The last time I was in Belfast I shared a plane with the Newcastle United first team squad, watched a young Steve Guppy turn various shades of puce, and got to see Kevin Keegan and a pissed-up George Best kick a ball around the same pitch. There was nothing quite as dramatic this time, though after two rainswept weekends and the heaviest snowfall in more than thirty years I finally got to see a live game of football, which was enough of a feat in itself.
Half past seven on Cliftonville Road and an armoured police Land Rover blocks off the street as the Linfield coaches finally arrive. "The police only let them bring 500 supporters," a Cliftonville fan tells me. "It's two miles from Windsor Park but they all had to meet there at 6 o'clock and they've been taken around half of Belfast to make sure they don't get here until now." Despite the precautions, the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters is significantly less hostile or menacing than at most high-profile games in England. "There's no sectarianism in Northern Ireland football nowadays," a group of Cliftonville and Linfield fans had told me before we left the city centre. "There are only a few people who still cause problems and they never go to the games anyway."
In the spirit of neutrality we split up outside the turnstiles, one of us heading for the home end while I join the Linfield fans behind the far goal. After trying one of the famous Solitude burgers (70% bread bun, 20% boiled onion and 10% something I wouldn't like to guess at), I find a seat that has a perfect view of a wire fence and a large green emergency exit sign. "The left back's brilliant," a Linfield fan starts telling me as the teams come out from the opposite stand. "He was at Leicester but he got homesick. The right back was at Forest for a while and one of our midfielders came back from Dundee United." "Is homesickness a big problem for Northern Irish players?" I ask. "Seems to be," he shrugs, "but that's good for us."
Both sides go into the game on the back of cup defeats to Glentoran, but Linfield - five points clear at the top of the league - are looking more confident in possession of the ball. An early shot's deflected just wide of goal, another hits the side netting, and a free-kick - "our most accurate in years," in the words of the fan sitting next to me - strikes the top of the bar. When the goal eventually comes, though, it's at the other end of the pitch. A disputed free-kick is headed down in front of goal and Kieran O'Connor smashes the ball past Alan Blayney. "Can you hear the Linfield sing?" two sides of the ground ask. "Poor referee, isn't he?" sighs a voice in the row behind. "Aren't they always?" someone else replies.
The Blues come back, equalising from a corner that smacks against an outstretched leg and trickles over the line. "That's our most accurate corner in years too," laughs my neighbour. "What do you reckon so far?" he asks at half-time. I mumble something about League 1. "We're usually a bit better than this," he says.
The second half follows the same pattern as the first. Linfield have three good chances before the home side take the lead. A stray boot connects with the side of a Cliftonville player's face and Ciaran Caldwell sends Blayney the wrong way from the spot. The Reds have a goal disallowed for offside, Linfield have a player sent off, and midway between the two John Connolly, Cliftonville's keeper, scores his side's second penalty and third goal of the night. It's all too much for some in the away end. At the final whistle one fan slams his foot into the back of an advertising hoarding four times while holding his trousers up with one hand and waving the other in the direction of the pitch. "Don't you go shaking his hand," someone shouts from the back of the stand as the players approach the referee.
"We've been in a rut," Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor says after the game, "and we're delighted because we've beaten the champions tonight." "Keep playing like that and you'll be challenging yourselves," replies Linfield's Jim Kerr. Downstairs in the social club, Cliftonville and the handful of Linfield fans who escaped being herded back on to buses mix together at the bar. "There's no problem between us, we're just football fans," someone laughs. "Besides, we both hate Glentoran more." The ribbing Linfield boss David Jeffrey receives through the window a few minutes later suggests that's not a view shared by everyone.
Date: 10th December 2010