Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Linfield v Cliftonville: Football has to be winner at Windsor Park, not mindless morons

Clash of titans: Joe Gormley of Cliftonville and Linfield's Sean Ward

It was Monday morning and the telephones were ringing off the hook.

The Belfast Telegraph sports desk takes many calls on a daily basis from readers with stories, information, gossip, requests and complaints. We earn praise on the odd occasion too!

This particular Monday morning nine years ago though was different...only one topic was up for discussion – the Big Two fixture at the Oval between Glentoran and Linfield played on Saturday afternoon on the penultimate weekend of a compelling season in which both had battled hard for supremacy at the top of the Irish League table.

David Jeffrey's Linfield entered the game in pole position. Roy Coyle's Glentoran required victory to hit the front in what amounted to a title decider.

Both sides were playing attractive football and the interest in the match was huge at a time when elsewhere in the local game attendances were falling through the floor.

The media build up was intense. UTV dedicated a half hour show to preview the match!

On the day the crowd numbers were so vast (around 10,000) the kick-off was delayed with queues of fans snaking all around the ground.

For just an afternoon, forget Liverpool and Manchester United, this was a game that people, who normally wouldn't attend an Irish League encounter, wanted to see.

Kids dressed in blue or green, red and black were there with their dads (and mums), who had long since given up on local football, but wanted to be part of this occasion, keen to let their sons and daughters experience what they had enjoyed years before.

It was heartening to witness. Maybe there was hope that the future of Irish League football could be bright after all. Now we needed a thrilling game to encourage parents to bring their children every week.

We got it. In a ding-dong affair, amid a cracking atmosphere, the Glens won 3-2 with former Linfield player Chris Morgan scoring the winner in the dying seconds.

The Glentoran fans would later label that April afternoon 'Morgan Day'.

'Madness Day' more like for the shameful events that occurred after the final whistle.

As the players wandered to the dressing rooms, the pitch was invaded and all hell broke loose.

Unfortunately it wasn't just families hoping for a fun day out who attended... hundreds of morons had turned up too.

In shameful scenes they piled on from the terraces. Missiles were thrown, which could have seriously injured or worse, and then, with stewards seemingly powerless to stop them and the police nowhere to be seen, thugs from both sides started goading and fighting each other on the turf. It was a horrible, sickening, scary sight.

All the while this frightening experience was being watched by innocent trembling kids, ashen-faced parents and genuine fans still inside the stadium.

The police eventually arrived, but the damage had been done to the image of Irish League football and those who had to go to hospital.

The following Monday our phones kept ringing with scores and scores of disgusted, distressed and disenchanted mothers, fathers and football lovers saying they would never go back... from the dad who'd taken his two young boys to see their first live match to the season ticket holder for over 20 years, who just couldn't be bothered any more.

Virtually all attendances around the Irish League have fallen since.

Fast forward to this coming Saturday and another 'title decider' between Linfield and Cliftonville at Windsor Park.

With five games left, the Blues are two points clear of the Reds.

All at Linfield dream of legendary boss Jeffrey going out on a title-winning high in his final season in charge.

All at Cliftonville crave retaining the title for the first time in their 135-year existence.

Fate versus history. It promises to be a memorable match viewed by that Irish League rarity – a sizeable crowd.

There are real concerns, though, at both clubs, that the big day could be wrecked by the same sort of mindless idiots who spoiled the 2005 Oval encounter.

Most Linfield and Cliftonville supporters are passionate and peaceful people.

But in games like this unsavoury elements attach themselves to these two Belfast teams.

The infrastructure of Windsor should halt troublemakers from getting on to the pitch, but it may not stop idiots causing bother in the stands.

The security has to be water-tight to ensure no potentially dangerous objects can be brought into the ground, and that includes fireworks which have previously blighted this fixture.

Another issue is sectarian chanting, heard at a County Antrim Shield semi-final at Windsor in October when the Blues met the Reds, for which the clubs, not exactly rolling in dough, were each fined £3,000 by the Irish FA.

Both are appealing the decision, but more of the same ugly noises on Saturday and punishments could be more severe.

Some fans have even been questioning if their side could be docked points, should the behaviour of the minority go beyond the pale.

The authorities must do all they can to prevent trouble. And the right-thinking majority will hopefully shout down any brainless individuals intent on stirring things up, but to a degree we are in the lap of the gods.

This is the biggest match of the season. It ought to be a game to savour, not fear.

Football has to be the winner at Windsor on Saturday. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

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