Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

No place like home for Cliftonville

The Luzhniki Stadium, the Nou Camp, Estadio da Luz and the Juventus Stadium. Can you complete the sequence?

Next up in that illustrious list of Celtic's Champions League away venues is Solitude, where the Glaswegian giants will renew their acquaintance with Europe's premier club competition next month.

Monday's second qualifying round draw sparked a flutter of social network activity, with an over-eager rumour mill throwing up Windsor Park, Casement, Ravenhill and even the Aviva Stadium as possible stages for the Hoops' historic clash with Cliftonville.

The truth, though, is that the Reds never once seriously contemplated moving the tie from north Belfast.

From the moment George McMullan clipped home that title-winning penalty against Linfield on April 13, chairman Gerard Lawlor and his board knew they stood a chance of being paired with the Hoops in Europe, yet at no point of their Uefa Licence application did they stipulate an alternative venue – not through neglect or as an oversight, but because they never wanted to.

In fact, the rules still allow them to move to another ground if they so wish but the desire is simply not there.

They've knocked their pans in for years to get Solitude up to the requisite standard for hosting European football and taking on Celtic in a Champions League fixture next door to the waterworks is the stuff footballing purists' dreams are made of.

The lure of that forthcoming prospect holds all the lustre and magic that the Scottish side themselves experienced when they hosted Barcelona last season but play it anywhere else and it becomes an exhibition match, where Cliftonville fans would be dwarfed by the legions of green and white hoops in an atmosphere more akin to a pre-season friendly than continental competition.

Mad as it sounds, the Reds do actually want to win these games. The temerity of it, eh?

The club have come in for criticism for not exploring the possibility of moving elsewhere but, even aside from giving up what little competitive advantage they'd hold by playing the game at Solitude, where do people suggest?

Windsor Park – the Reds' 'home' venue for the European campaigns of 2007 and 2010 when Solitude was undergoing redevelopment – does not have the adequate safe exit routes and, as demonstrated by May's Irish Cup final, doesn't easily lend itself to welcoming large crowds. And that's before we even contemplate the security issue of Cliftonville tackling Celtic at the height of the marching season in south Belfast.

Casement and Ravenhill, if you hadn't noticed, are not football grounds and don't hold the requisite Uefa Licences to host European fixtures.

As for the Aviva, who came up with that? It's in a different footballing jurisdiction entirely (meaning Uefa wouldn't sanction it) and its rental would not come cheap.

Plus, would it really be fair to ask that Cliftonville's regular week in, week out support make a 200-mile round-trip for a home match?

Make no mistake about it, the Reds' priority is their own fans. If and when Solitude is confirmed as the venue for the first leg, Celtic will be given approximately 750 tickets – just like Linfield, Glentoran or Crusaders would be for a big Irish Premiership game.

Those Celtic fans who have vociferously hit out at the cheek of Cliftonville wanting to play at their own home ground are notable by their absence when Parkhead sells out on big Euro nights.

Nobody ever suggests Neil Lennon's side move their games to Old Trafford or Wembley, do they?

Yes, their abode's limited capacity would prevent the Reds from raking in a fortune but a modest ticket price increase and sensible merchandising combined with the comparatively meagre dent that travelling to Glasgow makes in their Champions League prizemoney will ensure that the club's bank balance receives the sort of boost that no other opponent in Monday's draw could have produced.

This will be like a throwback to the days of the old European Cup, when giants and minnows were routinely thrown together in the best footballing traditions of David versus Goliath.

And better still, it's about to take place on our own doorstep.

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