If there is one local team that the ‘average’ football fan across the water has heard of it is probably Linfield. Ask any punter here footballing or otherwise why that is and you are likely to get a myriad of reasons. Those reasons may or may not have anything to do with football and may have plenty to do with whom you ask. We can fairly safely answer that ourselves with a brief summary of responses you would expect.
“The biggest club in Ireland”, “Rangers of Northern Ireland”, “the IFA’s love-child”,
“the most professional club in Ireland”, “part of the Big Two” are probably the most common ones I have heard over the years. All well and good/ bad but one thing they have that runs in tandem with ‘football history‘ more than others in this part of the world is their genesis out of the local factories, in this case being the mills in Sandy Row. This runs alongside the histories of the West Hams, Arsenals, etc ..who sit central to the birth of football and football teams out of the industrial late nineteenth century. Their Belfast strongholds have traditionally been the Shankill and Sandy Row/ The Village but their support can be found dotted about many areas – certainly more than other clubs as they do indeed enjoy the province’s largest support.
The other major thing is that they have been the most consistent collectors of trophies down the years. My point actually in drawing attention to this is not so much the trophy haul, but more the fact that down the years they are always central to general attention…..for whatever reason….good or bad.
The biggest blue shadow cast in legacy and legend is, of course, the ‘Clean Sweep’ team of 1962 with names such as Isaac Andrews, Alex Russell, Bobby Braithwaite and Tommy ‘Duke’ Dickson et al. That team is given due reverence alongside other local heroes on the bridge mural on the Donegall Road. Plenty to live up to there and plenty of teams have come close. Following the reign of Billy Bingham, the managerial dynasties of Roy Coyle and David Jeffrey saw to that and then some. Not unusually, one naturally followed the other as in the special relationship of ‘Manager /Captain’ that one finds in football. It was the local equivalent of Nicholson/ Mackay, Revie/ Bremner, Ferguson/Keane. Not just that, but it built up a head of steam that lasted the guts of thirty – one or so odd years.
Fancifully it carried on as adversarial when Coyle became Glentoran’s manager and what battles they had. The Coyle reign in 1975 started with the far eastern military equivalent of a bowl of rice in the shape of the Antrim Shield before the league wins from ’78- ’80 gave more substantial fibre. Two doubles in there as well put horsepower into domination of the eighties. That decade domestically fairly well hummed to the steady throttle of a well-honed Linfield engine with only a couple of eastern Belfast misfires interrupting. The players of that period are well remembered. George Dunlop, Peter Rafferty, Peter Dornan, Lindsay McKeown, Lee Doherty and the Raffrey goal machine, Martin McGaughey.
As a forerunner to the next era, Linfield teams carried an aura of never giving up and came into games never expecting to lose which I would suggest brought them points. Those not of the blue persuasion were full of conspiracy theories about the club in an era well before social media. Between the residence in Windsor Park, more home matches in the league than others and the perception that Lindsay McKeown was the actual referee in games other fans believed Linfield and the IFA were one. Linfield felt however that they never got the credit they deserved, even from the media.
Nevertheless, this ‘extreme perception’ rightly or wrongly held carried weight for and against them. The riot of ‘Dundalk Dundalk ‘79’ gave them an infamy and a UEFA ban. However, not a decade and a half later they were cutting inroads with Dessie Gorman and Pat Fenlon putting layers down beyond their own club and into society. They have had their moments in Europe but many feel it could be more weighty than it is. The games against Manchester City and FC Copenhagen probably cut the deepest furrows in that realm.
The constant throughout was the Belfast battles with firstly Belfast Celtic and Glentoran. If the latter lorded it by and large in the cups Linfield tended to own the bread and butter of the League Championship. Glorious moments would include the league winning matches against the Glens in 1993 and 1994 and the long-awaited Irish Cup win over them in 2006. But the Linfield ‘legions’ as Malcom Brodie loved to call them were never going to suffer for long and that eternal cry “A Linfield” was not something ever likely to be silenced.
If there was a trophy hiatus between 1994 and 2000 David Jeffrey ran riot over the next thirteen years with over thirty trophies collected amidst a throng of ‘doubles’. Doubles became commonplace and a new generation of names became hallowed – Noel Bailie, Glenn Ferguson, Winkie Murphy, Jamie Mulgrew and Peter Thompson amongst others.
Linfield today are in different surroundings both figuratively and physically. Other Irish League fans have little sympathy for the Linfield wails of being lost and alone inside the ‘National Stadium’ Once owner, now tenant – the thought of not having it both ways lands heavy on Donegall Avenue. Likewise, the ‘Big Two’ hegemony is long gone amidst a more competitive league diced and sliced by European money. Their more famous fans have tended to be players such as Warren Feeney, Grant McCann and present manager David Healy though this would be a disservice to local journalist, commentator and phenomenon Ivan Little.
Audaces Fortuna Juvat created in 1886 still creates devotion and dislike across Ireland and even beyond and the fans wouldn’t have it any other way. That surely will continue if they collect trophies at the same rate that their history proudly declares.