Football fans - give your local team some support
As the Premiership kicks off tomorrow, lifelong Everton and Cliftonville supporter Henry McDonald appeals for true fans to forego the plasma-screen TV and go along to a match.
On a freezing late-November afternoon last year, with a stinging arctic wind whipping off Cave Hill, I uttered a blasphemy inside the old stand of Solitude stadium.
Amid fellow Cliftonville fans celebrating the Reds carving Linfield to pieces in a 3-0 drubbing, I objected to a small section of our support haranguing and ridiculing our rivals, tightly packed and frozen behind the goal to our left.
There were a few eyebrows raised even among friends when I opined that "At least the Blues fans that came here today are true supporters and not plastic ones."
By which I meant the hordes of so-called football "fans" in Northern Ireland, whose idea of following their club is to don the colours of the Premiership's billionaires – the likes of Chelsea or Manchester United – and head down to watch the big game on Sky, or BT Sport, in the warmth and comfort of their local.
For if there is one element of those who watch the beautiful game that I find contemptible it is those who prefer to line Rupert Murdoch's, or BT's, pockets every weekend of the season, while never darkening the door of any soccer stadium on either side of the Irish Sea.
Although we will all succumb to temptation and watch our preferred English and Scottish teams on the bar's big screen some time this season, if you call yourself a true supporter you should at least once in 2014-15 (or even once in your life) walk through an actual turnstile, whether that be to see Liverpool or Lisburn Distillery.
None of the above is meant as an attack on the fans of the mega-rich clubs, like Manchester United or City, Arsenal or even our friends from across Stanley Park on Merseyside that play in a place called Anfield.
There are legions of local fans who board boats and planes every weekend, spending large amounts of cash to watch their teams in action, rather than take the easy option and stay in the local.
There are authentic fans of Manchester United, for instance, whom I have known for decades, who have made the journey over to Old Trafford, in some cases even when the Red Devils were playing in the old Second Division back in the mid-1970s.
There are also supporters of Liverpool I am, ahem, acquainted with who kept supporting the Kop side during the years of Manchester United domination. (Although among the many mysteries of Northern Ireland Premiership fan culture is where have all those Chelsea supporters been hiding all the pre-Abramovich/pre-Mourinho years?)
As a lover of the game, I particularly admire the Rangers fans who have stuck by their team even after the Ibrox side were relegated into the third tier of Scottish football and who follow, follow the 'Gers to every small stadium at away matches every fortnight.
They remind me of the Man City supporters who stuck by their club when they were mired in the old English Third Division at a time in the 1990s when the oil riches of the Gulf sheikhs that took them over were as chimerical as a desert mirage.
But if you are looking for one exemplary supporter who epitomises the authentic fan, then take the example of Ormeau Road man Pat McGrath, one of the greatest Evertonians I have ever come across.
McGrath has been following Everton all his life, through the glory days of the 60s, the fallow periods of the 70s, the conquering of England and Europe in the 80s, the relegation-threatening 90s and far beyond.
Now based on Merseyside himself, this Belfast Evertonian has followed the club even on pre-season tours of Scandinavia and the United States, and criss-crossed the continent on Everton's adventures in the European Cup, the Cup Winners' Cup, the Uefa Cup and, latterly, the Europa League.
Just one example among many will tell you how devoted "Paddy", as he is affectionately known by the Everton faithful from around the world, is to the club.
About 15 years ago we were sitting in the lounge of John Lennon Airport, waiting for a delayed flight back to Belfast in the period when our club hovered just above the relegation zone. We passed the time over a few pints, following a home win that Saturday over Sunderland, musing on the away grounds we had been at to see Everton over the years.
One stadium had always intrigued me and it was one I had never been to: Molyneaux, the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers. On mentioning the Black Country team's ground, Paddy recalled, "Ah, Molyneaux, yes. Boxing Day 1975. We lost 2-0."
When I butted in, asking how the hell he got there, given the paucity of air travel from Belfast back in those dark days of the mid-70s, he regaled us with a travel-story that involved taking the boat the day before Christmas Eve and sleeping over the Christmas in Birmingham's New Street rail station so he could get a ticket for the Wolves game on St Stephen's Day.
There are other possibly more stranger-than-fiction, true-life stories Northern Irish Evertonians could tell about Paddy's journeys, which together would make for a great cinematic or novelistic study in sporting devotion.
And there are other local Evertonians too who constantly fly and sail across the sea to follow the Mersey Blues, including a very close group of friends from the village of Coagh who are among the most decent, amusing and kind people you would have the pleasure of attending a football match with.
Some might object, rightly, that the rising costs of Premiership tickets, as well as the extra burden of paying for flights, boats and hotels, will deter most from putting their money where their mouths are most Saturdays, Sundays, or even Mondays.
Looking around Goodison Park sometimes, I see parents with a couple of kids beside them, all wearing the royal blue and white, and you can't help wondering how financially crippling it must be in the age of austerity to take your family to a game; or, conversely, how much cheaper it would be to take them somewhere else to watch a live match on a giant TV screen.
Yet, if you call yourself a true follower of the game, and really can't afford this season to support your English, or Scottish, team in whatever division they may be, then here is a challenge: at the very least, to demonstrate your love of the sport, ditch the comfort zone of the Sky screen, the central heating and the clink-clink of the pub pint glasses just this once and give your local team in the Irish League some support.
Do yourself and the clubs struggling to survive here a favour and, perhaps, even turn up a few times this season.
Meanwhile, some of us will go on enjoying the best of both worlds and escape the pressures of life outside for 90 minutes inside the two old grounds whose names alone can still lift the heart – Solitude and Goodison Park.