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Clubs are shaped by supporters

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

Places and communities make and shape football clubs the world over, and Northern Ireland is no different. If a town or part of a city in Northern Ireland is predominantly of one religious denomination or “tradition”, and in some places that’s a situation which has probably been consolidated after thirty years of conflict and some resultant population movement, then a local football club’s support will reflect that reality. If an area’s population has changed as a result of the Troubles, then it is no surprise that the profile of the local football club’s support will also have changed over the last forty to fifty years. Northern Ireland Football League clubs really don’t have much say in the matter. They are, to varying degrees, shaped by their supporters; he who pays the piper etc.

As a result, clubs cannot escape being labelled Protestant/Unionist or Catholic/Nationalist. That may almost be the Northern Ireland norm across a range of activities but it must clearly diminish their attraction to those of us who live outside NI and who don't want to be seen to be taking sides. During the last year I have been very impressed by one brilliantly run NIFL Championship club and have given them a level of support through a £10-per-month donation scheme, some player sponsorships and even a match ball sponsorship.

Throughout this period, I haven't told a single soul about my connection with this club. The reason was simple; I was uneasy about the association. This town is 97% Protestant, full of what some people might describe as my kith and kin – Ulster-Scots and all that - but that connection is often more rooted in nostalgia than realism. Times have changed. The post-reformation Presbyterianism, which shaped the Scottish personality in so many ways from the mid 16th century onwards, no longer holds sway and loyalty to the Scotland-England union appears to be irreversibly in retreat. I am no longer an adherent of any Christian denomination, I almost always vote for the SNP and I am a member of Republic, an organisation dedicated to ending the British monarchy. I assumed such views would find little support, or even understanding, in those parts of Northern Ireland where the monarchy, unionism and Protestantism continue to command unwavering support. Should any of this really matter when deciding to support a football club? A couple of months ago I concluded that it did. I decided to cut and run, divesting myself of recently acquired memorabilia along the way. Even at the time I wasn't proud of the decision. I felt relief more than anything – and sadness too.

I continued to watch NIFL Premiership matches on TV, both live and in highlights package format, but all from the comfort of my own home – and in perfect anonymity. I've decided I was wrong. In the last two months I have cheered on Cliftonville and hoped they could win the NIFL Premiership. Nothing against Linfield - I'm a big admirer of David Healy. I supported the North Belfast Reds for one reason only; I thought they were the best football team in the Division and would have been worthy winners. In the last two months I have offered to produce and maintain a website, at my own expense, for two Junior clubs in the east of Scotland and one Highland League team. I have also offered to update an existing website for another Highland League club. In all four instances I did not even receive the courtesy of an acknowledgement. In fairness, this lack of basic customer service is not restricted to some smaller Scottish clubs and in recent years there have also been non-responses from two NIFL Championship clubs, after making the same website offer. That recent experience with the Scottish clubs has made me reconsider my withdrawn support for the aforementioned "brilliantly run NIFL Championship club". They deserve my support but after this discourse they may not want it!

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