On Saturday 21 November 1998, I was one of around 500 Linfield fans present as our club made a return to face our local rivals Cliftonville at their Solitude ground for the first time in almost 30 years. This is my recollection of that memorable occasion.
As we all know only too well, our little country suffered some terrible, terrible times at the hands of terrorists for nearly 30 years. During that period of time (roughly 1969-1998), local sport also suffered the outfall and effects of that strife.
In Irish League football, the fixture most affected by the ongoing heightened community tensions was Cliftonville vs. Linfield. For nearly all the years between 1970 and 1998, Linfield were prevented from playing “away” fixtures against the Reds at their Solitude ground in North Belfast at the behest of the security forces. This followed an incident at an Irish Cup tie staged at Solitude, when several Blues fans were hurt in clashes with locals in the surrounding streets.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary repeatedly claimed they would be unable to guarantee the safety of visiting fans coming into the Cliftonville Road area. Given that the equally well-supported Glentoran were not treated in a similar manner by the powers-that-be was always a bone of contention amongst Linfield fans, who felt they were being treated differently and unfairly.
All games against the North Belfast side were therefore staged exclusively at Windsor Park. This was, of course, a significant handicap to Cliftonville – effectively robbing the Reds of two home games against Linfield in the league every season. However, beyond the obvious on-field detriment of having to always play “away” against the Blues, ironically staging their “home” fixture against the best-supported club in the league at the much bigger Windsor Park venue may well have had a positive impact on Cliftonville’s finances during that period.
This situation changed in late 1998, with the ‘peace process’ in full effect. It was decided that the improving political climate in the Province was such that the fixture could once again return to ‘normality’ and be played at Solitude. Linfield’s return was scheduled for Saturday 21 November.
Understandably, the security surrounding the first visit to Cliftonville Road by Linfield fans in almost 30 years was intense, to put it mildly. Kick-off for the game had been brought forward to 11.00 am, and the club were restricted to selling a strictly controlled allocation of around 500 tickets to Members and Season Ticket holders only. Furthermore, those Blues lucky enough to get their hands on a match ticket would be required to meet up at Windsor Park early that morning, to board numbered buses for the journey up to Solitude. No visiting fan would be permitted to travel to the game using their own transport.
When we did meet up, at what seemed a ridiculously early hour that morning at Windsor Park, what we were not prepared for was the sort of police escort normally reserved for visits from royalty or an American President. The travel arrangements were, quite frankly, ridiculous. On boarding the buses that had been hired for the occasion, each fan was given a match ticket in exchange for a voucher that the club had posted to their home during the preceding week.
The buses would journey all the way to North Belfast in a police-escorted convoy, the roads cleared for us as we went. I was on the first bus to leave Windsor Park, bound for Solitude. We had barely taken our seats when a local TV news camera crew and reporter boarded our bus and sat themselves down right in front of us. As the bus left Windsor Park, we had police motorcycle outriders alongside us. It was a surreal experience.
We had barely gone a mile before the news reporter turned around and asked if any of us would answer a few questions ‘on camera’ regarding the day’s game. I volunteered to do so before I had really even thought about it.
His question was basically: “Were we happy to have to travel to Solitude to play the fixture?” I responded that we most certainly were, that the decision not to play previous seasons’ Reds-Blues fixtures at Solitude had not been within Linfield’s power to make, and that we hoped to be even happier at lunchtime with another three points collected by our players on the pitch.
The route the security forces had chosen to get us to Solitude was torturous in the extreme. It involved going through the City Centre, out the M2 to Dargan Road, and up Fortwilliam Park onto the Antrim Road. From there we made it onto North Circular, to the top of the Oldpark Road. Talk about a ‘magical mystery tour’!
When we finally arrived outside Solitude, I felt akin to what Army bomb disposal men must have felt like arriving at the scene of a suspect device during the ‘Troubles’. The streets had all been completely cleared of bystanders – they were totally deserted – and an Army observation helicopter hovered noisily directly overhead.
We walked in a large group down Cliftonville Drive, the first Linfield fans to have done so in a generation. The local residents observed us through their front living-room windows as if we were aliens from another planet. Tickets were deposited with the turnstile operators, and there we were, a small group of Blues fans stood on the (then) crumbling concrete terracing at Solitude for the first time in 29 years.
Linfield fans had been assured beforehand of a ‘warm welcome’ to Solitude by Reds’ chairman Hugh McCartan. The home supporters decided this would best be adhered to by hanging a large banner reading ‘Cead Mile Failte Linfield’ (‘A Hundred Thousand Welcomes Linfield’, in Irish) behind the goal they were gathered at. The political symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone present, nor on the news media, who featured it heavily in their subsequent coverage of the game.
Five minutes before 11.00 am, the Cliftonville players lined up to give our lads a ‘guard of honour’ onto their pitch… possibly the only time in the entire history of football that the reigning Champions of any league (which Cliftonville were at that time) have applauded a visiting domestic team out of the changing rooms.
The game itself was almost incidental to the occasion, and, in truth, was a bit of a dour, hard-fought midfield battle on a “pudding” of a pitch. That was until just after half-time, when big centre-half Winkie Murphy, of all people, crashed a left-foot volley past the Reds keeper from the edge of the area to give Linfield the lead. We celebrated deliriously!
However, our joy was short-lived. Minutes later, Murphy was sent-off following a clash with Cliftonville’s Micky Collins, and the ten men in blue couldn’t prevent Tim McCann grabbing a break-away equaliser for the hosts on 63 minutes. Thereafter, there were a few ‘hearts-in-mouth’ moments as we battled to remain at level-pegging, but the referee blew for time with the score standing at 1-1, which was certainly a fair result in my opinion.
As we left the ground, the home fans were ‘locked in’, as the police didn’t want both sets of supporters emerging onto the Cliftonville Road at the same time. We boarded our numbered bus, and the steward in charge began to hand us back our vouchers as we travelled back along North Circular Road – a souvenir of the day. I recall this moment distinctly because unfortunately, my surname bears a very close resemblance to that of Reds scorer Tim McCann. The steward called out “McCann” instead of “McCain”, and it’s fair to say I took quite a bit of good-natured abuse from my fellow Bluemen for a few minutes!
To round the day off, I got to watch myself on the local TV news bulletins, advocating for the club’s historical position with regard to the Solitude fixture. Everyone present also got a favourable mention for their outstanding behaviour in the club’s “Look at Linfield” official matchday programme the following week.
Linfield’s first visit to Solitude in three decades was a surreal experience that will live with me until my dying day – and it certainly makes for a very good story!