By Paul Breen @CharltonMen – this article first appeared in The Impartial Reporter Newspaper in December 2012 but has never appeared online until now.
Once upon a time, when I was a student, I went to see Cliftonville playing Glentoran in a cup final at Windsor Park; one of the dozens that seemed to happen over the long harsh nights of winter. Coming from the small County Fermanagh village of Brookeborough, and studying at Queens University, the big city lights were as new to me as the frost of tension clinging to every nerve and sinew of 1990’s Belfast.
This was a time of troubles, soldiers on the streets, bombs in fish shops, shootings in bookie shops, and airport style security going through a labyrinth of steel cages into the stadium. These supporters hated each other – having had a very different experience to the one we had in County Fermanagh, where roughly half the people I had grown up with were from the Protestant tradition, and we just got on with life as best we could. Even the first girl that I ever fell head over heels in love with was one of the other side, going to a school called the Collegiate where the girls wore Irish green uniforms and were all the more gorgeous for being from the other side of the fence.
But this scene in Belfast was very different – as different as hardcore heavy metal from Daniel O’Donnell music. Like two sets of dogs on opposite sides of the stadium, they growled and snarled at each other, ready for a scrap if the stewards would allow it. There I was, red-faced country boy wishing I’d stayed at home to watch Brookside or Eastenders.
But no, I’d found myself standing in the cold, watching the dogs bark insults at each other, even though they all seemed fairly similar to me. Same accents, same dark sense of humour, same interests and same birthplace in a beautiful white-stoned city circled in dark hills.
Same confusion too about the sport that they were supposed to be playing. On the way inside, the police patted us all down head to toe, touching every bit of us except for the women’s chests and the men’s lower abdominal parts. This fondling seemed to have been done in the name of preventing weapons and special brew being smuggled into the ground. But no sooner were we inside waiting for the teams to take the field than the plans had been subverted.
A couple of hundred men, on either side of the ground, dipped hands down the front of their jeans (their own as far as I was aware) and produced a secret weapon from their underpants. Suddenly the pitch was covered in a shower of golf balls. They’d never stood a chance of reaching the supporters at the other side but it was a statement. They hated each other, and at the same time wanted to show they were smarter than each other, but all they really showed to those of us, watching from the middle ground, was that they weren’t all that different.
Glentoran won that night, in the football if not the golf. I drifted off afterwards for a couple of pints on The Golden Mile, probably, not that interested in ever seeing an Irish League game again. Indeed, for years, as soon as the results came on TV on a Saturday, I’d switch off the box and then when the internet came along I just never clicked in their direction at all. As far as I knew Linfield won pretty much everything for the next twenty years, and the authorities finally admitted Donegal Celtic to the league after years of them trying to get in.
Besides, I’m living in London now, with Charlton Athletic FC just down the road. I’ve been here five years and just bought my first season ticket. There’s something great about supporting a local team, and being part of a community, part of a tribe almost. On Saturdays, going to the ground, wandering among the thousands of home supporters, there’s a real community feeling. I wasn’t born in Charlton. I haven’t a London accent, I haven’t any tattoos like the rest of the locals, and couldn’t say ‘we’ when Team GB did so well in 2012, even though I almost cried for Jessica Ennis and can still picture every step of Mo Farah’s 10,000 metres from even before the starting gun went off. So I’m not really a local and probably never will be, in the way most of their fans are, but unfashionable Charlton Athletic is my team and their games are the only football I really care about these days. None of the rest’s local to me anymore; with far too much emphasis on money.
Strange then that after all these years, I should find myself thinking of another local team, of coming home from Charlton home matches on a Saturday in London, and switching on BBC Northern Ireland to see how Ballinamallard have done. Reading about them in the papers from pre-season, a surge of pride and excitement started to build up inside of me. This was Fermanagh’s team, part of a tribe that I belong to, or I did belong to once, or will always belong to, because that’s where I spent the formative years of my life.
Week after week, I’d come home, check the results, and confuse my English wife Sarah who wanted to know why I’d support Ballinamallard and not Brookeborough in the Irish League.
‘They don’t have a team,’ I tried to tell her, ‘of any description, though Roy Carroll once played for them under-age.’
‘Who’s he when he’s at home?’ she asked.
And that’s when it hit me. Maybe not exactly then, but soon after. I would go home and watch Ballinamallard United.
At the end of November I had a work trip in Newcastle so I took a short flight across the water on the Friday night and go to see the Mallards playing the next day. By good luck, or bad, they were playing my old friends Glentoran. I phoned up a friend of mine who’s a journalist from Fermanagh and we decided to head to the game. Unfortunately, getting there, we mistimed things and caught a taxi at about two o’clock. The wise cracking, Crusaders-supporting driver seemed to find our presence hilarious; two country boys up in the big city and a team from the sticks playing in the ‘Belfast’ league. ‘Big?’ I wanted to say. ‘Belfast’s closer to the size o’ Ballinamallard than where I watch my home games every week.’ But I stayed silent because I couldn’t have got a word in edgeways even if I’d wanted to. By the time we got out, his monologue could’ve filled two hours in The Grand Opera House.
Going through the turnstiles and into the empty stadium, the place was abandoned. Since there was nobody else there and my mate said that you can sit wherever you like, we headed up into the stands. Half an hour later we started to realise that everybody in blue was on the other side and we were beginning to find ourselves buried in a swamp of green and red.
‘Could be worse though,’ I pointed out. ‘If I was at Charlton’s derby game today, I’d hate to be stuck in the Millwall end.’
Almost twenty years after a night of golf balls raining down, I was on the wrong side of the house and I was less nervous than if I’d been in Bermondsey. That’s where Charlton’s mortal enemies, the day’s derby opponents, are based. Getting there’s like going through the old cages for away supporters at Windsor Park. There’s even a tunnel that leads straight from the train station to the away side of the ground. This was peaceful in comparison, inside a ground that’s really in need of serious development.
All that talk about building a new national stadium at The Maze – you don’t need one. The Oval, beside the city centre and down the road from the George Best airport, is a perfect location if the government improved transport links to the west. Inside there, with the Christmas lights, the cranes and the dark hills in the background, this was like a different country from the dark, rabid one from long ago in my memories.
In this country I’d no fear of being unmasked as a country boy amongst the big city folk if they caught me cheering when Ballinamallard hopefully scored. Twenty years ago I would genuinely have been terrified of ending up butchered in a wheelie bin if I was caught on the wrong side of the tracks. Times are certainly changing, whatever way things end up.
Maybe on the day the result wasn’t the best for Ballinamallard. They lost 2-1 but the game taught me something. Back home life’s becoming normal even in places where you’d never have imagined that was possible. I suppose for the quiet majority at football matches in the 90’s it was always normal. You just tend to see the bad side when golf balls are coming at you from all directions. And well, I don’t know who cast the first stone but those nights they were both as bad as each other.
Yes, times are changing. Ballinamallard gave a good showing as Fermanagh’s finest; at least until Brookeborough puts a team in the Irish League. Compared to English football, the level’s probably around the play-off zone of the fourth division, with one or two individuals better than that. That’s not knocking the local game. English fourth division clubs are all fully professional. Some of the football on display at The Oval was outstanding for guys who are mostly semi-professional (I think). Both teams had some lovely passages of play, moving the ball across the grass. There’s great hope for the future if Ballinamallard keep this group of players together. But amongst the Glentoran fans I felt a great sense of sadness too that their club’s pretty much on the edge of extinction unless it finds money from somewhere. This is a team that’s forty years older than Northern Ireland itself and has produced some of the country’s greatest players, including Fermanagh’s Jimmy Cleary. It’d be a shame to see them die because, with Ballinamallard surely staying at this level for the foreseeable future, we want to take on the very best that Belfast’s big smoke can throw at us and beat them.
For the rest of this season I’ll be coming home from Charlton games, or Saturday shopping on alternative weekends, and I’ll be checking the scores for Ballinamallard United. Maybe there’ll be some will say I’ve got more bloody clubs than Rory McIlroy, but one thing’s for sure. Though the weather’s got no better, we’re a long way from raining golf balls.
PAUL BREEN – Author of The Charlton Men – available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X