Thursday, 24 April 2008

Irish Times on NI football - errors and inaccuracies

Somebody called Bryan Coll has been pontificating in the Irish Times about the ‘emerging Northern Ireland’ in a series with the portentous title ‘Out of the Night’. This particular instalment deals with sport, and in particular football and it is worth picking up a number of the more glaring inaccuracies which it contains.

Coll attends a Glentoran vs. Cliftonville match and picks up some of the indicators which suggest a team with support drawn from the unionist community is playing one with support drawn from the nationalist community. He then takes out his broad brush and begins presenting erroneous information.

“Matches between Glentoran and Cliftonville are mild encounters compared to the ultimate religious face-off that is Linfield versus Cliftonville (Northern Ireland's equivalent of the "Old Firm")”

An Old Firm clash is the bitterest rivalry in Scottish football, a Big Two match is Northern Ireland’s equivalent (Glentoran versus Linfield). Linfield versus Cliftonville is resoundingly not Northern Ireland’s equivalent of an Old Firm match. Of course it suits Coll’s article to suggest that the Irish League’s premier rivalry is aligned along the religious divide, but it is also simply not true.

“The chief lung-power for the Glentoran chorus comes from a 20-strong group of teenagers nested in the top corner of the home stand. Here they are as close as possible to a group of young Cliftonville fans, pressed against the fence which divides the adjacent terrace about 200 yards away.”

Anyone who has been to the Oval will appreciate that the fence separating the visitor’s terrace is not 200 yards away from the main stand. 200 yards away from the main stand would be on the Sydenham Bypass.

Coll begins to talk about efforts to combat sectarianism by the Irish Football Association and by the fans of the Northern Ireland football team.

“So hostile was the atmosphere at Windsor Park in the 1980s and 1990s that at one point attendances plummeted to a mere tenth of the stadium's capacity.”

Attendances for international matches were never even remotely as low as a tenth of the stadium’s capacity. In the 1980s Windsor Park had a capacity of 25,000 which went down progressively for safety reasons until 15,000 could be fitted in during the 90s. The lowest attendances for Northern Ireland games at any point during this period were in the region of 7000 – 8000. The sums are fairly self-explanatory.

“ANISC's "Sea of Green" campaign encourages fans to wear Northern Ireland's green and white colours to international games instead of the red, white and blue regalia previously favoured in the Windsor Parks stands.”

I do not recall red, white and blue regalia being favoured by anything more than a small minority of fans at any point during my time attending Northern Ireland games. The SOG enterprise was initiated to encourage Northern Ireland fans to wear their colours and thus to make an impressive spectacle. Green was already the favoured colour through which to show support and that has been the case ever since I attended my first match in 1985.

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