Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Visiting Cliftonville fans feel at home in their party atmosphere

Celtic's Efe Ambrose scores first goal during the UEFA Champions League, second round, second leg match at Celtic Park, Glasgow.

While Cliftonville's trip to Paradise was essentially a dead rubber, you couldn't take the spring out of the step of the travelling Red Army.

Last Wednesday's 3-0 defeat at Solitude didn't stop around 1500 Cliftonville fans making the journey to Glasgow, where they celebrated their gallant defeat like it was an extension of their title-winning victory parade.

The anthem of the night was first aired in the 14th minute, when the travelling support launched into a joyous chorus of "We're having a party, in the Champions League."

The chant, accompanied by the now ubiquitous Poznan dance brought the Celtic support to it's feet in appreciation.

And diehard Cliftonville fans have certainly earned the right to party.

In recent years we've become accustomed to the Reds challenging for the Gibson Cup and competing in cup finals, but let's not forget that this club spent much of their recent history fighting to avoid relegation.

It was just ten seasons ago that they beat Armagh City in a relegation play-off, after finishing 15th in the league.

The loyal supporters who made their way to Holm Park on the supporters bus that night – which in typical Cliftonville fashion broke down on the motorway – must scarcely be able to believe their luck.

Watching their wee club take on the mighty Glasgow Celtic was a dream come true for those who remember defeats to the likes of Limavady United and Larne.

If it was dream come true for the fans, then the experience must be hard to comprehend for the players.

Your average Irish League player earns a meagre wage playing in front of modest crowds – yet here they were playing in front of 30,000 spectators in a Champions League match.

While it's hard to expect much of a part-time team in a tie like this, there was no doubt Cliftonville didn't play to the best of their ability at Solitude a week ago.

At Celtic Park the Reds put in a much assured displayed. By his own omission goalkeeper Conor Devlin didn't have his best night in the first leg, but at Celtic Park he made smart saves. Captain George McMullan looked much more at home in midfield, star striker Liam Boyce kept the Celtic defence on their toes.

Okay, Celtic still won the game without too much difficulty, but Cliftonville did themselves and the Irish League proud with a gutsy performance. Their inability to deal with Celtic's aerial presence was their only major blemish on the night.

The Scottish champions also played a blinder. Their decision not sell the live broadcast rights to television, and to give season ticket holders free entry to the home leg, saw the game played in front of a crowd of around 30,000.

Celtic can now look forward to a potentially money spinning European run, but the true stars of the night were Cliftonville Football Club, who shone underneath the glare of the Champions League lights.

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