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Political Football: Belfast Celtic v Linfield in September 1912

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

Two weeks before Ulster Day and the signing of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, Linfield and Belfast Celtic clashed on and off the field at Celtic Park as the Home Rule crisis gathered momentum.

Ongoing political turmoil had ramped up tensions on the streets where sectarian incidents were becoming more frequent. A Protestant Sunday school outing, for example, had been attacked by nationalists in June before a number of Catholic home rule supporters were physically forced out of the shipyard leading the military to maintain a presence on the site for a short period. And so, when Linfield were due to play Belfast Celtic on Saturday 14th September 1912, there would have been more than a few people eyeing it up as an opportunity to get a feel for the other side, so to speak.

Violence was not uncommon between fans of these two clubs either, matched by an intense rivalry on the field as two of the top teams of their day – however, before 1912 the greatest interest tended to be aroused when either side played Distillery, Cliftonville or Glentoran. This game was different, however, played against the backdrop of a simmering political situation and strained inter-community relations. The press had billed the game as the pick of the weekend’s action and they were in agreement that an enormous crowd was due to turn up. Indeed, a record crowd of around 16,000 turned out for the second league game of the new season at Belfast Celtic’s Donegall Road ground, the scene where just a few months previously Winston Churchill had spoken at a Nationalist rally in favour of Home Rule having been barred from doing so at the Ulster Hall. Celtic Park, or Paradise as it was known, was only a stone’s throw (quite literally at times) from Linfield’s Windsor Park ground on Donegall Avenue.

Additional excitement was created on the day with an anticipated fly-past by the daring aviators Valentine and Astley. The Northern Whig wrote that there was ‘no better selection of a place for viewing the daring birdmen than Celtic Park’. As it transpired, there was probably not a worse place than Celtic Park to be standing idly staring into the sky on Saturday 14th September 1912…

Belfast Celtic were coming into the game off the back of a 2-1 win over Cliftonville on the opening day of the new season, while Linfield had beaten Dublin side Shelbourne 1-0 at Windsor Park. Both were keen to continue their winning start to the league campaign.

On the pitch, Linfield shaded an evenly contested first half with a goal from their centre-forward Smith much to the delight of the ever-vocal Bluemen. Belfast Celtic tried to force an equaliser before half-time but to no avail and the Blues went in at the break 1-0 in front. No sooner had the players reached their dressing rooms, however, than the situation on the terraces began to deteriorate. It was alleged that a small number of Celtic fans made their way towards the enclosure which held the Linfield fans, taunting them with nationalist flags and banners. When Linfield fans reacted, a hand to hand scuffle ensued before the disorder quickly spread. Despite the best efforts of Belfast Celtic’s officials and the police, Celtic fans made a charge towards the Linfield enclosure ‘with a fierce fusillade of stones and clinkers’. Dozens of people were struck during the wild scenes that ensued. Owing to the ‘dearth of ammunition’ at the disposal of Linfield fans, they were entirely reliant on retaliating with what was originally thrown at them.

The match referee who went by the name of Holmes, had travelled from Stockport to officiate the game. While enjoying his half-time cup of tea with the linemen, a rock came through the dressing room window, presumably alerting him to the fact that there was trouble outside. According to Barry Flynn who has written a history of Belfast Celtic, referee Holmes was astonished that both sets of players wished to play the second half of the game, however the sound of gunfire and the sight of four police officers laid out on stretchers put an end to any prospect of the match being finished.

The police tried their best to get in between the opposing factions, opting to baton charge each side in an effort to restore some kind of order. By this point the Linfield fans were making their way towards the exits when, suddenly, several revolver shots rang out amid the chaos, fired by a young man from the Celtic end in the direction of the Linfield fans. A cry went out that someone had been seriously injured and stewards were seen carrying a man away from the enclosure. As many more supporters on both sides opted to dash for the east gate towards the Donegall Road, the shooter had managed to jump over a barrier into the reserved section and fired three or four more shots into the retreating crowd. As bewildered crowds poured onto the streets the disturbances outside the ground on the Donegall Road became much more serious than what had preceded inside. For a full 15 minutes, rival factions clashed using fists, stones and some road metal which had been lying ready for use on the tramway extension nearby. Further gunshots rang out while urgent requests were made for additional police support. Amazingly, there were only 60 police officers in the ground that day, and when the number of police in attendance was questioned in the court cases that followed, the explanation was that “It was not thought necessary to send a large force to a field of sport”. When the policing reinforcements eventually did arrive, the situation was swiftly brought under control, with Belfast Celtic fans being herded towards the Falls Road and Linfield fans ushered towards Sandy Row where for several hours they fought with the police.

All in all, the riot had only lasted for around half an hour. Nevertheless, a total of 60 people were taken to hospital, some of which with very serious injuries including five with gunshot wounds and a policeman who reportedly lost an eye. At the Royal Victoria Hospital, 8 patients were detained, including Robert Gillespie of 216 Old Lodge Road who had a bullet wound to his left ear, while three others had sustained fractured skulls. At the Mater Hospital, one man was detained also with a compound fracture to the skull.

Both clubs released separate statements condemning the incident and those involved in it. Linfield secretary Samuel Close said of the incident: “I would like it to be clearly understood that the officials of the Celtic Club did everything in their power to protect the Linfield players and those who accompanied them”. Samuel Close was resolute that Linfield supporters gave no provocation and that the scenes were to be deplored by all who had the interests of football at heart.

The local press covered the events of the riot in great detail, however the Great British press opted to interpret the incident as a direct symptom of the Home Rule crisis. The Dundee Courier, for example, ran with the headline ‘Another Belfast Warning’ before going on to point out the untenable case (as they saw it) for Home Rule in Ireland and warned of similar widespread violence by loyalists if Home Rule were to be imposed. They reckoned there was more chance of a leopard changing its spots than the prospects of peace in such circumstances. The Daily Mirror also feared that this was a sign of things to come and that the sectarian genie may have been finally released from the Ulster bottle.

Among the first arrests were by police in connection with the incident were at the Ropeworks in East Belfast where a fist-fight had broken out involving a Belfast Celtic fan who had been over-zealous in recounting his experiences of Saturday’s game before attacking three of his colleagues and later finding himself in court. Then on 10th October 1912, three men were charged in connection with the riot at Belfast Court. They were Edward and Bernard McCusker of 26 Short Strand and Thomas Rooney of Mountpottinger Road. One of the witnesses in court was Linfield fan Robert McGuicken, a shipwright from 11 Bright Street. He recounted being on a tram going up the Falls Road to the game when he encountered Bernard McCusker and Thomas Rooney who told him “you’re in for a good hiding today”. Then at half time when the when the fighting broke out he encountered McCusker again who punched him to the ground before kicking him and stabbing him in the head. Edward McCusker and Thomas Rooney were then among several others who kicked McGuicken while he was on the ground.

Another who was up on a charge of rioting was James Davey of Divis Street. When charged, Davey replied “[I] was at Celtic Park, but I was not rioting. I wasn’t twenty minutes [in] the ground – I left when I saw the row, as I had my wife’s money in my back pocket.” Clearly the wrath of James Davey’s wife was more frightful than the prospect of a riot with Linfield. Davey was granted bail, on that occasion, however on 18th October, he was among six men who were in court charged with rioting at Celtic Park. During the course of the evidence it emerged that Davey had been seen stoning Linfield fans in the Lower Broadway area and also on the pitch where he was seen to throw a stone at a Linfield supporter, knocking him down. Only one man I could locate was found guilty by the court – Charles Mervyn, a Belfast Celtic fan who received a one month prison sentence without hard labour.

At a meeting of the Irish Senior Football League on 18th September in the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast it was decided to replay the game at a neutral venue. Representatives of all clubs signed up to a manifesto which condemned the violence and endeavoured to exclude flags and banners from all grounds for future games.

In the weeks that followed the incident, attendances and gates were down across all clubs in the Irish League. And the whiff of trouble was never far away either, for example when Belfast Celtic travelled the short distance to Grosvenor Park to take on Distillery on Ulster Day itself, two weeks after the Linfield game, a sinister atmosphere was said to have been in the air. There were fears of another riot when Celtic fans, once again, stood accused of provocation and unruly behaviour in the ground. Fortunately, on this this occasion, the Distillery fans did not react in the same way that Linfield fans had and similar scenes were averted.

The Celtic-Linfield game was eventually replayed on Wednesday 16th October at 3pm – an unusual time to play such a big match. Though rather than having the contest at a neutral venue, as was originally agreed, it was played at Celtic Park but with increased security. On the field, and despite Celtic having the better of the play in the first half, the teams went into the pavilion scoreless at the interval, no doubt hoping that they could make it back out for the second half unlike their previous meeting. Linfield had the better of the second half, but the game finished as a 0-0 draw with minimal drama on and off the pitch.

The sides met again in November at Windsor Park with Linfield winning 4-0. The victory prompted jubilant scenes from the Bluemen which threatened to get out of control when blank rounds were fired from a revolver, and a rendition of ‘Dolly’s Brae’ echoed around the ground. At the next meeting of Irish League officials Belfast Celtic lodged a complaint that the game should have been abandoned and replayed at a neutral venue as their players were feeling intimidated by persistent revolver fire from the terraces.

Belfast Celtic went on to finish the 1912/13 season trophyless while Linfield secured the Irish Cup, County Antrim Shield, and the Belfast Charity Cup.

Other than occasional episode of trouble these were fond times for Irish League football more generally. In the Linfield side that season was the Scottish winger Marshall McEwan. McEwan had started his career at Everton and later transferred from Bolton to Chelsea for £1,000 – one of the first four-figure transfers in football. For many reasons, he didn’t settle at Chelsea and when Linfield came calling in 1911 he made the move to Windsor Park. In the Irish Cup Final of the 1912/1913 season against Glentoran at Celtic Park, McEwan was said to have performed a feat of footballing ability that has been described by the great sports journalist Malcom Brodie as ‘perhaps the most amazing seen in Irish football’: Linfield were leading the Glentoran 1-0 and the Glens were pushing for an equaliser when McEwan found himself doing defensive duties in his own half. A hacked clearance arrived to him at an awkward height, but he skilfully caught and balanced the ball on his head before setting off on a sprint to start another Linfield attack, heading the ball the whole way. He managed to keep the ball on his head despite being tackled by George Ferrett of Glentoran before reaching the penalty area where he let the ball bounce for the first time since he’d received it and coolly slipped the ball into the net to put Linfield 2-0 up. As Malcolm Brodie said, ‘It was pure Roy of the Rovers stuff’. Other household names in the team that year were Johnny Houston who later played for Everton, and Davy Rollo “The Pocket Marvel” who came from Boys’ Brigade football and was described as the most perfect volleyer of a ball in British football. Rollo later moved to Blackburn Rovers before finishing up as a hotel owner in Blackpool.

As unsavoury as the incident was in September 1912, the relationship between Celtic and Linfield had not broken down entirely. Just three months later the clubs were able to get together for a testimonial game at Windsor Park for Linfield defender George Willis on New Years Day 1913. Most remarkably, though, less than three years later in May 1915, the two clubs made an incredible effort to set aside their differences to assist the Great 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 Honorary Secretary of the Irish Football Association David McGonigal, who organised the match declared, “The wounded soldiers have done their bit for us. We must do our bit for them.” This glamour finale for the season was played on Saturday 15th 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. Not one to miss a potential recruitment opportunity, 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.

Ultimately though, September 1912 was the beginning of the end of a rivalry that lasted for decades until December 1948 – the infamous Jimmy Jones incident that led, directly or otherwise, to Belfast Celtic’s departure from Irish League football and with it the end of perhaps the fiercest derby in Irish football history.

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