Formed very precisely on September 20th 1879 by a young Belfast businessman John McAlery, Cliftonville are the oldest club in the whole of Ireland. Originally playing at Cliftonville Cricket Club in Oldpark Avenue, The Reds moved to Solitude in 1890 and the arena soon also became home to Northern Ireland’s international matches. The centre piece of the ground is the main stand on the west side of Solitude. It looks considerably older than its 1950 vintage, replacing the original main stand which was lost in a fire following a Linfield v Glentoran cup tie staged at Solitude in January 1949. It holds some 2,500 people but tonight the top tier, with its multi coloured seats, is off limits, the lower tier is packed with the clubs most vocal supporters.
In the corner is the Whitehouse, the now disused former changing rooms and boardroom. It looks on rather forlornly and one can only hope the club can gain funding to renovate the house into a museum of club history. The reason for the dereliction is in the modern facilities built under the new Cage End stand in 2008. The old Cage End was a cavernous covered terrace, today’s replacement is a rakish modern seated stand with fine views of the surrounding hills. The away end opposite had seats installed in 2001 replacing the old covered Bowling Green End terrace. The side opposite the main stand has a huge television gantry but is otherwise a grass bank, off limits to supporters. However, this open side has lovely views to the east.
Prior to kick off the tannoy issues a stern warning over sectarian and racist chanting, and it is uplifting to note that from both sides nothing but passionate support for their respective teams is heard.
Last season Cliftonville cantered to the Premiership title, their first success since 1998. The stunning nearby wall mural has had a timely update to commemorate the title success. On the field The Reds seize the initiative and they are ably led by skipper Ryan Catney. His play is full of quality, incisive passing, making the ball do the work, galvanising his colleagues. It is surprising that the Reds take more than an hour to register on the scorecard. Marc Smyth bundles home after a skirmish in the Portadown area. Two minutes previously Cliftonville should have taken the lead when Chris Curran was upended in the penalty area. However, visiting keeper David Miskelly makes an excellent save from the usually reliable Joe Gormley’s spot kick.
I wondered if the Reds would rue that missed kick as Portadown’s rugged but effective play meant they were never out of this contest. With just seven minutes remaining the visitors started what was to be a smash and grab raid on the reigning champions. Firstly full back Chris Casement blasted in an equaliser and then just into injury time the impressive Gary Twigg, who had given a fine display of the art of centre forward play, cracked home a winner in front of delirious away supporters.
Having won their opening three games of their title defence the defeat clearly shocked the home side but the quality throughout the team should soon steady the good ship Solitude. Security regulations mean a delay in getting out of the ground at the end of the game. What was initially a considerable annoyance gave way to a genuinely heart warming moment, the detained Cliftonville supporters sportingly applauding their impressive visitors off the field. It summed up what is truly great about this club, history and sportsmanship of the highest order.
Danske Bank Premiership – Friday August 30th 2013 (19.45 pm)
Cliftonville (0)1 (Smyth 68) Portadown (0)2 (Casement 83, Twigg 90)
Attendance: 2,000 (approx, yet to be confirmed)
12. Conor Devlin; 2. Jamie McGovern; 3. Ronan Scannell; 11. Martin Donnelly; 13. Joe McNeill; 16. Marc Smyth; 17. Ryan Catney (c); 19. Joe Gormley; 20. Chris Curran; 23. Tomas Cosgrove; 27. Liam Boyce.
6. Paddy McNally; 7. Ciaran Caldwell; 10. Stephen Garrett (for 27, 73 mins); 14. Diarmuid O’Carroll (for 19, 81 mins); 15. Eamonn Sedyak (for 3, 56 mins).
1. David Miskelly; 2. Chris Casement; 5. Chris Ramsey; 6. Garry Breen; 7. Peter McMahon; 9. Darren Murphy; 10. Kevin Braniff (c); 22. Johnny Black; 21. Emmett Friars; 18. Gary Twigg; 19. Neil McCafferty.
12. Matthew Paget; 13. Billy Brennan; 19. Matthew Rooney; 23. Nathan McConnell; 24. Orman Okunaiya.
Yellow Cards: Casement, Ramsey, Friars (all Portadown).