Belfast Telegraph

Sunday football objectors drowned out by thousands of Northern Ireland fans at Windsor Park

By Ivan Little

It was the mis-match of the day. The 100 placard and Bible-carrying Christian protesters never really had a prayer of persuading any of the 10,000 football fans helping to create history in Belfast yesterday to turn round and go home before Northern Ireland's first ever home international game on a Sunday.

At times the partisan anthems and chants of the boisterous supporters walking past the open-air service in Donegall Avenue outside the Tyndale Free Presbyterian Church completely drowned out the sermons and the hymns.

But the undaunted Christians never stopped trying to get their message across in this never-on-a-Sunday showdown.

"They're sabotaging the Sabbath," said one woman dressed in her Sunday best.

"They might be supporting a good team in Northern Ireland but we have got God on our side."

Just outside Windsor, Paul Hanna, a Free Presbyterian from Ballynahinch, handed out hundreds of tracts to supporters.

He said: "The word of God is very clear.

"The seventh day is to be a very different day from the other six days of the week. Yet that is being eroded all the time.

"I know shops are open on Sunday and sport is being played at all levels as well but this is another step on the road to the desecration of the Sabbath.

"We know we can't prevent anyone from going to the game but we just want to share the teachings of the scriptures by handing out our tracts.

"And if they prick someone's conscience so be it," said Mr Hanna.

He added that he was an avid Ulster rugby fan but wouldn't go to the Kingspan stadium to watch the team on a Sunday.

At the gates of Windsor Park, the Rev David Brown, president of the youth council of the Free Presbyterian Church, was giving out leaflets to Finnish as well as Northern Irish fans.

"Playing sport on the Sabbath isn't only wrong. It's also unnecessary," he said. Mr Brown said the response from the overwhelming majority of supporters had been positive.

But only seconds after he handed a tract to Finnish fan Johannes Manninen, it lay ripped to shreds on the pavement after the visitor discovered its message was opposed to football on a Sunday.

Johannes said: "This is disrespectful to people who are paying their hard-earned money to watch this game.

"At home in Finland, Sunday is a very big day for sport."

Shortly afterwards, hundreds of Finnish fans - many of them drinking beer from cans and bottles and who were being escorted along Donegall Avenue by a line of PSNI Land Rovers - tried to out-sing and out-shout the Free Presbyterians.

Ironically the song they were singing in Finnish was to the tune of When the Saints Go Marching In.

One huge, bearded Finn who had nearly emptied a three-litre bottle of cider flashed a two-fingered gesture at the protesters and it was clear that he wasn't doing it as a prediction of the outcome of the football game.

Another Finnish fan was more understanding. Mikko Mikonmaa said "I don't agree with them but these people have the right to protest just as long as they don't try to interfere.

"And as far as I can see they are not doing that at all.

"Finland however is one of the most Protestant countries in Europe and that doesn't stop people at home playing and supporting sport." Police ensured the supporters kept moving but scores of the fans stopped long enough to take photographs of the demonstrators and selfies of themselves against the placards and the protest.

Ruali Aannunen from Helsinki was totally bemused by it all. "I had been told that something would be happening but I just can't understand why they are here.

"Sunday sport is definitely not an issue for us."

A number of Northern Ireland supporters refused to take any tracts from the protesters.

And several stopped to argue with the Free Presbyterian, saying they couldn't understand why the protest was being mounted at a football match when GAA sports were played every Sunday. "And yet there's never a Free Presbyterian protester in sight outside Casement Park or any of their grounds," said one man.

Sam McComiskey, a Linfield and Northern Ireland supporter from Lisburn, said: "I have no problem with the match being played today.

"The shops and the pubs are open on Sundays and people watch football on the TV on Sundays."

Several Free Presbyterians however said that people who opposed Sunday sport needed to take a public stand against the spread of games on the Sabbath.

Former Irish League player David Johnstone took part in yesterday's protest wearing a Northern Ireland scarf.

He cited the examples of BBC sports presenter Dan Walker and Scotland rugby player Ewan Murray who have refused to participate in Sunday sporting occasions.

"I think there are more people like them who feel they have no choice but to play for their clubs on Sundays," he said.

Shortly afterwards, one Northern Ireland fan was clearly confused as he walked past the Free Presbyterians.

"F*** the Pope and the IRA," he shouted before a friend hustled him away saying: "They're Protestants, you idiot. Shut up."

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