It’s half-time in Dublin. Linfield versus Shelbourne. A Linfield fan passes by wearing a Northern Ireland shirt. On the back, instead of a player’s name, but in the same typeface: ‘We Exist’. Football and existentialism are no strangers. Linfield and thinking sometimes have been. Not much has changed. But there are signs.
I’ve been a Linfield supporter all my life, not always with enthusiasm. The 1976 Irish Cup Final defeat by Carrick Rangers still rankles. Nine years old is too young to be taught the useful lesson that the favourite’s bubble can be pricked. A friend of the family played for Linfield then and lived a few doors away. I couldn’t look at him for weeks afterwards, knowing that he should be ashamed of his part in this episode.
Years away from Belfast and the reflection that goes with it had left me uncomfortable with the sectarian training which came with being a Linfield fan. When I came back to Belfast I found most of my family had stayed true to the club. Match-going now is a much more downbeat experience than it was in the seventies and eighties. The average age of the crowd must be over 50. At some mid-week evening matches there are so few people at Windsor Park that I could work out the exact average by myself well before half-time. The football can be dreary. On the worst days the ball spends most of the match in the air, hoofed and headed from one end to the other. ‘There’s snow on it’ someone in the crowd will shout, as the ball falls back into view below the roof of the stand.
10th May 2005, Windsor Park. Half-time. Linfield 2 Glentoran 0. Having lived in Dublin for about five years now, I’ve already grown attached to the idea of the Setanta Cup, the competition in which sides from the Irish League and the League of Ireland play each other. Like my travels on the Enterprise, on which I’ve been crossing the border to and fro every week for four years, I turn the Setanta Cup into a hopeful sign that my life won’t always have to be understood in two parts. This remains largely a private mythology of the future, without much clarity of meaning. At half-time we’re beating the Glens handily. There’s the usual queue for burgers below the stand. I wonder at the curious spectacle it must be for those south of the border who get and watch the Setanta Sports channel, seeing two Belfast teams, forever associated with loyalism, playing in an all-Ireland competition. A highly trained anthropologist might be able to spot small changes in the behaviour of the crowd, knowing that they were being watched in the Republic. I don’t notice anything new. By the end we’ve won 3-2.
The next time Linfield and Glentoran play each there’s a riot at the end of the match. I’m in Dublin, but my nephew is a ball-boy at the match. Long after the event a Ballymena friend I meet in Dublin teases me that, for Northern Catholics, the Blues-Glens riot was the best sporting entertainment they’d seen on BBCNI for years, and they’d happily give up the GAA to watch this every week. I remind him that Linfield are by now champions of Ireland. When I get home I realise I should have told him that at last an Antrim team had won an All-Ireland.
I teach just outside of Dublin. Most of my students are from the midlands and the west. In an idle meandering conversation which passes for a tutorial we stumble across the fact that, the previous night, one of the students was a steward at the Longford Town v Linfield match. We lost 1-0. She says it was mainly good-humoured. There were rumours of trouble beforehand. Linfield wore black armbands in sympathy with the death of the Pope. My university, which has a library named after John Paul II and which was opened by him, ignores the Pope’s funeral. Curioser and curioser. Clare obviously missed something, though, while she was a steward. The ‘Voice of Linfield’ editorial in the next Linfield match-day programme includes the following:
‘Shame on the small number of so called supporters who travelled to Longford to display a disgusting exhibition of racial abuse, sectarianism, bigotry and an insulting of other people’s culture. We thought we had risen above all this filth, but evidently there is still a hard core intent on undermining the credibility of Linfield, and determined to drag us back to the dark ages. Against this obnoxious, nauseating and disgraceful affrontery, we praise unreservedly the 600 true fans who travelled peacefully to enjoy themselves, and support the team in true tradition, only to find their peace and enjoyment invaded by behaviour more becoming of morons.’
Early in the year, to get us ready for all this, there had been the friendly with Derry City. And there was the case of St Mary’s camogie team, given leave to train at Windsor Park (actually Midgely Park, out the back) because they needed floodlighting and grass. The reaction was predictable; the mainstream media saw it as proof that things can change, that sport can transcend politics; chatroom eejits tried to find away to be cynical. Davey Jeffrey, Linfield manager, would disarm even the cutest critic with his explanation of how he came to help the camogie team’s manager: ‘It’s a very small way of showing respect and love and concern and helping your friends. It was a massive, massive privilege for someone like Mel to come on the phone, she is an absolute lady.’
At the beginning of the Setanta Cup Final in Tolka Park we’re singing: ‘One team in Ulster; there’s only one team in Ulster’. We can’t hear the Shelbourne fans. But I know how Shelbourne play, and I’m ashamed to say I think we’ll lose. But we’re winning 2-0 at half time. ‘We Exist’. A fella in front of me turns around to share a gloat at the scoreline. I tell him that I saw Shelbourne almost win against Deportivo La Coruna at Lansdowne Road the previous summer in a Champions’ League qualifier. Deportivo lost in the semi-final of the Champions’ League the year before, a fact much noted by The Belfast Telegraph in the days before the Linfield v Shelbourne final. Playing a team that drew with a team that lost a Champions’ League semi-final is a giddy height for a Linfield fan. The Linfield crowd have been singing ‘Champions League? You’re having a laugh’ since the second goal went in. My fellow supporter looks at me oddly, and I guess wonders why I was in Dublin watching Shelbourne. It breaks the carnivalesque, out-of-place feeling of a group of Linfield fans in Dublin. He turns away.
The second half is hell. Shelbourne attack. We defend. It gets a bit nasty on the pitch. Now we’re singing: ‘One team in Ireland: there’s only one team in Ireland’. Final score: Shelbourne 0-2 Linfield. Champions of Ireland.
[The Vacuum, September 2005]