By Brian P. Dunleavy
We interrupt our usual frivolity with actual news…
That’s right, pending first-round results in Champions’ League qualifying, Celtic could be facing Belfast-based Linfield on July 11th, in what would be the Hoops’ first competitive match of the 2017-18 campaign. Assuming the NIFL Premiership champions are able to get past La Florita of San Marino, as they are favored to do, the first leg of the tie will be played at Belfast’s Windsor Park.
Unfortunately, this news isn’t only significant because it means the new season is fast approaching for Brendan Rodgers’ treble-winning, “invincible” side. Linfield are viewed as a “Protestant club” in Belfast, and the first leg was originally scheduled for July 12th—a public holiday in the north of Ireland that commemorates Protestant King William of Orange’s victory over Catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne.
That historic event occurred in 1690, but some people just can’t let it go. The day, at least in Belfast, has often been the cause for an uptick in sectarian violence—and it is a general nightmare for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
On Tuesday, Herald Scotland reported that officials from both Celtic and Linfield spoke with UEFA in the immediate aftermath of the draw and asked that, should the Belfast side dispatch La Florita as expected, that the first match be moved to the day before the holiday, with an early kick-off time, to minimize crowd trouble (and, likely, reduce the number of supporters traveling into Belfast for the match).
But the mid-July scheduling isn’t the only timing-related issue here. The potential political powder keg on the (football) pitch (we love alliteration) also comes just after contentious parliamentary elections in Britain, after which a controversial alliance was forged between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, one of the two major political parties in the north of Ireland. This power-sharing arrangement, which keeps the Conservatives in charge in London and keeps Britain’s planned exit from the European Union (EU; commonly referred to by the inane moniker “Brexit”) moving forward.
And just a reminder here: When Britain voted on the “Brexit” referendum, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
So what could go wrong when Celtic and Linfield line up on the pitch in July? They say timing is the key to comedy, but this isn’t funny—not, potentially, for supporters of both clubs, for neutrals or sporting agnostics living and working around Windsor Park or the PSNI.
Because they lack imagination, the press in Scotland asked Celtic’s newest signing Jonny Hayes to comment on the potential match-up. Hayes is Irish, and some in the media horde likely hoped he would say something controversial, or daft—and had dreams of blaring back-page headlines dancing in their heads. However, Hayes didn’t take the bait.
“If Linfield go through it will be a tough game there, but it will be a nice atmosphere to play in,” the newest Bhoy reportedly said, proving yet again that Rodgers isn’t daft enough to bring a daft player into Celtic. “You always want to play in decent football grounds and atmospheres,” he added.
Well said, in that he said nothing. Because, really, what does all this noise have to do with a football match? Sadly, enough that we have to talk about it.