Having once sworn that I would rather die of the most painful cancer known to mankind than set foot in Windsor Park, I reneged on my solemn oath and on Saturday 5th May 2018, and for the first time in my life, I attended the IFA Tennent's FA Cup final in Her British Majesty Elizabeth’s back garden – Windsor Park.
I am at times an enthusiastic and quite a passionate follower of soccer and especially the greatest sporting even in the world – the World Cup - but not ardent enough to follow local live ‘ground-ball’ to the extent where I would willingly part with my hard earned shillings or take time out from the comfort of the goggle box and physically travel to a game. Those occasions where I am parted from my shillings are mostly solely reserved for GAA matches which I find much more exciting and exhilarating to watch....that's the Fenian in me!
Although I have travelled to soccer matches in the past and travelled far afield too, those past occasions are very rare indeed. I’m more of your armchair follower of soccer, your ‘Blue Ribbon’ day supporter and occasionally when ‘She who must be obeyed’ permits, I am to be found on the high stool engaged in frivolous football banter, especially when imbued with copious amounts of liquor.
On this occasion, a relative of mine and a true soccer fan and fervent follower of all things Cliftonville - the Mighty Reds - invited me along to the final as he had a spare ticket I could avail off if I wished. The term ‘spare ticket’ sounding absurd when used in conjunction with an IFA sponsored match never mind a cup final. A term more congruous with GAA matches, especially finals.
Anyway I agreed and arrangements were made and off we set.
On the morning of the match we met at my local, and to comply with licensing laws I shall state for the record that we were not served before 11:30a.m., and had two pints each before setting off on Shank's mare down the road to where a pre-arranged coach would take us to Windsor Park.
Of course, all things as they are, we arrived slightly early for the coach and so determined that we had enough time for another few swift ones and so made a quick b-line to a local hole in the wall. On our second pint in this finest of well-known drinks emporiums our imbuing was excitedly interrupted by the organiser of the coach that they were leaving in 5 minutes and for us to throw it into us. Two plastic glasses were procured from a kindly barmaid and a quick change of receptacle and we were on the coach and supping our way over to Windsor. A journey that took far longer than was initially anticipated due to a world fair type thing and other events all being staged at various locations along Boucher Road on the same day. But eventually we arrived and dismounted the coach with specific instructions to be back here after the match as this is where the coach will be waiting ... totally reliable information!
On stepping on to the avenue leading up to that well known Unionist Ulster Protestant bastion, Windsor Park, an atmosphere attaining to that of a ‘cold house’ descended upon our shoulders.
We were not welcome and that was made very clear the closer we got.
We were first met and solicited by a line of Protestant God's disciples handing out religious flyers warning us that the end is nigh and to repent.
For a few like ourselves, ever so slightly inebriated and looking forward to another few inside, this hindrance in our path lead to some rather uncouth retorts. Which I have to say the disciples were oblivious too ... no doubt well trained to deal with heathens such as ourselves!
The next obstacle was a line of police and stewards who were checking we had tickets in order to proceed any further. Rounding a temporary path, as external work to Windsor is not complete, we were met by another line checking tickets and confiscating Irish Tricolours as they were not allowed. When questioned why, the stewards responded with the well known Nuremburg syndrome that was first witnessed at the post-war Nazi trials ... only following orders!
*****A policy that wasn’t reciprocated across the pitch where the Coleraine supporters and their Union Jack and Unionist 6 county flags were in clear view. And a policy that lead to one of those in our group remark that at least unlike the RUC, the PSNI were no longer beating the backs of the legs of you with their batons and telling you to move along as you walked to the various soccer grounds around the North....times had changed indeed!
Entering Windsor, is like entering any other sporting ground, you are immediately hit with the dull and lifeless grey concrete stanchions of the stand. Standing underneath and a quick look around and we spotted an outlet that was selling beer.
A quick dash up to the queue and before a minute had passed and we hadn’t budged the retail unit staff announced that there was no more beer, only soft drinks!
Much cursing and muttering followed only to be interrupted by one fan shouting that there is beer available on up the stand in another retail unit....we didn’t budge as all those in front of us made the dash and there was no way there was going to beer for everyone by the time we would have been served.
We stood around for a few minutes wondering what to do and contemplating the prospects of a sober afternoon when a member of staff came towards us with what only can be described as a bread tray loaded with plastic bottles of Budwiser beer. I made a quick dash to the counter and was in contention to be served.
The fan beside me ordered 6 bottles of beer and two bottles of water. The young staff member serving pulled the plastic bottles of Bud and poured them in to plastic glasses before handing them over....one at a time....by this time the retail unit was swamped with fans looking for a beer and the crush was starting to be felt by those of us at the front and the security stewards realising what was happening began to implement some form of crowd control.
Meanwhile the 6 bottles were poured and the young staff member being directed for two bottles of water also turned and walked away over to the fridge. While he was over there the 6 bottles disappeared back in to the dense crowd. He turned around and not seeing his customer and amid all the din shouted out who ordered the two bottles of water? I helped him out by informing him it was the same guy who ordered the 6 bottles of beer and who had now disappeared in to the crowd....he looked forlorn but then served me all the while keeping a very beady eye on me even though I told him I wouldn’t be doing the same thing...once bitten twice shy I suppose!
Beers drunk and match time approaching up we went to our unallocated seats and we ended up right bang in the middle of the stand...a perfect view.
Being a GAA fan and having visited many a provincial ground throughout Ireland and not unlike our visit to Barcelona's Nou Camp two years ago, the first thing that struck me was just how small the ground was and how compact the pitch and stadium are. But then again, GAA has 30 players on a pitch at any one time. How thousands of people were going to fit in here was anyone's guess but they did although the combination of all fans never came close to the limited capacity of Windsor.
As it was much publicised in the media, the IFA stripped of its political cosmetics, dutifully played England's God Save the Queen and the Cliftonville fans dutifully chanted and drowned out that awful and repulsive anthem. Cliftonville football club players protested with their arms linked and heads held down.
Unlike ex- Derry GAA player Paddy Bradley who stood tall with his Coleraine teammates as it was played....lacking in integrity can do that to you. A trait that Cathair O’Kane a columnist in the Irish news, 08/05/2018, also shares when he called for the removal of the tricolour and the singing of Amhrán na bhFiann at GAA matches to make Unionists more welcome....a call that would appear to have some logic if it wasn’t for the fact that Unionism despises all aspects of Irish culture and by its nature views GAA as a threat to its existence.
Anthem finished and the game began. Up went the ball and down, up went the ball and down and so it continued for quite sometime. In between this see-saw football Coleraine fans attempted to sing the English anthem but again were drowned out by cliftonville chanting. Some of the crowd behind us, more inebrited than ourselves began their own particular chants and one in particular stood out for our group and did warrant a curious glance round at the vocalists: “You Reds, You Reds, You reds, Arlene Foster takes up the bum, You Reds, You Reds, You Reds.......”
The connection was lost on me also!
This continued until Coleraine scored, then Cliftonville equalised and then Coleraine put two past the Reds and killed the game...plus won the game of course, last goal being scored by Mr Bradley himself and in celebration of his goal he ran towards the stand containg the true blue supporters ... those with union jacks and who attempted to celebrate their victory with a rendition of England’s anthem...which was once agin drowned out. Dead silence soon enveloped the Reds fans who’s hearts sank to the very pit of their stomachs...it wasn’t to be this year. Maybe on the 40th anniversary of when they last won it would be their year, which is next year.
Outside and back on the bus which was no where near where the driver said it would be the sombre mood switched away from the result and towards casual banter and ribbing.
How would I sum up the day?
Firstly the occassion of meeting friends and having a pint was priceless. The occassion being loaned more excitment than usual to it by the cup final.
Very poor quality football and I fully understand why crowd attendance at IFA games are so low even though the cup final contradicted the stats with the largest crowd in attendance in years.
Cold house for Catholics and Irish people. More warmth felt from a fridge.
Prior to this game, the Belfast Telegraph carried numerous stories based on Catholics from nationalist backgrounds stating as to why they chose to play for norn iron and how so many things have changed to make them feel more welcome....what these things were was never fully explained.
After all their years of spreading their false narrative that they are not sectarian or anti-Irish the IFA decision to play England’s anthem undid their hard worked fraudulent public relations and backed by their previous decison earleir in the season not to play Amhrán na bhFiann in case it upset the locals at an international under 20’s match in Lurgan between the South and norn iron only cemented it.
Why anyone from a Nationalist background would even consider to play for these sectarian racists is beyond me...perhaps money talks after all.
Best summed up by Gerard Lawlor, Chairman of Cliftonville Football club when he described the clubs treatment as shambolic:
I'll deal with that through the proper channels at the Irish FA. We aren't going to run but there are a lot people within the IFA, senior office bearers, who haven't been able to pick up the phone to me this week or look me in the eye because I would say they are quite embarrassed.
Not another shilliing will the IFA get from this punter.