Updated: Oct 7, 2019
The centenary of the First World War has evoked a lesser-known sporting story involving two giants of local football. Linfield, with their predominantly Protestant following, and Belfast Celtic, with their predominantly Catholic following, shared the greatest rivalry in Irish football. The two stadia, Windsor Park and Celtic Park, were only a stone’s-throw away from one another (sometimes literally) at opposite sides of Donegall Road in South Belfast.
During the Home Rule crisis in 1912 Celtic and Linfield played out an infamous occasion when sectarian violence marred a league game. An understated police report said, ‘Supporters of these two clubs belong to different parties’: they meant Unionist in the case of Linfield, and Nationalist for Celtic. Prior to the game tensions were high, and 60 people were hospitalised after a half time battle between supporters, followed by a police baton charge and further trouble outside the ground.
However, in May 1915, less than three years later, the two clubs made an incredible effort to set aside their differences to assist the war effort. A ‘Great Benefit Match’ was arranged in aid of the Wounded Soldiers & Sailors Fund that sought to provide assistance to those wounded servicemen recovering in local military hospitals. In an unprecedented move, Belfast Celtic and Linfield formed a combination XI that would take on a Rest of The Irish League XI in what was described in the local press as ‘a big attraction, unique in the history of local football’. The Celtic-Linfield combination owed more to the fact that Celtic were league champions and Linfield were cup winners, but the significance of what was about to happen did not escape those who were involved. The Honourary Secretary of the Irish Football Association David McGonigal, who was the chief organiser of the match declared, “The wounded soldiers have done their bit for us. We must do our bit for them.”
The teams lined up as follows:
Linfield/Celtic (Playing in red)
Mehaffey (Celtic), Rollo (Linfield), Barrett (Celtic), Wallace (Linfield), Hamill CAPTAIN (Celtic), Bartlett (Linfield), Kerr (Celtic), Nixon (Linfield), Cowell (Celtic), Marshall (Celtic), McEwan (Linfield).
Rest of The League (Playing in white)
Steele (Cliftonville), Burnison (Distillery), Grainger (Glentoran), Milne (Distillery), Emerson (Glentoran), Scraggs CAPTAIN (Glentoran), Lyner (Glentoran), McNeill (Distillery), Connor (Distillery), Campbell (Glenavon), Buckle (Glenavon).
Referee: Captain Howland; a recruiting officer for the army.
Linesmen: Captain Nicholl and Captain McKee.
This curtain-razor for the season was scheduled for Saturday 15 May 1915 with a 3:30pm kick off at Grosvenor Park Belfast, admission was 6d and 1s. Match organisers were quite relieved when a crowd of around 10,000 came to show their support for the teams and for the soldiers’ charity. According to the Belfast Evening Telegraph they were treated to a ‘good, fast, and attractive game’ in which both sides did not hold back. Celtic-Linfield ran out 4-2 winners on the day ‘in what was a most interesting and attractive game, the football displayed being of quite a high standard.’ To mark the occasion the winning side were presented with a set of gold scarf-pins by the Lord Mayor of Belfast Crawford McCullagh who said he had been pleased to see such a fine game and that he was a great believer in football as it taught men to “play the game’ in ordinary life. McCullagh suggested that as many of those present as possible should “sign up” for the bigger game that was now taking place at the front. Around £200 was raised for the wounded servicemen for which the Lord Mayor gave thanks. In conclusion he urged upon every available young man the duty of joining the army, because although things were “going well at present”, every man would be needed to enable them to bring it to a successful conclusion.
*It is thought that as many as eight current and ex players of Linfield Football Club served in the First World War. Further research is required on the Belfast Celtic sacrifice.