Belfast clubs host glamorous friendlies
14 August ~ Last season in Northern Ireland will be remembered for the north Belfast duo of Cliftonville and Crusaders, so often in the shadows of Linfield and Glentoran, beginning to emerge as genuine contenders. Linfield’s dominance shows no signs of ending but with Glentoran facing financial woes the northern pair were able to capitalise. Crusaders, the League Cup winners, became the first Northern Irish team to win the cross-border Setanta Cup since 2005, while title-chasing Cliftonville won the County Antrim Shield. Their return to prominence has been underlined by the visits of high-profile clubs from across the water for friendlies.
Cliftonville faced a Celtic team mainly made up of under-19 and fringe players on June 28 at their Solitude home, drawing 2-2 in front of a bumper crowd.
Crusaders' big moment arrives tonight when they welcome Liverpool, who have traditionally faced Linfield at Windsor Park, to Belfast. Liverpool have a large support among both communities in Belfast. Earlier perceptions of them as a “Protestant” team largely died out in the 1980s when their sustained success attracted a wealth of local support.
Demand for tickets has been so high that the game has been moved from Crusaders’ Seaview home to Ravenhill, in the south-east of the city. Home of the highly successful Ulster Rugby side, Ravenhill holds nearly ten thousand more spectators than Seaview.
Like the Cliftonville game, Crusaders’ will not play against the first team, although it does represent a final chance for Liverpool to get some match practice before facing West Brom at The Hawthorns on Saturday.
For Brendan Rodgers it is a rare opportunity to face Irish League opposition, with his own playing career limited to a handful of appearances for Ballymena United as a teenager before moving to Reading.
The thousands of local Liverpool supporters in attendance will get a chance to see their team, even if it is mainly reserves, in the flesh without having to worry about getting sick on the ferry or battling for seats on Easyjet flights.
In a city where football is dominated by support for clubs on the British mainland it is surprising to see two of the most popular of those arrive in the same summer. It is even more unusual that neither of the city’s Big Two will profit.
With Crusaders and Cliftonville in the spotlight it could be time for them to stake their claims as two of the league’s leading clubs. Overhauling Linfield will be tough but both will be hoping to do so and make days like these more regular occurrences. If the IFA Premiership is to prosper it needs more competitiveness and the emergence of these clubs can only help. John Morrow