HomeFootballEven Cliftonville’s cup win hasn’t converted me to soccer - Jake O’Kane

Even Cliftonville’s cup win hasn’t converted me to soccer – Jake O’Kane


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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a soccer fan. I will, on occasion, watch big set pieces such as the early stages of the World Cup if only to see England lose on a penalty shoot-out, ensuring that, yet again, ‘it won’t be coming home’.

And as for the Irish Football Association, I wouldn’t know my Linfield from my Crusaders, although I did notice a blooming of red bunting across north Belfast over the last few weeks.

When I enquired from a friend what this was about, his reaction was somewhere between bewilderment and disgust, with a look in his eye unique to religious zealots or rabid football fans.

Speaking to me as he would to a small child, he informed me that Cliftonville FC were on the cusp of winning the Irish Cup for the first time in 45 years. Like some lunatic preacher in central Belfast, he went on to relate the many occasions Cliftonville had been robbed in past finals and how a win against old foes, Linfield, would end decades of pain.

I did what I usually do when talking to football fanatics and feigned a non-existent interest. I’ve found that if you start open questions such as, ‘Sure weren’t they robbed in that match with…’, the devoted fan will happily fill in the blanks.

Having thus created a false sense of camaraderie, you need only nod in agreement for a few moments before parting company with someone satisfied they’ve found a fellow believer.

I picked up this technique whilst working as a barman when, on many Saturday shifts, I bonded with a multitude of patrons who left convinced I was a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of their particular team.

When I asked a friend what the blooming of red bunting across north Belfast was about, his reaction was somewhere between bewilderment and disgust, with a look in his eye unique to religious zealots or rabid football fans

This year’s Irish Cup final between Cliftonville and Linfield meant their respective supporters may as well have originated in the North and South Poles.

The Irish Football Association have worked admirably over the last few decades to eradicate sectarianism, so it was somewhat incongruous that they’d insisted on playing the British national anthem at the start of the game.

In 2018, when Cliftonville faced Coleraine in the final, their players had bowed their heads in protest when the anthem was played.

On this occasion, Cliftonville chairman Kieran Harding said the team weren’t going to allow the anthem to ‘become a distraction’. I think that set the right tone for the game with, on this occasion, the Cliftonville players holding their head high.

And while Cliftonville supporters may not have known the words to the anthem, they also magnanimously joined in by sending out a whistle so loud I’m sure sleeping dogs in the Outer Hebrides jumped from their beds. And with that bit of unnecessary nonsense over, the game began.

True to form, I lost interest after Linfield scored within minutes and turned off. It was only when I heard a distinct roar echo off Cavehill that I tuned back in, just in time to watch Cliftonville’s Ronan Hale slot the ball into the Linfield goal having run half the length of the pitch completely unopposed. What in God’s name had happened, I wondered?

Had the Linfield team walked off, or had they all been sent off? It took a while for my aged brain to work out that, with the score sitting at 2-1 to Cliftonville and with only minutes remaining in extra time, the Linfield team, including their goalkeeper, had gone into attack mode.

This didn’t work out for them when Ben Wilson won a challenge just outside the Cliftonville box, returning the ball up the field which was pounced on by Hale who began his goal celebrations from the halfway line.

His composure in managing to score whilst simultaneously waving both his arms aloft in joy was impressive. I know for certain that given the same opportunity, I would have cramped within feet of the goal and hit the ball high into the stands.

Innumerable Cliftonville supporters have told me this was probably the greatest Irish Cup final in history, and I’m in no position to argue against such hubris. And while I admit enjoying what I watched, I remain unconverted to soccer.

What gives me real pleasure is knowing that my old friend, Tim McGarry – a lifelong Cliftonville supporter – would no doubt have been absolutely thrilled by the result.

There are rumours that he was last spotted on the evening of the final, halfway up a lamppost on the Antrim Road, waving his Cliftonville scarf whilst singing, ‘God save the king’.

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