Belfast Telegraph

Why Cliftonville v Linfield is set to be north Belfast's El Clasico


By Henry McDonald

Comparisons with the Bernabeu may seem extravagant, but the Reds' Solitude ground hosts Northern Ireland's answer to the legendary Spanish derby on Saturday.

Every time Barcelona's Gerard Pique touched the ball, 80,000-plus Real Madrid fans booed, wolf-whistled and jeered, turning the Santiago Bernabeu into a cauldron of eardrum-splitting noise and abuse.

The defender had upset the Real faithful even before a ball was kicked at Sunday night's El Clasico, which turned out to be one of the greatest football matches this writer has ever had the privilege to attend.

As Spain anguishes over yet another financial scandal involving establishment politicians accused of lining their own pockets, while unemployment remains at around 20% and the losers in the crash continue to pay an horrendous price, Pique took a pot-shot at the Castilian elite.

In a pre-Clasico interview, Pique pointed to a VIP box at the Bernabeu, where Madrid's political, business and religious leaders sit to watch Real. Here, Pique claimed, was where those that had got Spain into such a financial and moral mess could be seen.

Pique's comments, with their Catalan separatist undertones, enraged the overwhelmingly "unionist" Real Madrid support-base, who saw them as merely a pre-game attempt to wind up them and their team.

As well as marvelling alongside my son and many around us in the stadium at the genius of Lionel Messi (the two-goal match-winner in this breathtaking clash watched by an audience of 650m), the venom directed at Pique reminded this fan of the type of opprobrium heaped on rival players even in far more humble sporting arenas.

Believe it or not, but amid the offensive chants about Pique and others in the red and blue stripes, my thoughts turned to another game, which would take place eight days later back in Belfast and one which will also undoubtedly decide where another league title goes this season.

On Saturday, this writer will be back watching live football, but this time swapping the electrifying atmosphere of the greatest soccer show on earth at the Bernabeu for the shabbier, but much-loved, surroundings of Solitude in north Belfast.

Under the shadow of Cavehill, we will gather, or at least a majority of us will, to support Cliftonville in our final game of the Premiership season versus our old rivals Linfield.

The stakes for the Blues at Solitude could not be higher, certainly not for a long time, certainly not since the era of north Belfast domination began with the Reds' first league win in this century four seasons ago.

Linfield need just a draw in order to secure the Gibson Cup, having caught up with a Crusaders team that just a few weeks ago seemed guaranteed of achieving an unprecedented three-in-a-row series of Irish Premiership titles.

For the last few months, we Reds fans have had to look on as spectators, while our north Belfast rivals slugged it out with David Healy's ever-improving side.

Until this Saturday, Cliftonville's season had been a side-show, a race to gain a Europa League play-off place. Yet, now, as the final day of the season approaches, Cliftonville find themselves in the position of determining who will lift the Gibson Cup.

Already, this strange end-of-season scenario has divided opinion at least among some Reds fans on online discussion boards and chatrooms.

One "faction" appears at least to be suggesting Cliftonville field an under-strength, youth-orientated side and not bother too much with challenging Linfield.

They are probably motivated by a rising antipathy among some fans towards Crusaders, particularly after the north Belfast derby earlier in the season, when Reds legend Ryan Catney suffered an horrific leg injury at Seaview.

Reds fans were incensed that, while writhing in agony after what appeared to be a 50-50 tackle, a bone protruding from his leg, Crusaders players rounded on the referee urging him to give Catney the red card.

The match official did so and Catney was sent off - even while he was being stretchered off the pitch, an oxygen mask on his face.

What some fans might not know was that Crusaders manager, Stephen Baxter, who has masterminded the Shore Road men's back-to-back titles, took time out to visit Catney in hospital as a show of solidarity to a player who gives his all on the pitch.

Many of those aware of this also belong to that traditional section of the Cliftonville support which regards Linfield the way Barcelona and most other teams in La Liga look upon Real Madrid - both sides are seen as the Establishment, who, in the Belfast club's case, enjoy wealth, privilege and advantage because their ground is also an international stadium.

This segment of the Cliftonville fanbase would prefer if Crusaders prevail this weekend and perform an historic hat-trick of titles, which so eluded the Solitude outfit a couple of years ago.

Many of these supporters (yours truly, to declare a dog in the fight) are particularly irritated at the way elements in the sports media still patronise the so-called "lesser" sides in Belfast. Their reference even now to Glentoran and Linfield as the "Big Two" is as offensive as it is inaccurate - given north Belfast's domination over the last five years, all done without the riches, or advantages, enjoyed by our rivals in the south and east of the city down through the decades.

In the same way that a lot of the hostility in the Celtic nations towards the England football team is generated by the way the English media fawns over the English side, the deference shown to Linfield compounds similar antipathy towards Windsor Park.

None of this may be fair and it ignores the admirable work Linfield has done in its recruitment policy and the way Healy has patiently rebuilt the side after such an unprecedented fallow period.

But it is worth returning to La Liga and "that" match last Sunday to remind all of the Cliftonville support that there is something far more important at stake on Saturday than raining on either the Crues' or the Blues' parade.

Aside from witnessing the magic of Messi, where even off the ball his movements were mesmerising, there was another quality that shone through in the Barca side. Under incredible pressure, Barcelona did not drop their heads after Rodriquez equalised with five minutes to go. You could see the determination in their faces as Barca continued to press forward, knowing that only a win would keep them in the title hunt. They were being driven on with a collective pride, a sense of dignity, a belief that they could do more.

Pride and dignity - as well as a Europa League place - are what should be on the minds of the men in Red when they walk onto the Solitude pitch on Saturday - never mind how it impacts on the Blues, or the Crues.

Besides, they will have Tommy Breslin and Peter Murray behind them as they line up for the final game of what has been an unfulfilling Premiership campaign.

Now there is a duo who know all a bout those twin qualities and how they can drive a side, even against the odds, and on to victory.

Belfast Telegraph


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