Cliftonville and Celtic make Solitude rock like never before
Champions League 2nd Qual, 1st Leg game
It was an occasion to be savoured, breathed in and remembered for a lifetime, writes Conor McLaughlin
A Celtic side well-versed in the art of Champions League glory and who had recently claimed Barcelona's scalp on a magical night in Glasgow would begin their new campaign next door to north Belfast's Waterworks.
Just over three months ago, Cliftonville secured the Irish Premiership title in poetically perfect fashion when a last-gasp George McMullan penalty wrestled the crown away from Linfield and sparked the mother of all parties on the Cliftonville Road.
They say you can't improve upon perfection but try telling that to the directors, players and supporters whose spines shivered in shock when the Champions League draw handed them a dream pairing against the might of Celtic – the highest-ranked side in their region, but also the only opposition who could guarantee 'full house' signs on every door at Solitude.
It wasn't just Cliftonville and Celtic fans who were glued to the live coverage, but also football enthusiasts keen to see if this David v Goliath encounter really could deliver the most unlikely of fairytale endings.
This wasn't your standard European encounter – this was builders, teachers, civil servants and plumbers going toe-to-toe with full-time professionals for whom the memory of rubbing shoulders with the the likes of Barcelonas and Benficas of this world is still fresh.
Having spent their day relaxing in the team hotel, Celtic's stars strode out side-by-side with guys who reported for duty with a day's work already under their belts – a situation which Hoops striker Georgios Samaras had suggested might actually make Cliftonville's players more appreciative of the opportunity to play football.
The atmosphere had been building all day with crowds descending on the social club and nearby bars from early afternoon.
Green and white flags fought for prominence with red bunting as local streets and families, divided by split loyalties, did their utmost to show where their respective hearts lay.
Neither set of fans needed any encouragement to kick off their sing-song but it was the moment the famous Champions League anthem rang out across the stadium that provided the signal to raise the decibels.
The stage was set for battle and suddenly the part-timers stood as equals with the more illustrious household names across from them.
Two first-half goals could well have killed lesser teams off but Cliftonville responded valiantly after the break and, as each set of fans continued to try and out-sing one another (as well, of course, as joining forces for the odd mutual tune), both would end the night in celebratory mode – Celtic hailing the result and the Reds basking in the glow of a perfectly staged event the night their humble abode became the centre of the universe.