It was supposed to be a day to remember in North Belfast. League leaders Cliftonville against Crusaders, their closest challengers and local rivals. A packed Seaview, filled with colleagues, friends and neighbours from across North Belfast's footballing divide, each hoping to secure local bragging rights and a step to the coveted Irish Premiership title.
It has been 15 years since either of the North Belfast duo landed Northern Ireland's elite football crown, but this year, the title looks set to make its way north of the city, following years of Linfield, and to a lesser extent Glentoran domination - the Irish League's so-called 'Big Two'. What the fans got on Saturday however, was a shameful day for football and for Northern Ireland.
*To give a little context, Cliftonville, Ireland's oldest club, are situated on the largely Catholic Cliftonville Road, while Crusaders reside at Seaview, on the largely Protestant Shore Road, where yesterday's match was to take place. Both sides typically attract supporters of the creed relevant to their locality, but it is by no means a rivalry dominated by religion. There may be the very occasional inkling of sectarianism from hangers-on attaching themselves to each club, but for true fans it is instead, just like any typical local football derby.*
As the Cliftonville fans gathered on Skegoneill Avenue, from around 2pm, however, to make their way to Seaview, they found themselves halted, as a small group of protesters blocked the away fans' turnstile at Crusaders' Seaview headquarters. At present, their motives seem unsure, with initial murmurings prior to the game suggesting that local residents were concerned by the large crusade of Cliftonville fans in the area. Crues Chairman, Stephen Bell, had however worked tirelessly with local residents in the run-up to the fixture and seemed confident of an amicable solution, with some Crusaders fans agreeing to walk in solidarity with their Cliftonville counterparts.
As it transpired, the protest, of around 50 people, blocked the supporters' final destination, leaving the PSNI unable to guarantee supporter safety, ultimately resulting in the postponement of the match. The protest itself included leading flag protesters, Willie Frazer and Jim Wilson - Frazer, comes from South Armagh, over an hour's drive away and Wilson is an East Belfast Community worker. Neither are local residents. Why they and some Union-flag clad comrades were present remains to be seen and demands the full scrutiny of the Northern Irish media.
The protest has appeared little more than a cynical effort to halt the movement of a largely-Catholic crowd along a Protestant Road - blatant bigotry. The football fans of both clubs, were however the victims, the scapegoat, the innocent bystander. Their crime, supporting their local football teams.
The great shame in all of this is the damage it does to both clubs, who provide more for local working-class communities than just about any organisation in their environs. Both clubs provide opportunities to participate in football for men, women and children alike, making them a key component of the North Belfast fabric. The clubs have worked together, fostering strong cross-community relations in recent times, setting an example for the young people of the area. Saturday will sadly however have cost Crusaders thousands of pounds and will possibly have further alienated current and potential supporters of local football. All this, at the hands of a protest beyond the control of football's powers that be.
Football has in many ways reflected politics, especially those of the working classes in the region. In bygone decades, Northern Ireland's political instability and football have clashed to devastating effects on the terraces. Times have changed however. The league is now a safe environment, with crowd trouble and sectarianism now confined to rare, isolated incidents. What yesterday demonstrated was a complete indifference to the protesters on the most-part from both fans, who it must be said, handled the pandemonium with impressive dignity in their large numbers. The gesture of some Crusaders fans to walk hand-in-hand with their footballing rivals, unheard of in the poisonous atmosphere of many football rivalries.
Football fans have shown that society has largely moved past the tyre-kicking, but maybe as one now notorious Facebook page suggests, a small core of self-important loyalist protesters are indeed, quite frankly 'against democracy'.
Jim Wilson and Willie Frazer claim to represent working-class Protestant and Loyalist communities. Yesterday both men stabbed the back of one fine provider to these communities in the form of Crusaders Football Club. Aside from denying a local community provider thousands of pounds in gate receipts (by no means the first economic victim of their protest) and ensuring unquantifiable damage through association, the question remains: What exactly did this protest seek to achieve for the disenfranchised sons of Ulster?
Crusaders Football Club, Irish League supporters and the wider North Belfast community deserve answers.
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