Look at Linfield and Learn!
I don’t know Belfast city well. I have heard it referred to as a ‘15 minute city’ in that most of the amenities are only a 15 minute walk away. A good few years ago, a younger and fitter me decided to run the Belfast Marathon; it took me longer than 15 minutes! I had a better skeleton back then too. Perhaps it was an early mid-life crisis, perhaps a bucket list event, who knows? But some hours later I promised myself to never repeat the ordeal. Now, a marathon is not the best way to see a city, not least Belfast, but it does provide some interesting insights as you puff your way around the streets. The first thing you notice is the kerbing. In the city centre and up the Falls Road, there is nothing remarkable. But as you turn towards East Belfast, things change, and the blue, red and white of the Union flag is used as a method of demarcation. Much like the Free Derry mural on the Bogside, the kerbing along the roads of North and East Belfast informed the puffy faced jogger that they had entered a part of the city that was avowedly different. A Rubicon was crossed and there was to be no doubt.
The Belfast marathon is normally run on the May Bank Holiday Monday, at least it was pre-Covid. My iteration of it was an unusually warm spring day and so the crowds along the route were in shirt sleeves. In some parts of the city, once more, you could ascertain the tribe the crowds felt most aligned to by the football jersey worn. Glasgow Celtic on the Falls, Glasgow Rangers in Tiger Bay. But a closer inspection, facilitated by my tortoise like running speed, would see a smattering of blue Linfield FC jerseys in the eastern part of the city.
I have heard bits and pieces about Linfield FC over the years. None of it flattering. I would have heard it described as a sectarian club. Yes, it does draw the majority of its fan base from the loyalist community of Belfast but it has never imposed a ban on the signing of Roman Catholic players, contrary to popular myth. Sectarian tensions are often evident at their games and the club have been fined for sectarian chats emanating from their supporters during games.
I have no great desire to attend a home game at Windsor Park, home of Linfield FC. I am not sure that I would be at ease in the ground. But during the last lockdown I participated in a webinar for Ardmore GAA Club in Waterford. Ardmore native and former Newstalk presenter, Oisin Langan and I were chatting about our favourite and not so favourite sporting grounds that we have visited / worked at. Whilst I was putting the boot into Cusack Park in Ennis, OisÍn spoke warmly about his last visit to Windsor Park in Belfast and the generosity of the welcome he found there when he was covering a game for BBC Northern Ireland.
I had cause to think about Linfield FC when a story was sent to me last week about Ballygunner GAA club. Ballygunner is a famous hurling club in Waterford City and have dominated the club hurling scene in Waterford in recent years. Like a lot of GAA clubs they boast top class facilities. On a side note the substantial improvement in GAA facilities around the country has become the envy of other sports in recent years. Former Chelsea and Ireland winger , Damien Duff, recently described League of Ireland facilities as ‘horrific’ when compared with GAA club facilities. He was born near and still passes the grounds of Ballyboden St. Enda’s GAA club each day. He is envious of the facilities that the amateur club have compared to his job as manager of semi-professional Shelbourne FC. He recently described the toilet facilities in the AUL training base in Santry as being exactly the same now as when he went there for soccer trials 30 years ago.
The fact that, in general, GAA facilities are light years ahead of those available at soccer grounds is just that, a fact. Not the fault of anyone or any sport. More, a testament to community involvement, local fund raising, and a desire to provide the best of facilities to youngsters to keep them playing gaelic games for longer. Ballygunner is no different and boast a super indoor facility that allows players, particularly younger players to train in the winter months. And their indoor facility was also made available to the local soccer club Bohemians FC who used it for their 4-10 year old soccer academy. A peaceful co-existence between two local clubs. Both of whom share the same raw material, namely the youth of the locality. Are they in competition against each other? Maybe. But not for the hearts and minds of children under 10. The majority of whom play both codes and probably a few more besides.
Regrettably this peaceful co-existence has come to an end. A very brave person has complained to the GAA hierarchy about GAA facilities being used by a non-GAA sport. Insofar as I understand, this person is so brave that their complaint has been sent to Croke Park anonymously. Ballygunner have been threatened with sanctions if they didn’t cut ties with Bohemians FC. And so the 4-10 year olds have no indoor facility to train in this winter.
I have written in these pages before about Rule 42 and don’t wish to revisit that rule change again. But it is worth remembering that the debate about Rule 42 was more about Croke Park than it was about GAA facilities in general. And it is open to the central council of the GAA to sanction non GAA activity at GAA facilities if it so wishes. So while 400,000 people queued on their phones or online for Garth Brooks’ Croke Park tickets, children, 10 years and younger, were being told that their presence at a GAA ground for soccer training was repugnant. Happy Christmas everyone!
Linfield FC is no stranger to controversy and I have already referred to sectarian chanting and the loyalist supporter base earlier. But what may surprise you is Linfield’s role in promoting Gaelic Games in Belfast. Cardinal O’Donnell’s is a GAA club in West Belfast and it is based on the Whiterock Road. A mile up the road is Midgley Park, which is home to the Linfield FC girl’s academy. The proximity of the clubs mean that some girls in West Belfast play both sports. And it is a wonderful thing that a ten year old girl in Belfast just sees an opportunity to play sport and doesn’t see sectarian divides. With so much commonality between the clubs, they now run joint programmes for their under 10 girls. It makes sense for them to share resources because both clubs are so close together. Neil Morrow of Linfield said ‘we both have frustrations around capacity building, recruitment and retention of players and volunteers, so any work that drives visibility can only help.’
Up to recently there was no GAA club in East Belfast. The St. Colmcille’s club, which was founded in the 1950’s folded around the beginning of the troubles. A new club was formed in May 2020 and its ethos can be seen firstly in the club’s crest. From the outset it is a cross community club seeking to actively recruit players from across the community. The crest displays the two huge cranes in the Harland and Wolff shipping yard, Samson and Goliath. There is a shamrock, a thistle and a red hand on the crest also. How is that for inclusivity?
There is another issue here about multi use sporting facilities. I have no idea if the Ballygunner facilities received any public money in order to upgrade their facilities. I certainly hope they did, be it direct from the exchequer or from the National Lottery. They continue to do great work in their parish and players who enter their grounds benefit from their superb facilities. And public money should not come with caveats. If you get a grant from public funds then it shouldn’t have a proviso attached as to how it should be spent, such as allow all other sports to use the facility. As a country, perhaps we need to ask ‘do we really need top class GAA facilities for children alongside top class soccer facilities for children alongside top class rugby facilities for children alongside a state of the art athletics track with an adjoining cycle facility?’ Or should public funds be better spent on building multi-purpose facilities, open to all, to promote sport in general to young people rather than just one sport?
That perhaps deserves a column of it’s own in the new year. The decision by the brave person who sent the complaint to Croke Park has consequences. It tells young children that you are only welcome in this facility if you play our sport, by our rules and to stop thinking about other codes. It tells young people that you don’t have to travel to Belfast to encounter intolerance. In fact, and I never thought I would say this, but the GAA could learn something from Linfield FC.
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