It is not often that a Northern Irish league game is one of the hottest tickets in town. On Saturday 13th April however, Cliftonville’s clash with Linfield at their ground Solitude was a sell-out, with supporters scrambling to grab home tickets for the encounter as soon as they entered the ticket office.
A win for Northern Ireland’s oldest club against their cross city rivals would ensure the return of the IFA Premiership to Solitude for the first time since 1998.
For those not too familiar with Northern Irish domestic football, the 2012/13 season in the world’s second oldest league has been a breath of fresh air and to an extent, re-igniting the passion of the local game. Giants have been toppled in the form of Belfast’s traditional ‘Big Two.’ Linfield, having previously won seven league titles in nine seasons, have been far from their usual dominating demeanour, while Glentoran continue to struggle amidst their financial mess.
This season has also enjoyed the unexpected arrival of village outfit Ballinamallard United in the top half of the table and welcomed the resurgence of the once great Coleraine.
For a league that had been criticised for becoming stale and predictable in recent years, it seemed as if anything could happen during this campaign. But one thing was for certain, a club other than Linfield or Glentoran would claim ‘The Gibson’ for the first time since 2002.
While battling for the top spot with fellow North Belfast neighbours Crusaders FC for most of the season, Cliftonville have remained composed at the top, rubbing salt into the wounds of their local rivals by demolishing them in the League Cup final back in January.
The return of the prodigal son, Liam Boyce, arriving back to North Belfast from German Bundesliga outfit Werder Bremen, in particular has been key to the success this season and the striker is in pole position to take this year’s golden boot in Northern Ireland.
With some breath taking performances throughout the league campaign, the stage was set for the Belfast Reds to clinch the league by Saturday 13th April, subject to a victory against their once dominant rivals Linfield FC.
On match-day, the terrace houses that line the Cliftonville Road were a sea of Red and White as they pledged support to their club with flags and banners. And it really is ‘their’ club. Cliftonville is owned by its supporters and what makes the Red’s achievements this season all the more remarkable is that the vast majority of players are local lads, many of whom have been raised through the youth ranks to the first team.
Only a win would secure the league title and while Linfield had looked to have spoilt the Red’s party with the game poised at 2-2, sheer drama unfolded. Cliftonville were awarded a penalty in the 94th minute which, if converted successfully, would see them crowned champions.
However, the Reds are no strangers to securing the league in dramatic fashion. 15 years before, the North Belfast side had to wait an agonising 60 minutes to confirm whether or not they had secured the league title and again, Linfield played a pivotal role in the saga.
For some reason, the IFA had set the Reds fixture with Glentoran at Solitude an hour before Linfield were due to take on Coleraine. In order for the Reds to be crowned champions, they had to equal or better Linfield’s result at Coleraine. With Cliftonville and Glentoran finishing all square, the capacity crowd at Solitude stayed within the stadium and listened in agony to the commentary of Linfield’s second half on the PA system.
As it stood in 1998, the North Belfast side had not won the league for 88 years, but for the hour that the supporters remained inside of the ground, the wait seemed much longer. In the end, agony turned into ecstasy for Cliftonville’s Red Army as the final whistle in Coleraine brought an end to another stalemate, with Linfield failing to capitalise on their draw. The league title was now on its way to North Belfast and the result also ensured that the Reds would enter the qualifying stages of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
It felt fitting, therefore, that in 2013, club captain and one club wonder George McMullan should step up and take the decisive spot kick. In the 94th minute, McMullan converted home with the last kick of the game to send the Reds’ fans at Solitude into the raptures. It was a Roy of the Rovers style scenario to clinch the league title in the last minute with a penalty against the current league holders but as they have proven in the past, the North Belfast side are no strangers to drama.
While the players, officials and fans are still savouring their league title success and the theatrics that came with it, sights are still set on more glory and record breaking for the fan owned club this season. With the IFA Premiership title and League Cup already in the trophy cabinet, the Reds are on the verge of completing a domestic treble which, if successful, will be the first in the club’s history. In this season’s Irish Cup final, Cliftonville will take on Glentoran, who stand in their way of laying claim to all three of the major trophies in Northern Irish domestic football and also lifting the cup for the first time since 1979.
However, with a few fixtures still left to play in this season’s league campaign, the North Belfast Reds could also surpass the 100 goal mark courtesy of their deadly finishing in front of goal. Additionally, the side will also enter the qualifying stages of the Champions League in July, the first time since their last league success back in 1998.
While the spirit of 1979 and 1998 has been looked back with extreme fondness by Cliftonville, the 2013 season will also be one that Northern Ireland’s oldest club will remember for a long while yet.
Follow Simon on Twitter @SiRowbotham