Belfast Telegraph

5,000 pack Solitude for Cliftonville's historic meeting with Celtic

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

Celtic's players are no strangers to Europe's top cities and greatest stadiums.

And last night Cliftonville's modest Solitude ground showed north Belfast was as capable as Barcelona's Nou Camp or Manchester United's Old Trafford of hosting one of the world's most famous football clubs.

It might have been on a smaller scale, but the glitz and glamour of the Champions League was definitely in town.

The Scottish champions ran out convincing 3-0 winners, but despite the scoreline Reds fans described it as one of the most memorable nights of their lives and that of the 134-year-old club.

The 5,000 fans who packed into Solitude made enough noise to rival the atmosphere of a crowd 10 times that size.

The ground was looking its best for the glamour tie following a three-week-long extensive spruce-up ahead of the big game.

A carnival atmosphere was evident from early afternoon with many nearby residents making the most of the hot weather by throwing pre-match garden parties.

The close affinity between Ireland's oldest football club and the Glasgow giants is well-known and many fans showed their allegiances to both – scarves and flags featuring both crests proved popular among punters outside the ground.

Ahead of the match, Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said the game was a fantastic occasion for both the club and north Belfast as a whole.

"Cliftonville FC have done a tremendous job in making it possible for so many fans to attend the game," she said.

When the draw was made Cliftonville were given the chance of a cash windfall by switching their home tie to a larger venue.

But the club's custodians declined, opting to bring Celtic's all-star line-up to their home patch. And last night that decision was vindicated.

Minutes before kick-off those not lucky enough to get their hands on one of the much-sought- after tickets for the match made for the nearest television screen as the minnows kicked off against both their rivals and, for many in red shirts, their heroes.

If those inside the ground struggled to contain racing pulses, it was much worse for those outside. Loud cheers, gasps and collective sighs gave little indication as to what was happening on the other side of the turnstiles.

The sizeable Celtic contingent was evident by loud cheers at half-time and the final whistle.

The majority of those making their way from the stadium did so sporting broad smiles, despite the 3-0 defeat, with Reds fans taking positives from their club's spot in the limelight.

Cliftonville fan Daniel Dearnaley (26), from Lisburn, said: "It was an amazing night. Celtic were just a class above."

But DUP MLA Edwin Poots hit out at what he described as pro-IRA chanting at the game.

"Pity that a great footballing spectacle was marred by stupid pro-IRA chanting tonight," he wrote on Twitter. "Will require a UEFA investigation now."

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