Clifton (32)Saturday 9th September 2017 3pm
Northern Ireland League Premier
Cliftonville 2 Dungannon Swifts 1 HT: 0-0 ATT: 804
Entrance £11, Programme £2 Coffee £1
Breen 51, Gormley 61 : Hegarty 78

from Solitude, Cliftonville Street, Belfast, BT14 6LP

Clifton (24)aThis was the second game of my Northern Ireland odyssey, after watching Glenavon on the Friday night. Northern Ireland, being the size it is, and with the excellent transport system, meant all five Saturday games were available to me, but I wanted to visit the oldest club in the country. Cliftonville Football & Athletic Club, to give them their full name, were founded in 1879 and like fellow Belfast clubs Linfield and Glentoran have been ever-present in the top flight since its inception in 1890. They have won the league five times (one being a shared title in 1906 with Distillery) including back to back wins in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Their main rival are Crusaders, a short distance away in north Belfast, but they also have healthy rivalries with the ‘big two’ Belfast clubs, Linfield and Glentoran. They have played at their ground, the wonderfully and inscrutably named Solitude, since 1890, making it the oldest surviving ground in Ireland. Cliftonville have played every season of the top flight there. The name reflects the area, which has been known as Solitude since at least 1785.

The NIFL Danske Bank Premiership has been in its present format since 2008-09, reducing from 16 to 12 clubs. In this respect it is very much paralleling the Welsh League. However, the average attendance for top flight games in NI is around 1,000, substantially more than the Welsh average. Champions Linfied average over 2,000. Despite Wales’s population being 3m compared to NI’s 1.8m it suffers from the bigger clubs playing in England, whereas NI’s don’t. As for quality of football it’s difficult to judge but I’d guess it was slightly higher in Ireland.

There are many interesting facts regarding Cliftonville, enough to warrant bullet points:

  • When the penalty kick was invented in 1890, the first International such spot kick was taken and missed at Solitude, home to the Ireland teams of the 1890s and 1900s.
  • Ireland avoided defeat to England for the only time in their 13 meetings at Solitude on March 3rd 1894, when Ireland came from 2-0 down to equalise.
  • In 1891 Cliftonville became the first Irish club to use floodlights.
  • In the 1890s Cliftonville played in the English FA Cup. in 1886/7 they beat Blackburn Park Road 7-2 before losing at home to Partick Thistle 11-0!
  • In 1888 they lost to Linfield 7-0, the only FA Cup match to date, played on Christmas Day.

I walked to Solitude from the centre of Belfast, stopping off on the way at the Crumlin Road Jail, now a visitor attraction and absolutely superb. Only £7.50 entrance for a fascinating hour and a quarter talk through its history. It only closed in 1996 and was at times holding Bobby Sands, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley. Often, former inmates do the tour. It has hanged 17 prisoners, the last being in 1961.

All four Belfast clubs shown in this map (Linfield playing at the national stadium, Windsor Park)

It’s only a short walk from the Crumlin Road to Solitude and ones appetite is whetted walking through the streets with many a mural, a common theme in the city.

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The above was the first, with still half a mile to walk. In the fashion of all great football grounds the floodlights appeared like an oasis on the horizon, seen through the aperture of a terraced row of houses, a portent of something wonderful to come.

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At the top of Cliftonville Street two striking murals adorn an end terrace and adjoining wall. They certainly add to the theatre of the matchday atmosphere.

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Solitude’s current capacity in 2,530, but the upper section of their main stand is unused for safety reasons. Their usual capacity would be 6,224. The large covered Cage terrace, behind the goal,the spiritual home of the die hard fans, was replaced with a very steep seated stand in 2008. It holds 1,341. The main stand, which greats you at the entrance is a masterpiece, if not a Leitch stand, then a very good replica of one, with the massive top tier overhanging a bottom tier, that’s a mixture of terracing and seating. The seating is multi-coloured in red, blue and white and looks fantastic.

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New stand that replaced the Cage Terrace

Cliftonville is a welcoming club. Having made enquiries on their Twitter feed, I was invited to their pre-match lunch at the bowling club at 12.30. I didn’t take them up, visiting the Crumlin Road Jail instead, but it was very appreciated and warmed me to the club.

Dungannon Swifts were the visitors today. They had won two, lost three, two points ahead of Cliftonville, who despite starting with a 6-3 victory over Ards, had lost three and drawn one. Today’s game was a lot closer than last night’s at Glenavon. Both teams showed promise and had chances but the first half was goalless.

Cliftonville struck first on 50 minutes from a corner when Breen struck a flying header in off a corner. Ironically this was after Dungannon had started the half firing and looking the better team. Despite Dungannon still improving the Reds struck again on 61 when Gormley took the ball on the right, cut in and curled the ball into the far top corner. It was a mtach winner.

Swifts got a goal back with a far post header, but Cliftonville held on to their victory.

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Dungannon’s consolation

Cliftonville was a superb footballing experience from start to finish, from the mural on Oldpark Avenue to the final whistle. I enjoyed my two games in Ireland and want to return for more. There being only 12 teams in the top flight I figure only five more cheap flights and I can complete this league. Mmmm…

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Friday 8th September 2017
Northern Ireland Football League Premiership
Glenavon 2 Carrick Rangers 0 HT: 0-0 Att: 974
Clingan 66p, Mitchell 87

from Mourneview Park, Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland BT66 8EW

DSC03360This was my first bout of ‘extreme’ hopping. Not knowing what I wanted for my birthday in August, I had about £125 cash. A few google searches later I found an attractive double in Northern Ireland, £46 return flight from Liverpool. Glenavon on the Friday night and Cliftonville on the Saturday.

If you’re a fortysomething, Northern Ireland drums up lots of iconic memories and feelings. Toxic politics, religious skirmishes, unrest, trouble, edginess – not a place you’d ordinarily choose to visit. Most of the troubles are in the past now, but the flash memories of ugly scenes in Belfast in the eighties were my only reference. I was interested to see what it was like now.

The flight was 34 minutes and I was out and at large in Belfast by 9am. First impressions were that it was surprisingly empty for morning rush hour. Whereas London and other growing cities are bursting at the seems and far too crowded, Belfast seemed too big, like a big family house where the children have flown the nest. It felt like it needed shrinking. Empty shops and areas of dereliction seemed to bear this point out.

I’d liked it, however. It was unpretentious and quiet – just how I like a city. It’s quite serene, the traffic isn’t bad, there are no queues, you can get cheap food and drink. Not the smug arrogant bastard that is London; with its supposed brilliant transport system where you shuffle at 1/2 mph through the underground in a big anthill mound of people through so many tunnels you may as well have walked; and its supposed amazing coffee shop and pub cluture where the simple act of getting a coffee or pint involves standing ten deep in a queue.

I enjoyed a very pleasant day in Belfast, the most unstressful big city I’ve ever visited. I did a mini tour of the best-rated craft beer hostelries. The Crown Liquor Saloon was an amazingly ornate unique building, worth visiting for the architecture alone. It dates back to the 1820s and was a Victorian gin palace. The exterior is decorated with polychromatic tiles, carved-mahogany booths, etched and stained glass, gas lamps and carved ceilings. The 10 booths or snugs each contain original gun metal plates for striking matches and an antique bell system for alerting staff.



It is now a Nicholson’s pub, and the beer choice wasn’t quite as flamboyant as the architecture, with only two or three guests plus some Belfast regular beers.

The Garrick is an 1870s pub that does a huge range in bottled beers and had a fair few on tap from local breweries.


My personal favourite was the Sunflower in the north of Belfast. A great selection of local beers and good ambience, with a hippy vibe going on.

The John Hewitt specialised in Keg beers and had a selection of about 5/6 local brews.

On the way to the station I stopped at Bittles Bar, a bar near the docks in a flatiron style building. Many murals adorn the wall showing the recent history of Ireland and it had cask and keg beers on offer.


Glenavon play in Lurgan, a town 25 miles south west of Belfast, a 50 minutes train ride and only £7.30. The town was once known for linen manufacturing, but is now suffering a decline, not least because of the ‘new’ town of Craigavon next door and its retail park. It has a population of 23,000 and is still more or less separated georaphically between protestant and catholics. It’s quite a walk from Lurgan station to Mourneview and I barely passed a soul down the quiet uniform streets.


The Mourneview Park floodlights were a welcome sight, coming in to the housing estate where it resides.


Sturdy floodlights with a European tinge. Just down from the ground a convenience store was adorned with murals. Kids hung around it and the nearby chip shop, like kids did in the eighties. There were some climbing on the roofs of the store.


Religion is still a major part of the Irish identity. As I approached the entrance to Mourneview Park I thought the old guy was selling either raffle tickets or first-goal-minute tickets; what he gave me was an leaflet inviting me to let Jesus Christ in to my life. Jesus Christ! Inside the stadium a huge mural on the back wall at one end proclaims ‘Life without Jesus makes no sense’. Maybe Man CIty could use that one this season?


The stadium is considered one of the best in the NI League. It has hosted Northern Ireland Under 21 Internationals and a League Cup Final. This was the only fallow end of the stadium. The rest were three sizable stands with a total capacity of 4,160 with 3,200 seats. The stadium dates back to 1895 but the stands are relatively recent. The team date back to 1889. They’ve won the Irish League three times, the last one being in 1959-60.


Glenavon could have gone into second place with a win, with Carrick Rangers, from Carrickfergus, having made a slow start with one win in five and only four goals scored. The game bore out the respective league positions. Carrick, disappointingly, came to defend in numbers and get a draw or a sneaky win. Such tactics I find torturous and disappointing – it is a spectator sport after all.

Glenavon looked much the better team and created many chances but were continually thwarted by an outstretched leg or poor finishing or last gasp tackle. 32 away fans stood down the bottom end of the Glenfield Road stand, which holds 2,000. Home fans congregated in the long high Geddis Stand (1,800) and the Crescent Stand behind the goal (400).

It was 0-0 at half time and had the feel of a frustrating evening of no goals and Carrick getting their point. However, on 67 Carrick defender Paddy McNally upended substitute Jordan Jenkins and Sammy Clingan put away the penalty. Totally deserved and a sense of schadenfreude at Carrick’s tactics backfiring. On 87 minutes the game was nicely wrapped up with a beauty from Josh Daniels, who skirted a few Carrick defenders on the edge of the box before curling a scorcher in to the corner.

Glenavon went second ahead of the Saturday afternoon games. Carrick made it hard for them and the three points were well earned. The only dampener on the evening the lack of programme – apparently they don’t issue them anymore. I had to settle for a teamsheet. Great venue and fascinating introduction to NI football.