Solitude, Europa League Preliminary Qualifier Leg 2, 4/7/19
Cliftonville Football & Athletic Club
Founded; 1879 and the oldest in Ireland
Nickname; The Reds
Honours Irish League; 1905–06 (shared), 1909–10, 1997–98, 2012–13, 2013–14 Irish Cup; 1882–83, 1887–88, 1896–97, 1899–00, 1900–01, 1906–07, 1908–09, 1978–79 Irish League Cup; 2003–04, 2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15, 2015–16
Current Division; NIFL Premiership
Random Fact; Front man Jake Burns of one of my favourite bands Stiff Little Fingers is a supporter.
As I was away to work during the Dons being in Europe and on holiday if they reach the third round of qualifiers I always had an idea in my head where I would head to the Republic of Ireland, Wales or Northern Ireland for a pre qualifier (the round before Aberdeen entered) . This meaning I could get an away day in Europe. As it turned out I got the chance of a battle of Britain in Belfast. After pricing up flights and a hotel I thought it was too good not to do. Solitude was awaiting me for an impromptu visit. The first of two visits to Belfast in two months as I was to be heading over for a driving/football break in August (more on that later)
As I was over in a couple of months, I decided I was to ignore any sightseeing and just see the inside of bars and sample the delights of Irelands brewing capabilities. So much so was the plan I asked the taxi driver to drop me at a good pub near my hotel, to which he duly obliged. This after questioning me about whether I was decent or not. I.e I was scottish and who did I support to which my reply was “ I support Aberdeen so make what you want of that”. It was a good enough answer and I was dropped off in the famous Commercial Court area. Swiftly ticked off were the Dark Horse, The Duke of York, Harp Bar, the bar in my hotel where I had a swift one and some delightful salmon after dumping my bag. More importantly I did what any Dons fan should do I had a couple in The John Hewitt. Once my mini pub crawl was completed, I headed for Solitude as the club were trying to get fans of both sides up for a beer and burger (for a fiver) and basically for a pre-game party. As the weather was good, I thought the twenty-five minutes on foot quoted by google maps was doable and I couldn’t go wrong either as I have in the past at other grounds in other cities. Crumlin Road turn left on to Antrim Road and eventually left up Cliftonville Road. Easy. It was interesting seeing the sights or the murals to be precise. Once I arrived at the Cliftonville FC mural I had a feeling I was close. Looking down a side street to my right I saw a lot of red bricks. Bingo. I was in the social club early and it was dead. But it quickly filled up. The party plan was a success. The place was rammed, with three or four tables of the “Barry Boys” and the rest locals. There was live music and the sing offs between opposing fans generated a great atmosphere. It was in here I witnessed my first piece of local hospitality. When getting a pint, I was asked about my accent. Basically, it was not Welsh or Irish. Once I explained I had taken a day trip and an Aberdeen fan the barman told me to keep my money in my pocket. Free pint number one. Next time I headed to the bar a Barry Town fan was speaking to me in the queue and thought I was mad to travel for a Europa League pre qualifier. Free pint number two. I lost my seat eventually when away for a piss so ended up sitting on the pool table taking in the sing offs and a couple of Cliftonville fans got chatting to me. Again, I was seen to be a bit mad for my day trip. Free pint number three and four came my way. But the friendliness didn’t stop there as I was to find out once into Solitude. My first port of call when abroad is always the search for a scarf to add to my collection. Solitude almost put the first dent in my foreign scarf collection. I could have cried when the woman in the club shop told me as the season had not really started, they were still awaiting the delivery of new garb. I wanted to be sick. I explained that it was “bloody typical” that my milestone fiftieth game abroad was to end my run of scarf collecting. She could not have been more apologetic. Then as if by some miracle I was tapped on the shoulder as I exited the shop. A girl told me she heard my disappointing story and told me “now how could I let you leave our club empty handed” then handed me her scarf. I rebuffed the gesture as I know scarves can be sentimental, but she was insistent that I took it. I offered her money for it but no. She said she can always get another one and stated that “every time you see it, you can remember how great Cliftonville fans are”. Ill forever be indebted to that young lady. Going by the hospitality shown so far, she wasn’t far off the mark. Cliftonville was turning into a great choice of clubs to visit.
The game was not much of a contest. It was a glorified pre-season friendly with Cliftonville dominating. I did notice it was played in a good spirit, this also adding to the pre-season friendly vibe. Players picking each other up, back patting and handshakes. There were two bookings that had to be bookings, but this was down to mistimed challenges which was probably down to lack of match sharpness. Cliftonville had the game won by half time through goals through McMenamin and Gormley. McDermott and Donnelly added a third and fourth late on by which point the Welshmen were well and truly on their arse. Not the greatest game ever but football is more than the ninety minutes and there was still a truly awesome gesture still in store. With around ten minutes to go two women came over and stood next to me. I hadn’t taken a seat in the stand. I had stood in the corner next to the grassy knowl. Solitude only has three stands and a pitch long grassy mound on the water works side. These two were supporter liason types, the older of the two touched a plaque on the pitch perimeter fence. It was in memory of a Reds supporter. The woman noticed that I noticed her touching it and explained it was her late husband. After hearing my accent, she asked the usual questions. I broached the subject of coming back in August and mentioned I was looking for a game on the Saturday and Cliftonville had their derby against Crusaders. I also explained I am not in the habit of visiting grounds for a second time. She asked how old junior was and after I told her she spoke to the younger lady who disappeared only to reappear with a tracksuit top for Wee Man. The older lady then said, “that’s to entice you to come back again and show your son Solitude”. Quite the incredible gesture. Thirty quid it would have cost and I was given it for gratis. She also advised that Cliftonvilles big derby is Crusaders and not Glentoran or Linfield, the other two Belfast top flight teams. I would be “mad to miss it” if I was in town the younger one piped up. It gave me something worth considering. The full-time whistle sounded and I wished the two ladies all the best for the season and I was on the lookout for a pub for a couple before retiring to my hotel.
At this point my night was away to take a funny turn. At the bottom of Cliftonville Road on Antrim Road there was the Phoenix Bar. Good enough for me I thought. In the bar I sat bar flying. Next to me was a Scottish guy who had lived over there for years and had adopted the Reds as his team. We got chatting and the barman got involved too, this went on for around half an hour. When I was on my second pint the barman went for a fag. On his return his demeanor had changed entirely. He advised that I leave. I was taken aback and explained I wasn’t drunk or causing any trouble. He replied, “its getting dark, you don’t want to be here”. My fellow Scottish bar fly looked at me and nodded as if to say the barman was right. The barman advised me to get back to the Cathedral Quarter where I was staying a have a pint there instead. At this point I finished my beer and left not knowing what the hell that was all about. Still don’t know to this day. Just another story to add to my fantastic twenty-four hours in Belfast. As I headed back to the Duke of York as it was the closest to my hotel and where the day started, I was going over the days events thinking how great a day at the fitba I had just had. Solitude is up there with one of my favourite away days that’s for sure
For the price of flights and the hotel I think ill take on anotber off the cuff trip at some point this season
Me 151 (Milestone fiftieth abroad)