The recent UEFA Champions League draw saw Northern Ireland’s Premier League champions Linfield drawn against La Fiorita of San Marino. On paper, the tie represents an excellent opportunity for the Belfast club as they should advance to the next round of the qualification stages, where the draw becomes what has been described in recent days as mouthwatering, controversial, and potentially highly toxic.
Scottish champions Glasgow Celtic await the winners of the aforementioned tie, and as if a potential clash with Linfield wasn’t complicated enough, the first leg of the fixture was due to be played in Belfast on the 11th or 12th of July.
To understand why this tie on those dates made so many people uncomfortable, we need to look at a little history, as well as a little politics.
Northern Ireland remains as deeply divided today as it always has been.
The very root of these divisions can be traced back in the annals of history to The Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, when the protestant King William III defeated the catholic King James II on the banks of the River Boyne, sparking a series of events that are celebrated to this day on July 12th by Northern Ireland’s protestant community, much to the disgust of a portion of their catholic counterparts.
The religious divide in this tiny country caused more than 3000 deaths in the so-called “Troubles” between the 1960s and 1990s, after which a peace agreement came into effect – the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – which paved the way for cross-community government and shared, devolved power.
While the sectarian killings have “nearly” stopped, the distaste and suspicion each side has harboured against the other has far from abated.
Politically, Northern Ireland remains a wasteland, and an immaturity based on one-upmanship runs to the very heart of its governance.
Northern Irish elections are an opportunity to count heads — protestant and catholic, who in turn form the basis of the country’s respective unionist and republican communities.
The country has seen two elections in the past six months, both of which have served to polarise the two tribes even further, in turn killing the voice of moderate, middle-ground politics on both sides of the divide – indeed, the relatively moderate SDLP and UUP have given way to the far more hardline (and historically controversial) Sinn Fein and DUP.
While the current devolved government in Northern Ireland has been abandoned in the wake of he said/she said corruption allegations, the DUP are doing a deal to prop up a minority British government, which means things in Northern Ireland are getting complicated, which is nothing new.
When things in Northern Ireland get complicated, they soon become toxic; when things get toxic, they soon become dangerous.
Traditionally, July is a magical, mythical month for protestant unionists, as they hold their annual celebration of that ancient victory on the Twelfth.
Typically, these “celebrations” are not without problems — they represent an opportunity for civil disorder from both sides and counter-protest from sections of the catholic/republican community.
There have been very few years in recent memory that the date has passed off without incident.
Now, let’s add into this heady cocktail of sectarianism a football match: Linfield – the poster child of protestant, Northern Irish football – could meet Celtic – the poster child for Irish catholicism.
On any day of the year, this match would present a nightmare for police and local businesses. Even local residents of the Lisburn Road area (where the stadium is situated) were already voicing concerns, even with a suggested earlier 5pm kick-off on July 11th.
The issues surrounding July 11th are that it is bonfire night for Protestants: large fires will be lit, accompanied by a lot of alcohol, at midnight across Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. These fires signify the start of the Orange Order’s annual 12th of July celebrations.
In a nutshell, days like these only serve to fuel sectarianism that, for the most part, lies dormant for the rest of the year.
Neither side needs much of an excuse to engage in conflict, so the idea that this particular game could take place against that particular backdrop had the potential to turn the event into a powder-keg.
Celtic do not need much of an introduction: reigning Scottish champions, and winners of the European Cup in 1967, they can boast crowds of 60,000 for home games.
The tie itself does not present new territory for Celtic, as they are used to such sectarian encounters in Scotland with their bitter Old Firm rivals Glasgow Rangers.
Indeed, Celtic were founded as a club for Irish catholics in Glasgow, who were shunned at the time by the vehemently protestant Rangers.
It is also worth noting that Celtic draw a large fan base from Ireland as a whole, particularly from Northern Ireland, where fans can arrive in Glasgow in three hours via ferry and train connections.
Every weekend, there is an exodus of Northern Irish Celtic and Rangers fans who travel to games in Scotland, and it’s safe to say that most Linfield fans would have a strong affinity with traditionally protestant, loyalist, and very British Glasgow Rangers.
Linfield themselves are relatively unknown outside of Northern Ireland, and while they are the most dominant club in their league, European football tends to be a step beyond their comfort level.
While Celtic attract crowds of 60,000 in Glasgow, Linfield average 2,500 at Windsor Park, far below the national stadium’s capacity.
If this game takes place, Linfield would be fully expecting a capacity 18,500 crowd, sold at Champions League prices. They could probably sell it out three times over.
As if this tie did not have enough drama already to keep the neutrals transfixed, there is the added spice of both clubs being managed by native Northern Irishmen.
Linfield manager David Healy is a man who belongs at Windsor Park. His goal-scoring heroics for the Northern Ireland national team have rightly cemented his place as a legend in the country’s footballing history.
Add in his brief spell at Rangers in 2011/12, and he can be fully assured voracious support from Linfield fans.
For Brendan Rodgers, the tie wont represent too much of a welcome home.
While he is more of an “outstanding character” in stature, his lack of any kind of playing career or footballing links to Northern Ireland will ensure Rodgers is made to feel even less welcome as he would returning to Anfield. Sadly, his religion will also be a target for derision.
With that in mind, it is easy to understand why officials at Linfield want this game to go ahead in Belfast.
The financial windfall for a club of their stature presents a opportunity not to be missed, regardless of consequence. While there had been suggestions that Linfield’s home tie could be moved to mainland Britain, the club resisted this as the payday would not be so lucrative.
There had also been suggestions that the home and away ties be reversed, bringing the second leg to Belfast instead of Glasgow.
In the end, the decision has been made that the game at Windsor Park will be played on Friday the 14th, and Celtic will refuse to take their allocation of tickets, citing the safety of their fans as being of the utmost importance.
One would hope that local Celtic fans would have the good sense to not buy tickets, although one would suspect a few might make it in, albeit incognito.
One thing for sure is that both legs of this tie will be highly charged, emotional occasions, with this writer expecting the games to play out like the fiercest of Old Firm games, with Celtic ultimately prevailing, though not too easily.
Healy will approach this game with relish, like he would have done in his playing days for the national team — the attitude of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” will doubtless come to the fore.
When you consider Rodgers’ sketchy European pedigree as a manager, Healy could be forgiven for seeing the emotion of the tie as a tool to use over the two legs, and he won’t be ruling out a shock.
But, of course, there is the small matter of the tie with La Fiorita before any of this is reality.
Linfield shakily won the first leg 1-0, and will be looking to seal the deal in San Marino.
There is a saying in Northern Ireland for when things get too much to handle — “give me head peace”.
With that in mind, it would be no surprise to find that there are many people on both sides of the divide secretly rooting for an upset in San Marino, purely in the interests of some peace and quiet.