Belfast Telegraph

How Belfast could score with its own football team

By Gail Walker

What's wrong with a Belfast United FC? That's the question that springs to my mind while everyone clashes over the Government granting bucket-loads of dosh to update local stadia and develop (mainly) football, gaelic and rugby.

Look around you - men (and a fair amount of women) wearing Manchester United, Liverpool, Celtic and Rangers shirts, bars bunged to the gills on big match nights and, if you listen carefully, car radios tuned to TalkSport and Radio 5 Live.

There's something profoundly wrong when this level of passion, this depth of obsession, doesn't get its proper expression - a football team of its own to support. It's just weird. After all, we've much in common with the cities and towns of northern England which provide the backbone of Leagues One and Two in England. Why can't we join in the fun?

Belfast, depending how you count it, has 300,000 souls to call upon. More, if you include the Greater Belfast area. English clubs survive on a lot less (yes, I know many stagger from new owner to new owner, but haven't we got successful local businessmen mad enough to take on the task?).

We may not be able to take on Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, but the likes of Rochdale and Gillingham shouldn't hold too many fears for us.

So why not?

Football is, culturally and imaginatively, a Leviathan which threatens to swamp all other sports. You may not like it, but there you go. And Belfast isn't part of it.

It's not as if we're not ready for it. There's the Belfast Giants and Belfast Harlequins - both modern success stories in terms of getting an audience for ice hockey and rugby. If packaged right, people are obviously prepared to cheer on Belfast.

Football plays a huge part in how a city sees itself. And, goodness knows, we as a city need something to rally round, because, frankly, "Belfast" as an idea barely exists in our imaginations.

Due to the Troubles, Belfast is more like a patchwork of local townlands, with people's loyalties being not to some nebulous city but to the Falls or the Shankill; Ardoyne or Tigers Bay; the Village or the Short Strand; the Cregagh or York Street. Our local teams - Linfield, Glentoran, Crusaders, Cliftonville, Donegal Celtic - represent their areas well.

But none speaks for Belfast, all of it. Yet there's no obvious reason why supporting one of those sides would stop you cheering on Belfast United, or vice versa.

Well-meaning, middle-class inventions like the Titanic Quarter, Victoria Square and, yes, Belfast Giants and Harlequins aren't going to change that. But a football team just might.

We always want to show our efforts in the biggest possible arena, but you can't be a giantkiller unless you take on some giants. Wouldn't there be a certain satisfaction in week-in, week-out chinning English teams? When are we most united? When we're taking on the world. Remember Spain 1982? Or Ulster winning the Heineken Cup in 1998-99? Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland adventures?

We've produced great individual sportsmen and women - Mary Peters, Joey and Robert Dunlop, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Eddie Irvine, George Best (below) Richard Dunwoody, AP McCoy - and will continue to do so.

But isn't there something magical about team games, something that expresses the imaginative values of the community from which they sprang?

Just imagine what this city would be like on big match days, crunch promotion games, desperate relegation encounters, FA Cup ties against football giants. Catholics and Protestants united in supporting their city. Plus, for thousands of manly men it would give them something better to do on a Saturday than trail around shops with their womenfolk.

Naysayers will point up problems - there are always arguments that it's not worth the candle - but look at AFC Wimbledon. Started up by fans disillusioned with the club's decision to move to Milton Keynes, the team now stands on the brink of promotion to the Football League proper. All in less than 10 years (ie, less time than it takes a Stormont minister to make a decision!).

The fact that we don't have a Belfast team says a lot about ourselves. That our politicians have no imagination, that our business class has no vision, that we don't have a normal civic society, that we don't have a sense of ourselves. We may go through the motions but we're not a "real" city. Not like Bradford or Sheffield or Nottingham or Bolton.

No, we're the non-city city. Or to quote the old chant, "We're rubbish and we know we are ..."

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