Wednesday, 2 November 2016

#37 Solitude, Cliftonville

Cliftonville 3 Glenavon 0
Saturday 29th October 2016, NIFL Premiership

We emerged bleary-eyed from the revelries of the previous evening and hopped on a train bound for Belfast. Our destination was the home of Ireland's oldest club Cliftonville and their creepy and enigmatically named stadium, Solitude.

In the politically charged sometimes sectarian world of Belfast football, Cliftonville are firmly on the republican left of the scale. Examples of this include their recent spat with unionist Glentoran fans over their decision to donate one pound of every ticket sold for the derby to the refugee crisis or their volatile 1984 friendly against Celtic which had to be called off after 79 minutes as fans clashed with RUC officers and loyalists outside the ground.

In their 137 year history the Reds have won two all-Ireland championships, three Northern Irish championships, eight Irish Cups and five Northern Ireland Football League Cups. They start today's match in 4th place, 2 points ahead of 6th placed Glenavon.

We arrived with minimal faff and plenty of time to spare at Solitude and decided to avail ourselves of the bar facilities and watch the tail end of Arsenal battering Sunderland. We spoke to a couple of friendly locals, who must have smelled groundhopper when we entered with our backpacks and started taking pictures of everything. The programme seller wasn't optimistic when Daz asked for a prediction as apparently the reds hadn't been scoring of late. However I've looked over their recent results and they've scored 12 in their last 5 games, losing only once. Obviously a hard lot to please.

Considering we were warned by various people about the dangerous nature of the area, including by Daz's boss who is a former Belfast resident, I found this to be one of the friendliest clubs I've visited so far. The only slightly unsettling thing was the massively armoured police vans that marauded the streets.

What immediately catches the eye when you enter Solitude is the absolute relic of a main stand that lines the side of the pitch. A massive hulk of red corrugated iron that looks like it could've been there as long as the club has. Large chunks of the side panelling were discoloured or missing and you could see long grass growing on its roof, it looks as if a stray ball hit with enough force could keel the whole thing over. Unfortunately the stewards weren't allowing people up there today although there were a few official looking people with cameras and microphones up there. It turns out the plan is to demolish the stand this year to make way for a new main stand. The top tier contains an array of seemingly randomly arranged red, white and green seats whilst underneath is a mix of seats and terrace.

We took our seats in the Cage End stand which I believe is the most recently built of the stands, replacing an ancient curved terrace that used to be in that part of the ground. It's a modern seated stand which is very steep despite not having that many rows, so we got a good view from two-thirds up. Next to this stand is a quite dilapidated old white house which used to contain the clubhouse and training facilities but is now, like the main stand, scheduled for demolition

Opposite the Cage End there is the away end which seats 880 and has a row of standing at the back, which most of the travelling Glenavon fans used. The side of the ground opposite the main stand has had temporary seating in the past for Champions League fixtures but now sits empty. Over in that direction you can see some pretty spectacular views of the surrounding hills which looked nice and eerie in the afternoon fog.

The game kicked off and the Reds hit the post early doors at 14 minutes, Glenavon do the same from a free kick on 36 but other than that it's a bit of a haphazard 45 minutes. A lot of sloppy passing, a fussy ref and a lino on the left wing who got almost every call wrong took the vigour out of the first half.

Early in the second half a Glenavon player crossed the ball back to his keeper from near the corner flag but failed to notice a Cliftonville player chasing it down. The keeper didn't quite control the ball and a goal looked certain, so certain that the PA man chose to start playing the goal celebration music, which was shut off abruptly as the keeper finally wrestled back control of the situation and booted it away. The comedy of errors was completed when this absolute lamp by the keeper was met by a Glenavon midfielder who decided the best way to control this wayward ball would be to attempt an awkward scissor kick which would ultimately lay him on his arse.

Glenavon, despite their mishaps, have a good spell five minutes into the second half and come close to opening the scoring twice but it is the home team that do so from a well-worked corner and a Jason McGuinness header in the 57th minute. This goal seems to spur on the Reds who double their lead two minutes later through a 25 yard Ruairi Harkin screamer that took a slight deflection.
Truthfully Glenavon had enough about them to not deserve the pounding they were now receiving but a fully revitalised Cliftonville were passing with the same confidence and intention that we saw from Dundalk last night. The awesomely named Davy McDaid should have made it three when he plowed an effort over from inside the box on the 70th minute but made up for it five minutes later by tapping in a blunder from skipper Kris Lindsay who chested the ball down to his opponent in front of goal.

Satisfied to have experienced a true piece of Irish football history and another good home win, we started on the long road back to the motherland (Stoke-on-Trent) ready for the second half of our epic quest.

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