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Football grounds have a rich past but they need a future too

On 27 December just past I was at the Linfield v Glentoran ‘Boxing Day’ game with my daughter. She’s only 8 years old but was wide-eyed and fascinated by the big-game atmosphere, asking me every question imaginable (and unimaginable). I found myself explaining to her that “Windsor Park wasn’t always like this you know…” referring, of course, to the stadium’s recent re-development. At this point I suddenly became very aware of my age as I tried to describe what Windsor Park looked and felt like for me growing up as a young lad.

In 2014, demolition workers tore down the famous South Stand and the adjoining Viewing Lounge. These practically the last remaining vestiges of the ‘old’ Windsor Park, areas of the ground that provided us with a direct connection to by-gone eras and memories that were both good (sometimes glorious) and bad (sometimes ugly). And now it’s all gone, replaced by a multi-million pound spaceship-like structure more befitting of the modern-era, of course it is, but for traditionalists and those of us who appreciate history and heritage then we have undoubtedly lost something irreplaceable during that process.

More recently, however, on 29 January, I was invited by Mark Langhammer to contribute to an event marking 100 years of Seaview football ground, home of Crusaders F.C. in north Belfast. The club have developed an interesting exhibition space at their Shore Road home featuring a pictorial journey through time back to 1898. They have also digitised countless photographs and pieces of memorabilia which, when one learns that the club lost most of their records in a fire in 1966, is a task of considerable historical importance. Seaview has undergone substantial redevelopment in recent years too, but the ‘Seaview 100’ initiative shows that heritage and modernisation do not have to be mutually exclusive in the local game.

The event itself was a ‘nostalgic look back’ at the history and development of football grounds in Belfast with representatives in attendance from Linfield, Cliftonville, Distillery, and Belfast Celtic. In the case of Belfast Celtic theirs was a story of both development and demise having played their last Irish League game at Celtic Park in 1949. The Donegall Road ground which was known to the fans as “Paradise” had been their home since 1891. Likewise for Distillery the story was also one of rise and subsequent fall; a one-time founder member of the Irish League with a huge fan base at Grosvenor Park in west Belfast, they played their last game at the ground in 1971. The pioneers of Irish football with the oldest club and oldest ground, however, are Cliftonville F.C. The Reds’ ground at Solitude was opened in 1890 and can boast of witnessing the first ever penalty kick taken in international football as well as the first Irish ground to make use of electric floodlights in front of a ‘sceptical’ crowd back in 1891.

My task, though, was to talk about Windsor Park, home of Linfield F.C. Having played at several grounds since their inception in 1886, the club’s management committee made their latest attempt to find a permanent home in 1904. Arthur McDermott, a man who was so prominent in the development of Linfield, took representatives from the club to inspect a plot of land which was about to become available at the Bog Meadows. An agreement was quickly reached with the landowner (Rev R. J. Clarke) and within a year the new ground at Windsor Park was ready to host its first game, a 1-0 victory over Glentoran on 2 September 1905.

As the ground evolved, so too did the range of activities that took place there. During the Third Home Rule crisis the Windsor Park was used for drilling by south Belfast units of both the Unionist Clubs and the Ulster Volunteer Force. A few years later, during the First World War, an international baseball match was held at Windsor between America and Canada which raised c.£500 for the U.V.F. Hospital. By the 1920s the stadium was hosting boxing bouts, rugby union, and even speedway on a track which had been constructed around the pitch.

Windsor Park had become the obvious choice to host international games and so in 1937 the club agreed a five-year contract with the Irish Football Association to stage all internationals at a rental of 20%. In 1947 the deal was re-negotiated at a rental of 15% for a further five-years and has been a source of controversy from Linfield’s opponents ever since. In the 1950s and 1960s, Linfield could regularly attract crowds of 15,000 people, sometimes higher, though nowadays they're seeing 2,000-3,000 fans through the turnstiles for an average Irish League game.

At the time of writing, Stormont Minister Deirdre Hargey has officially pulled the plug on £32.6m of funding which had been set aside for improvements to football stadia in Northern Ireland. £10m of the fund was earmarked for another historic Belfast ground, The Oval, home of Glentoran F.C. The news is yet another body blow to local football clubs who do so much positive work in their communities; work which is often undervalued or ignored. Moving forward, redevelopment of these grounds will happen one way or another and it’s important that clubs find a way for heritage and modernisation to co-exist in that process, just as Crusaders have been able to do at Seaview by being well-quipped for the future while tipping a hat to the past. The memories of these grounds (be they good or bad, glorious, or ugly) will have to live on within the fans rather than the deteriorating physical structures which, despite not receiving money at this time, will not be around forever.

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