Liam Beckett: Is Windsor Park too big for Linfield and Irish League football?
There is no doubt the new Windsor Park is a magnificent stadium that we can all be very proud of but, let’s be totally honest here, it’s far too big for the bread and butter of Irish League football.
When Northern Ireland are in town, the place is packed to the rafters and the atmosphere is incredible but, sadly, you can count on one hand the number of times in one year that Windsor Park is rocking with the Green and White Army.
The rest of the time it’s the home of Linfield FC and, even though domestic crowds are on the increase, unfortunately for the Blues home games are now played in a cold, soulless and practically empty stadium.
Even for the top Irish League games, the new Windsor Park is now 80% empty and completely devoid of atmosphere. For me, the stark reality is that if Linfield are not careful then they are in grave danger of losing their very identity.
Agreed, the old Windsor was in dire need of a makeover, but it always had a homely feel to it, the kettle was always on the boil and a friendly cuppa was never too far away.
Then, as a player, once you stepped onto the Windsor turf you were met by a cauldron of noise from a packed Spion Kop in particular — that’s when you really knew you were playing Linfield.
The atmosphere was electric and always intimidating, but something as a player you always looked forward to. Now, sadly, those days would appear to have gone — and gone forever.
I now detect a lack of genuine warmth when I arrive.
Unfortunately all I see now are people and supporters milling around the place acting more like numbers than human beings, which will do absolutely nothing to entice people back for more — indeed, more of what?
Then when both teams finally do commence battle nowadays, such is the size of the place, they more often than not resemble the last two Maltesers rattling around inside the otherwise empty box.
It honestly feels to me that Linfield have suddenly become strangers in their own home and that is an extremely dangerous precedent to set.
I also get the feeling that their marriage with the Irish Football Association, who are long-term tenants of Windsor Park, is not an altogether happy one. In fact, I am of the firm opinion that it is exactly the opposite.
Several Blues fans have already voiced their disapproval and dissatisfaction with the current set-up and I can fully understand their concerns. Just like all other football supporters, they are the lifeblood of their club and deserve to be treated accordingly.
Perhaps in hindsight, what should have happened is that Windsor Park should have been completely refurbished into a maximum 8,000 capacity all-seater stadium which would have been more than sufficient for all Linfield games and indeed all the domestic cup finals as well.
That would have ensured a much better atmosphere for the Blues and all other teams playing there but, more importantly, it would also have guaranteed Linfield retaining their identity.
An international stadium should have been a separate project, perhaps built at Midgley Park (or vice-versa).
Linfield are a proud club, but that doesn’t give them the right to ignore the warning signs. They are not invincible and they are not bulletproof.
Many of their fans feel threatened. Supporters will only tolerate so much before they rebel and vote with their feet, so it’s essential the club take whatever steps deemed necessary to cure the problem — and quickly.
I know most of the Linfield board and they are good, decent people, but perhaps some have developed something of a soft centre and maybe pandered to the wrong people.
My advice to club custodians is very simple. Don’t let the wrong type of people dictate your future, or threaten your very identity, especially those whose own record on major decision making is particularly flawed and embarrassing to say the least.
The ball is firmly in your court, gentlemen.