A week after leaving Ireland I was touching down again, this time north of the border at George Best Airport, named after one of Belfast’s greatest sons. Best was born forty years too early. His antics at the height of his career would have hardly raised an eyebrow in today’s media spotlight dominated game, where anything and everything is expected and accepted from the modern-day footballer. In fact people may have concentrated on his footballing genius more rather than his off-the-field behaviour and his career may have been prolonged.
My abiding memory of my first trip to Belfast back in 1999 was sitting on a bus with the Current Mrs Fuller reading names out of a baby book whilst a group of school girls told us which would be their favourites, CMF was pregnant with our first-born at the time so it was par for the course that we headed overseas for the weekend and walked miles around a city that was going through radical change. Faced with the transition of our life for the next 20 years into responsible parenting, we crammed in as many trips abroad as we could handle and afford.
Belfast was a very different place back then. The shipyards of Harland and Wolf were in decline, the great history of building The Titanic an inconvenient truth of a once glorious industry. It still wasn’t recommended to wander down the Falls or Shankill Roads and the police stations still looked like watchtowers in prisoner of war camps. We wandered the city centre, enjoying the last few weeks of adult irresponsibility, eating well, drinking well (or at least I did) and then headed down to Ravenhill to watch the then European Rugby Champions and pride of Northern Ireland, Ulster, take on Wasps.
Earlier this season I started writing a new regular column for the Lewes FC match programme. Entitled Rooking All Over The World, I tried to find a club playing in every UEFA country that wore a similar red and black striped kit. Not as easy as it first seems. Eintract Frankfurt, OGC Nice, IP Brommapojkarna in Sweden and Belfast’s own Crusaders FC. Any club that plays at a ground called Seaview, where there isn’t actually a view of the sea is a winner in my book. I imaged every week some Basil Fawlty character fending off complains from visiting fans about the lack of a sea view, pointing out if they cared to climb the floodlights with a pair of binoculars then you could just make it out over there, between the land and the sky.
So why Seaview? Well this was the first question I asked Crusaders Media manager Michael Long when I met him at lunch time before the game versus Warrenpoint Town. It’s always a lottery when you try to connect with a club before a visit. Some simply ignore requests, others request all manner of documents to prove your identity and credentials and then there are clubs like Crusaders who couldn’t have been more accommodating, inviting me up to the ground early doors for a tour and a history lesson. And what a lesson it was. Pride oozes out of every pore of Long’s body at being involved in the club he has supported since a child. Crusaders are a fan-owned club – of course they are, all the best teams sporting the black and red always are. The rebirth of the club is almost identical to the story of Lewes Football Club in the last few years, from almost financial ruin at the hands of the taxman to a thriving community club, owned by the fans, run by the fans.
“Back in the day” Michael had taken me behind the East Stand where the perimeter wall separated the football ground from the train line, “the water used to be on the other side of the wall. The view from the main stand would be of ships coming in and out of the shipyards”. Today the land has been reclaimed and now there is the M2 motorway and an industrial estate on the other side of the railway tracks. The club have made the most of grants to build a decent little ground, but is this where their future lay?”
“We drew up plans to move a few miles north to Fort William”, which is now where the core of their support come from “but the process has been problematic and we are now back at square one”. With crowds for most games hovering around the 1,200 mark and some excellent facilities, including the 3G pitch, that have turned the club into a 7-day a week business, some fans may not see a need to move anywhere. But Long once again talked about progression on and off the pitch, and you could get the sense that the club do not see standing still as an option. Michael gave me the full tour with genuine pride. Whilst the names of the famous players from yesteryear were new to me, his animated story-telling brought them.
The club also hold a record in British football. In 1979 when they hosted Cliftonville in an Ulster Cup match there were over 1,900 police officers on duty in and around Seaview, more than have ever been involved at a football match on British soil. More than Cardiff City v Swansea City, Millwall v West Ham or even Lewes v Peacehaven & Telscombe.
The two clubs are separated by just 1.5 miles although in Belfast terms that is a big divide, especially in the North and West of the city. The rivalry of the two clubs was heightened during The Troubles with Crusaders having a traditional Unionist following whilst Cliftonville are based in the mainly Nationalist areas. What was clear though is the huge amounts of work the two clubs have undertaken in their respective communities to reduce the tensions. In two weeks the real proof would be in the pudding as Cliftonville would be visiting Seaview for what promised to be a top of the table clash.
Life is good at Seaview at the moment. The club is progressing with redevelopment plans that have seen two new stands constructed at either end of Seaview in recent years, new floodlights as well as the real golden goose, the 3G pitch which is used every day of the year. Yep, even Christmas Day when the club hosts the annual Steel and Sons Cup Final match which can attract thousands of fans, fed up with Christmas Jumpers and sprouts boiled to death.
My lofty position atop the Main Stand certainly gave me a good view of the rooftops of Belfast and the massive cranes at Harland and Wolff but damn it was chilly. 24 hours earlier we’d had tropical temperatures of nearly 24 degrees in London but now it was gloves and scarf weather, neither of which I owned. Schoolboy error in these parts where it’s essential to pack for all four seasons in a day. Plan B deployed – chips with chicken gravy – it’s what all the kool kids were eating in North Belfast.
Crusaders 3 Warrenpoint Town 0 – Seaview – Saturday 1st November 2014
Unsurprising the opening exchanges all took place in the Warrenpoint half. The visitors from on the border with Southern Ireland arrived propping up the league with just 8 points and fell behind with jut 12 minutes in the clock when centre-forward Jordan Owens stroked the ball home from close range. Five minutes later Owens missed a sitter when cleverly put through by the impressive Whyte. The artificial surface certainly suited the Hatchet Men’s play, building from the back and constantly looking for the pass behind the centre-backs. The torrential rain didn’t make it easy but as a spectator you always had that feeling that it would lead to a calamitous mistake at some point in the afternoon.
Warrenpoint came back into the game with false nine (wearing 10 of course) Stephen Hughes creating a few chances as the half wound up. In keeping with being one of the nicest clubs in the world I was invited into the boardroom at half-time for a hot sausage or two and heralded as a guest of honour by the Chairman. In fact everyone I was introduced to seemed to know of me. It was like the episode of Only Fools and Horses (again I know) where Rodney brings a video camera home from college and Del starts selling roles in his play to the regulars in the Nags Head.
Crusaders came out for the second half all guns blazing again, knowing that a 1-0 scoreline was far too dangerous to hold onto when the conditions were so poor. In the philosophy of John Beck, it doesn’t matter what a goal looks like, you only get one point for it on the scoreboard. And he is right. Crusaders second was as ugly as Iain Dowie in a Halloween mask. Owens shot from point-blank range was well saved by the Warrenpoint keeper, the rebound hit a defender then Owen again before O’Carroll got his shin to it and it rolled into the net. Fortunately number three, scored in the 67th minute was better looking (think Holly Willoughby as an air stewardess…….oh, sorry) as Owen drilled the ball home from 25 yards.
Crusaders had their tails up but couldn’t find another goal. A three-nil win kept them in the leading pack and everyone happy in the boardroom after the game. It had been a top afternoon, spent in the company of fellow devotees to a club at the heart of their community. Now to negotiate the trip back into the city centre in the pouring rain.
My hotel was in the University district meaning that it was over run by fake zombies and girls wearing lingerie and a smattering of fake blood…oh, and a group of boys dressed as One Direction – “the ultimate scary sight” as one reveller told me. Fast forward twelve hours and the dregs of the Halloween celebrators were not enjoying the beautiful, crisp Sunday morning with the sun illuminating the carnage of the night before. The irony of seeing a chap, dressed as Dracula, sitting on the steps of a church wasn’t lost on me although I’m sure he wouldn’t get a particularly warm welcome from the congregation.
Belfast had been brilliant. Come prepared for rain, sleet, snow and sunshine and you cannot fail to enjoy yourself. Despite being just a hundred or so miles apart, the two capital cities of Belfast and Dublin offer two different views on life and above all football. Whilst the fan exodus continues to take place every Saturday, you get the feeling that football is in ruder health North of the border and clubs are learning to adapt and grow, whereas in the South, the competition posed by the more traditional Irish sports is simply a war of fan attention that the club’s simply cannot win