Months of work by clubs is undone in an afternoon by protesters
Anger after flag demo ruins careful plans for peaceful football fixture
Loyalist flag protesters have been accused of hijacking Saturday's north Belfast derby between arch-rivals Crusaders and Cliftonville.
The match – one of the biggest of the football season – at Seaview on the Shore Road had to be called off after protesters clashed with riot police.
Three people, including a community worker, have been charged following the violence.
The group of about 20 protesters – some of whom were bussed into the area – have also been accused of undoing months of behind-the-scenes community work to ease tensions between loyalist residents and Cliftonville supporters from nearby nationalist areas.
A Crusaders' source has revealed how both clubs had:
• Been engaged in talks since November;
• Had ticketed the match to prevent troublemakers;
• Had put on free shuttle buses for Cliftonville fans;
• Assigned Crusaders' supporters to walk in friendship with Cliftonville fans down the flashpoint Skegoneill Avenue;
• Appointed independent observers.
The source said: "I have no doubt had the day not been hijacked by loyalist flag protesters that the game would have passed off peacefully."
He said that agreement had been secured for the plan last week from local residents and "other interested parties", understood to be paramilitaries.
"The protesters positioned themselves at the Seaview turnstiles to provoke a reaction, knowing the Cliftonville supporters would have to go through them," said the source. "When police tried to move the protesters the violence started and the situation got completely out of hand."
Crusaders chairman Stephen Bell accused the protesters of undermining the club's plan to keep the peace, describing it as "a sad day for football".
"Crusaders Football Club would like to thank the local residents of Skegoneill Avenue for the considerable engagement that has taken place since November to manage this match.
"We are disappointed that these efforts have been undermined," he said.
Two men aged 48 and 47 and a 21-year-old woman are due to appear before Laganside Magistrates Court on March 13 accused of public order offences and assaulting police. The 47-year-old man has also been charged with acting provocatively.
One of those arrested was local community worker Jim Crothers. He denies the charges, claiming that he had been asked by the clubs and police to be there in his role as a community worker.
A police spokesman said: "After 40 minutes the protesters were asked to move away from the ground to ensure that fans were able to enter Seaview unhindered.
"Despite intensive efforts by police and football officials to negotiate a peaceful outcome, the protest did not move and as a consequence police had to move the protest to ensure the safety of fans and allow the match to proceed.
"As they did so a number of protesters began to violently resist police, and officers were attacked with bottles and other missiles."
Both clubs – whose officials have condemned Saturday's events – agreed to call off the game over concerns for the safety of fans.
It is understood the cancellation could cost Crusaders around £15,000 in lost revenue, which could impact on youth activities it provides for hundreds of local children.
Crusaders FC was founded in 1898 and plays its home matches at Seaview. The Crues' club colours are red and black and their fierce rivals are Cliftonville. Matches between the two clubs are known as the North Belfast derby.
Cliftonville Football & Athletic Club was founded in 1879 and plays its home matches at Solitude. The club is known as The Reds, to match the club colours.
Cliftonville's support is drawn from mainly nationalist areas across the city while Crusaders' fanbase tends to come from the local loyalist neighbourhoods.