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February 28, 1963 - day Celtic played at the Oval

Hoops' trip to Linfield won't be Glasgow club's first game in the heart of a loyalist area

By Ivan Little

The Celtic footballers who'll run out onto Windsor Park in the heart of Belfast's loyalist Village area on Friday night won't be breaking as much new ground as they - and some observers - might think.

For the Glasgow giants, who have a strong Irish nationalist background, have played in an Ulster unionist stronghold of the city before.

And while there are serious security fears hanging over this week's Champions League qualifier, there wasn't a hint of violence or even a word of dissent before, during or after the match against Glentoran in February 1963.

Celtic had visited the west of the city a number of times previously to face Belfast Celtic and, in more recent times, have played European games and friendlies against Cliftonville.

The hastily-arranged friendly in east Belfast 54 years ago was pencilled in to give Celtic vital match practice during what was the worst winter in the British Isles for decades. Scotland was particularly hard hit by what they called The Big Freeze.

Dozens of football matches in Britain were postponed for weeks on end as the sub-zero temperatures and snow combined to make pitches unplayable.

Eager to give their players game time, some English and Scottish clubs looked to Ireland for matches after the weather there improved. Top English sides Wolves and Coventry beat the chill by playing a game at the former home of Belfast Celtic at Celtic Park, where a shopping centre now stands.

Belfast Celtic had, of course, gone out of Irish League football after a riot during a Linfield game at Windsor Park in 1948.

On Thursday, February 28, 1963, Glasgow Celtic arrived by boat with a squad of 15 players to take on the Glens.

Among their stars were men who would go on to win the European Cup for Celtic against Inter Milan in Lisbon four years later, including Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch and Stevie Chalmers, though Billy McNeill was ruled out of the Glentoran match through injury.

Newspapers reported on how the match had captured the imagination of Belfast football fans, but there were no references to any difficulties that Celtic might face going into a staunchly Protestant area like east Belfast.

Around 6,000 supporters attended the game at the Oval, which had a 4pm kick-off.

One newspaper report said the "big" crowd were thrilled by what they saw.

The match ended in a 5-4 win for Celtic, but commentators said the Hoops could have won by a bigger margin if the Glens' goalkeeper, Roy Rea, hadn't kept the scoreline respectable with a series of great saves.

The Glentoran team that afternoon included Eric Ross, who famously wore spectacles during matches and who was later transferred to Newcastle United; Arthur Stewart, who went on to manage the Oval club after a spell in English football with Derby County; and striker Trevor Thompson, who scored twice for the Glens in the Celtic match.

Sammy Pavis, who later became a Linfield legend, scored the other two goals after coming on as a substitute.

Nineteen-year-old John Hughes hit four of the visitors' goals, with John Divers netting the other.

Celtic took only their travelling expenses from the gate receipts, with the rest of the profits going into Glentoran's coffers.

Celtic assistant manager, Sean Fallon, who was from Sligo and who had joined the Glasgow club as a player from Glenavon, told a Scottish newspaper that the Glentoran match had been extremely useful for his team.

He added: "We had a great game and the fans loved every minute of it, especially as they saw nine goals."

Fallon said he was glad that Glentoran scored two quick second-half goals.

"We were leading 3-1 at half-time and if things had gone as usual with such a score, we would have coasted through the last three quarters of the game. And that made every man on the field work hard. The visit was definitely Celtic's best investment since the start of the big freeze-up."

The Celtic team was Haffey, Young, Kennedy, Clarke, McNamee, Price, Chalmers, Craig, Hughes, Divers and Brogan. The subs were Gemmell for Kennedy; O'Neill for Clarke and Murdoch for Chalmers.

The Glentoran line-up was Rea, Borne, Wilson, Neill, Byrne, Stewart, Warburton, Hume, Thompson, Ross and Mitchell.

The subs were Pavis for Warburton and McDowell for Ross.

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