas Holiday depression, that invariably kicks in after a full January of work when work means a little more ball-ache than usual. Ball-ache just because it’s the cold realisation that things have started in earnest again after the pre-Christmas wind down when nobody really gives much of a shit about doing things properly or making hay when then sun is shining.
So when the chance came up to travel to Belfast for work I jumped at the opportunity. I do have friends who seem to get slightly more exotic work trips than I do. One in particular has recently had a few trips to Tokyo and Washington DC. He works for one of those big revenue management companies who delight on milking the maximum possible amount of money out of people, so I guess he deserves what he gets whether it’s suffering from vertigo in a glass lift, searching for vegetarian options or actually getting the chance to see these places he visits. The poor (Quorn) sausage. Being canny I managed to engineer the Belfast visit to happen on a Friday and I was then delighted that I could extend it to a Saturday and take in another Belfast derby. Last season I saw Glentoran V Linfield. This season would be a far more feisty affair between Cliftonville of North Belfast and Linfield. I could hardly wait.
I just about survived the flight over. After only two flights into Belfast City/George Best Airport I’ve become convinced that pilots find it a bit of a sod to land at. Without being a meteorologist I think it may have something to do with the Airport’s position on the Belfast Lough with the cross winds meeting the winds coming down from the hills behind Belfast. This time I flow Aer Lingus for the first time. On the final approach to the airport I experienced some of the worst landing conditions ever. The plane bounced up and down. Then tipped from left to right repeatedly. When the Cunnilingus (sorry I couldn’t resist) pilot deployed full flaps it started to combine all four movements until I was convinced that he would abort the landing. People started looking around at each other in mutual fear. Just when you thought he would slam on the throttles and climb away he managed to touch the plane down on the tarmac like a goose feather hitting a silk pillow. Talk about an anti-climax. Upon exiting the plane I thank the pilot with a heartfelt “Nice landing sunshine” and following it up with a hearty wink.
The rest of the day was spent in the office where I managed to catch up on a load of stuff. After the extended office hours work was completed I then met up with some of the Belfast colleagues for the promise of “a few drinks”. The trouble is that the Guinness over there is a completely different animal. Over here I find it a chore to drink. It tastes burnt and it’s heavier than a sumo wrestler with heavy shopping. Over there it’s more like a pleasurable session pint. Much lighter and milder than the shite we get. I had a lovely night of laughter and booze. A slight flash point in the gents though. I was relieving myself when I heard a bloke shout “Ah for fuck’s sake” in the cubicle. He then walked out and snarled at me “The first time in my life that I need a shite in pub toilet and there’s no fucking paper”, he stormed out and almost took the door off it’s hinges. I was told by the Crusaders supporter in the office that Cliftonville-Linfield wasn’t a derby as such, more of a “Sectarian Interlude”! I think he’s right in hindsight. Linfield seem to be the Glasgow Rangers of Belfast, Glentoran are Celtic (but with a slightly different religious persuasion) whereas as tucked away in North Belfast are Cliftonville and Crusaders who are the Hibernian and Hearts. Divided through religion in the make up of the traditional support bases but I get the impression that the rivalry is a more one of close proximity and football than religion. Though of course I stand to be corrected. But I think everyone hates Linfield. “You’ll be fine for the game tomorrow” I was told by Mat, the Crusaders fan, as the snow began to fall outside “they’ve got a 3g pitch”. He then followed this up by telling me that Crusaders have a 4g pitch and that “it looks better on Sky”. You see. More than religion between those two clubs. It’s all about the extra G.
So I staggered back to the nearby hotel with the pint count well into double figures. A gammon and cheese sandwich (with a crescent of crinkle crisps) from room service was wolfed down. I woke up feeling a bit rough but dragged myself down the road to the Harlem Cafe (http://www.harlembelfast.com/) for a Belfast fry. Good stuff it was too. Sausage, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, fried egg, fried potato bread, fried soda bread and a pancake.
I killed a few hours in Belfast before the game. Shoppers co-existing nicely with various protesters (flag, civil rights or housing benefit cut) with the Northern Irish Police out in full body armour and those fantastic armoured Landrovers that make the English Vauxhall Astra diesel regulation panda cars look a bit underwhelming. So various streets were cordoned off in order to stop the 3 different protests from meeting up and having a bit of a ruck.
I made my way early to the Cliftonville Social Club in the pissing rain. “Take me to Solitude” I told the Taxi driver who then started moaning about the morning’s police tactics. “Fucking dopey bollox cunts” he muttered. 15 minutes later he dropped me right outside the red-painted corrugated iron façade of the main stand. “Could you drop me a bit closer please?” I playfully asked the taxi driver, who I thought for one minute wouldn’t get the joke. “Haha” he said. I then went inside the social club and had myself a wee pint whilst waiting for my twitter contact to turn up with the ticket he very kindly got for me. Turn up he did with a full Hertha Berlin hat, dampening down his strawberry blonde locks and I was introduced to some of his mates. Good proper football people. Two of them very kindly donated a couple of Cliftonville Badges as well.
I squeezed through the gate. Sparse on the arse. Very sparse. We stood in the new seated area below the main stand. The club bolted on some seats before Cliftonville played Celtic in the Champions League Qualifiers earlier in the season. Since then seats have began to attract families who now try to sit down in an area which houses some of more vocal Cliftonville supporters. When I mean vocal I mean sweary.
I’ve watched football for many years at all levels and with all sorts of crowds but I have to say that an afternoon of watching Cliftonville play Linfield resets my definition of dogs abuse. My local team Wealdstone tend to dish out plenty of abuse from time to especially when they think the ref is weak or a twat (or both), or whenever either Canvey Island or Concord Rangers come to town. Nothing I heard at Solitude was something that I hadn’t heard before, the thing that took me by surprise was the relentless nature of it. All in jest of course and designed just to wind up the opposition players to the max, but utterly relentless. Linfield star Ivan Sproule copped it for a sporting a slightly Adolf Hitler-esque haircut. “Where did you get your fucking hair cut Sproule? Nuremberg?” was the pick comment of the afternoon for me.
It was, as you’d expect, a feisty game. Tackles flying in everywhere. Linfield players (Gault, Carvil, and Sproule) throwing themselves to the floor in order to try and get a couple of iffy refereeing decisions. Plenty of yellow cards issued but no lessons learned as the tackles and niggle continued. As the game went on Linfield were the better side but failed to convert anything, Andrew Waterworth missed a couple of decent chances and Carvil went close with a couple of long-range efforts. Cliftonville huffed and puffed but never really threatened the Linfield goal which was minded by a goalkeeper with teflon gloves. The conditions didn’t help much with a cold wind and driving rain. Top scorer Joe “the goal” Gormley had an off day and the excellent Conor “Ginger Beard” Devlin in the Cliftonville looked assured enough to keep the visitors from Windsor Park at bay.
Midway through the second half Cliftonville managed to deliver a bit of quality into box and marauding defender Mark Smyth forced it in and the noise generated by the 2,500 or so Cliftonville fans sounded more like 10,000. Fans overcome with delight and joy. People crouched down, closed their eyes and gave double fist pumps in silent celebration. A few minutes later the ginger Linfield midfielder with no chin (Robert Garrett) steamed into a challenge and deservedly got a straight red card. To his credit he knew he was fully guilty and walked straight off. None of this arguing with the referee bollocks which has become so prevalent in the upper echelons of the game.
Cliftonville then had an attack of the nerves as Linfield when for broke and this tension spread to the terraces. I then had to leave a few minutes earlier in. A very kind Cliftonville fan escorted me down to the stewards and managed to negotiate an early release. Usual doctrine usually means at these encounters the home fans are kept in for 15 minutes while the Linfield fans are escorted under heavy Police protection onto supporters coaches and allowed to head west up Cliftonville Road to prevent any dust-ups. This wouldn’t do for me. I had a plane to catch at 1820. The plan was to get out early, call a taxi and start heading back to the airport before a) the game finished b) the Linfield fans were herded onto Ulsterbuses and c) before the Cliftonville fans were let out.
I was hoping for scenario A. In the end I reckon I was seconds away from scenario C expiring, as I stood for about 15 minutes in the driving rain with two machine gun armed Police Officers and their armoured Land Rover, wondering how a taxi was going to get up a road that the police was blocking off. I heard the roar that greeted the final whistle. I saw all of the Linfield fans getting out of Dodge and then waited with increasing stress for my taxi to turn up.
Then he did and cursed the police, the weather and the protesters in an equal no holds barred way. “Unfortunately” he said, referring to what I presumed was both the police and protesters of various persuasions, “we are blessed with an incredible number of arseholes in this country”. I laughed but I didn’t really agree 100%. I have to say in a couple of really short visits to Belfast that I’ve found the people to be the friendliest and most genuine in the UK. That’s not glossing over the fact that Belfast is a mental city and there is an undeniable edge to the place and to everyone who lives there, but I love the place and watching football there. I can’t wait to go back. Does that make me mental as well?