End of away day blues for Linfield fans at Solitude
Restrictions on Linfield fans travelling to games at the north Belfast stadium of rivals Cliftonville have been relaxed.
And for the first time in nearly 50 years, supporters of the Windsor Park side will be free to go to Solitude on the Cliftonville Road in their own cars.
The Reds' ground, which is in a largely nationalist area of the city, was totally out of bounds for the mainly loyalist supporters of Linfield for 28 years after sectarian riots following an Irish Cup Final against Ballymena United in 1970.
Fearing a repeat of the clashes as the security situation in Belfast worsened, the police ordered that all games between the two clubs should be played at Windsor Park.
However, in November 1998 the police ruled that Cliftonville could play their home games against Linfield at Solitude, but only after a plan was agreed to transport visiting supporters - who had to be members of the club or season ticket holders - by bus from a rendezvous point at Ballysillan Leisure Centre to Solitude in a convoy accompanied by the PSNI.
The first revived derby game at Solitude had a morning kick-off and the crowd was limited to just 1,500.
But the match - where Cliftonville fans unfurled a 'Cead Mile Failte (100,000 welcomes) Linfield' banner greeting opposition fans to Solitude - passed off without any incidents.
Subsequent games have also been peaceful, leading to calls from Linfield fans for them to be treated like all the other away supporters going to Solitude who don't face restrictions.
Blues fans have repeatedly protested that the bus-only travel arrangements, which involved supporters getting vouchers from their club, were unduly stringent and meant them spending up to an hour at Ballysillan waiting for the convoy to depart for Solitude, a short distance away.
Now Linfield have told their fans that the arrangements for the forthcoming game at Solitude on Saturday, August 25, have been revised after discussions between the two clubs and the PSNI. The official Linfield website says that their fans now have three options about how they will travel to the match.
It says individual supporters can still go on buses which will be laid on from Ballysillan, though they'll have to pay a £2 fee.
It also says organised groups, such as supporters clubs, can go in their own buses to the leisure centre and be escorted to Solitude.
However, significantly, the website says under option number three "supporters may travel to the ground using their own private transport and park in one of the designated areas at the away end of the stadium. Further information will be given to supporters on purchase of their match tickets".
Linfield said fans buying tickets for the game must advise the club which travel option they plan to use.
The website adds: "The cooperation of supporters in this matter would be greatly appreciated as we seek to ensure that these revised arrangements operate in a safe and effective manner."
Linfield and Cliftonville supporters have applauded the normalisation of the travel arrangements.
"The clubs deserve praise for their hard work," said one Linfield supporter.
"It's good to see another step along the road back to making things normal again," said a Cliftonville fan.
On a supporters' forum, however, a number of Linfield fans said they would not be going to the game because of the Cliftonville protest at the playing of God Save The Queen before their Irish Cup Final against Coleraine at Windsor Park in May.