Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Football's last great taboo?
At approx 4pm on Tuesday afternoon, Irish League Champions Linfield FC will begin the short 70 mile drive from South Belfast to Northern Ireland's second town to play a friendly against Derry City.
Derry City have hosted friendlies against the likes of Celtic, but not welcomed Linfield since 1969. (TonyMarshall/Empics)
Up until 1969 this would have been a journey of little consequence - one that both teams made every season as they competed against each other in Irish League competitions.
However - 1969 was to be no normal year for Northern Ireland. It was the year in which the Civil Rights campaign against the province's government disintegrated into communal violence, ushering-in 30 years of 'The Troubles'.
It was also to be the last time Linfield played a match in Derry's Brandywell Stadium, leading to the 36 year creation of one of football's great taboos.
To properly understand how this situation arose requires an insight into the background of both clubs.
Linfield FC (a.k.a. The Blues) are considered Northern Ireland's equivalent to Glasgow Rangers.
The club plays in red, white and blue, is based in a working-class Protestant area of South Belfast, has a staunchly Protestant support base, and has historically been the best supported and most successful club in the Irish League.
In the past the team also had an unofficial 'policy' of not signing Catholic players for a number of years, and occasionally has problems with sectarian chanting from a small but vocal section of their support. To its credit, the club has taken steps to distance itself from its perceived sectarian past and to deal firmly with bigotry amongst its supporters, but the team remains essentially a bastion of Protestant Ulster.
Derry City FC are in many ways the polar opposite to the Belfast Blues. The club is based in a city with a large Catholic majority population - surrounded on three-sides by the border with the Irish Republic, and geographically cut-off from the rest of Northern Ireland by a large river.
Unlike Linfield, Derry City could not fairly be accused of having a sectarian past - managing to attract both Catholic and Protestant supporters throughout its days in the Irish League and beyond.
However - the location of the club's Brandywell stadium in a staunchly Republican area of the city meant that as Northern Ireland slid into civil chaos in the late 1960s, the club became overwhelmingly identified with the Catholic community.
This identity has been reinforced over time - particularly as the club joined the Republic of Ireland's football league structure in 1985.
The events that lead to the cessation of Linfield's competitive games at the Brandywell are understandably linked to the out-break of The Troubles in 1969.
As Northern Ireland slowly descended into near civil-war in the late 60s, football matches between certain Catholic and Protestant teams began to echo the wider trouble of the time.
The Brandywell fell prey to this in January 1969, when a Linfield away match was marred by crowd trouble.
The months that followed this event saw the general political situation decline into full-scale civil disorder at locations across the province, including areas in the vicinity of the Brandywell Stadium.
Linfield declared that they would no longer travel to the city for matches on security grounds, and for the next 2 seasons Derry were instead forced to play 'home' games against them at Linfield's Windsor Park stadium in a staunchly Protestant area of Belfast. It was soon to transpire that the 25th January 1969 game would be the last time Linfield would play at the Brandywell stadium for over 36 years.
Events took an even greater turn for the worse for Derry City FC in September 1971.
With large chunks of the city a 'no go' area for the police and an IRA bombing campaign focused on the town centre, a gang of youths unconnected to football hijacked the bus of a visiting team from outside the Brandywell Stadium before a league game.
As a result, the other Irish League teams joined Linfield in refusing to play fixtures at the Brandywell. Derry were forced to travel 40 miles away to a nearby Protestant town to play their home games instead.
The game also has a role to play in bolstering the political dream for the future of Northern Ireland.
This situation lasted until October 1972 when, faced with dwindling crowds and dire finances, the club formally requested permission to return to the Brandywell.
Despite a Security Forces assessment that the Brandywell was no more dangerous than any other ground in the league, City's proposal fell by a single vote at the hands of their fellow Irish League teams. Devastated, Derry withdrew from senior football the following day.
That year, 1972, therefore signalled the end of Derry City's involvement in the Irish League, and with it competitive games against Linfield. But that wasn't the end of Derry. The club lived on as a junior team, seeking re-admission to the Irish League on a number of occasions over the following 13 years.
Each time, the club nominated the Brandywell Stadium as its chosen ground. Each time, the Irish League refused to re-admit them - despite significant improvements in the overall security situation over the years. Suspecting that refusal was at least in part motivated by political/sectarian motives, and believing they would never gain re-admission to the Northern Irish League, Derry instead secured special permission from UEFA to join the Republic's 'League of Ireland' structure from the 1985/86 season onwards.
Derry City therefore returned to senior football as a Northern Irish team playing in the Republic of Ireland's league.
Finally back in senior football, Derry City introduced a significant change in policy from its days in the Irish League. The changes in the political situation of the province over the previous 13 years meant that the Northern Irish Police force (the RUC) did not have the support of a large swathe of the Catholic population.
In fact, their presence in Republican areas such as the Brandywell was considered more likely to provoke trouble than to solve it.
Given the political reality of the situation, Derry City again secured dispensation from UEFA and agreement from the RUC that the club would effectively police all its own matches with volunteer stewards.
This policy has proven to be very effective, and for the last 20 years the Brandywell has peacefully entertained crowds of up to 10,000 - including games against the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid - without a single police officer present.
Linfield have been Northern Irish champions 45 times. They celebrate their 1993/4 title here. (Photography/Empics)
The downside of this policy, however, is that it has further solidified Derry's identity as a Catholic club and further alienated a number of its original Protestant supporters.
With its footballing future secure in the southern league, Derry began to play a number of friendly matches against their previous Irish League opponents.
Beginning at first with uncontentious games against Catholic clubs (or teams with no strong religious identity), they then progressed onto a minor tournament involving teams north and south of the border from the Derry region. The club even accepted invites to travel to Belfast to play the likes of Linfield and Glentoran (another club strongly associated with the Protestant community) in testimonial games in the 1990s. But the return of Linfield to the Brandywell was the great taboo - the game that no-one dared suggest.
The belief was that it just wouldn't work. Linfield wouldn't want to come without a police presence, the locals wouldn't want the Linfield fans or the Police in the area, and the game would only attract those on both sides looking for trouble. As the years went by, the bizarre situation arose whereby two teams that never actually played each other were increasingly viewed as major rivals.
Meanwhile, significant change was occurring within Northern Irish society itself. An IRA ceasefire in 1996 was followed by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, ushering in a new dawn. Slowly but surely the province was changing. Army posts were being dismantled, terrorist weapons silenced, and broad changes to make Northern Ireland a 'normal' society were being put in place.
Seven years later and some significant, if not incomplete, progress has been made. And as one would expect, the social and political changes within society are also slowly impacting upon the game of football.
For the first time in 25 years, both football associations on the island feel the climate is right to hold a full-scale competitive North-South football competition. Involving cross-border home and away games for 3 clubs from each League, the Setanta Cup competition has a significant prize fund of 400,000 euros, will be televised live, and is eagerly anticipated by football fans north and south.
Linfield are one of the Irish League's representatives in this year's inaugural competition - facing their first competitive trip to the Irish Republic since their 1979 and 1984 European Cup ties there resulted in crowd trouble. But that was 21 years ago. The likelihood for trouble at Linfield's cross-border games in this year's Setanta Cup is considered low - particularly as no contentious ties are involved. But nonetheless - the possibility still exists.
Which brings us back to Tuesday's friendly match between Derry City and Linfield at the Brandywell. Derry aren't in this year's Setanta Cup, but their appearance in the competition is considered likely at some point in the future. There is therefore a real possibility that Linfield's term of exile from the Brandywell Stadium will shortly need to come to an end.
The philosophy is, therefore, to reduce the possibility for trouble at a future such competitive game by breaking the 36 year taboo now in the form of a friendly.
Furthermore - with a Linfield trip to the Brandywell the last forbidden frontier in Irish football, such a game is considered a litmus test on the likelihood of Linfield's games against southern Irish opposition in this year's Setanta Cup passing-off without trouble.
If Linfield's unionist/loyalist fans can visit nationalist Derry and watch a game of football in a Police-free Brandywell Stadium in a Republican area of the city without incident, then the expectation is that their Setanta Cup games should prove equally uneventful.
Finally - alongside the footballing aspect, the game also has a role to play in bolstering the political dream for the future of Northern Ireland.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland themselves admit that the event is a test of how far the normalisation of the province's society has gone.
To this end, significant planning has gone into minimising the likelihood of trouble.
Traditions run deep at Linfield. (Photography/Empics)
The game is all-ticket, no flags or emblems of any kind will be allowed into the ground, Linfield fans will be bussed in and out of the city and escorted to and from the ground by a private security firm, and both Clubs have stressed to their supporters how important it is to set a positive example.
Amongst the fans themselves, attitudes toward the game are mixed. Derry fans appear broadly positive, if apprehensive, about the visit of Linfield fans to their stadium. Linfield fans feel the timing is wrong, coming as it does at a key point in their attempt to retain their title, and generally appear more apprehensive and less supportive of the game than their counterparts at Derry - perhaps reflecting the fact that they are the away fans.
Whilst there are advocates and begrudgers of the game on both sides of the debate, all supporters recognise the PR focus on the match and fear the negative impact of any trouble. Perhaps it's a good omen that both believe that any trouble that does occur will most likely be the result of hangers-on rather than true supporters of either of their clubs.
Regardless of opinion - by 10pm on Tuesday we'll finally know if one of football's great taboos has at last been laid to rest.