Champions League qualifying tie
17 July ~ The mood surrounding Celtic's visit to Irish League champions Cliftonville in the Champions League qualifiers has changed from unbridled joy to a distinct edginess. One suspects that this will only be dispelled when Celtic progress to the type of qualifying fixtures in Scandinavia and northern Europe with which they are familiar. Given common political, religious and sporting sympathies, with both sets of fans associated with their respective Catholic communities, the match should be a love-in, akin to the increasingly frequent friendlies between Linfield and Rangers.
However the background of on-going strife in north Belfast following disputes over marching rights has led to unease, especially in the Scottish media. This should not be exaggerated – the rioting is pretty low level compared to past years and even set against the violence which erupted in England two summers ago. A routine (albeit expensive) security operation should ensure Celtic's travelling party see precious little of this trouble. Given that the visiting club have just returned 500 tickets to Cliftonville it seems unlikely that an invasion of Scottish supporters will cause major problems.
Nonetheless, it is the media silly season and the Scottish press has highlighted the horror stories of ex-players involved in the friendly match between the two teams played in a powder-keg atmosphere in August 1984, when major violence broke out between police and supporters. Apart from both games taking place in the midst of heatwaves there is little parallel between them.
Celtic have played at Cliftonville's ground in more recent years without incident. Indeed, we should probably be thankful that the pairing of Scottish and Irish champions has occurred in a year when the parties involved are so sympathetic to each other. The prospect of a Cliftonville v Rangers or Linfield v Celtic fixture would offer more serious headaches for all concerned, even if only the embarrassment caused by the sectarian bile on display there.
On the field, the match can be seen as just reward for Cliftonville's wonder season, winning the league by a country mile and breaking the monotony of successive Linfield title triumphs. With the eminently likeable Tommy Breslin at their helm and with striker Liam Boyce proving that his year or so in full-time football in Germany was worthwhile, the Reds richly deserve their day in the sun. However the ease with which an average Glentoran side allowed Cliftonville to huff and puff and then blew them down in the Irish Cup final does suggest that after a few uncomfortable moments early in proceedings, Celtic should fly home safe in the knowledge that their place in the further qualifying rounds is assured. Scott Harvie