Windsor Park – A New Identity

A fair and balanced magnification of the history of Ireland would almost certainly involve having to write more than forty volumes of detailed work.   What is sure is that the conflict in Northern Ireland, which killed thousands, has political and religious roots that are centuries old and the squabbles continue to this day.   Although a peace now exists thanks to the Good Friday agreement and the bombs have largely gone its fair to say a sense of cultural uneasiness still exists and serves to pervade into almost every section of society.

In modern times the conflict has centred on opposing arguments of the region’s national status.  Some people in Northern Ireland, especially the mainly Protestant Unionist community, believe that the North should remain part of the United Kingdom.  Others, particularly the mainly Catholic Nationalist community, believe Northern Ireland should leave the UK and become part of the Republic of Ireland.

As it stands the north remains part of the United Kingdom with the Irish Republic having scrapped its constitutional claim to the north as part of the Good Friday agreement.  Northern Ireland is now governed by a power-sharing executive, with ministerial posts distributed by party strength and an elected assembly.

Football in the North

Like every aspect of life football in Northern Ireland has not been immune to the cultural and nationalistic divide.  Since 1905 Windsor Park in south Belfast has been the home ground of the Linfield club.  The first game of football at Windsor Park took place on 29 August 1905, with Linfield playing out a 0–0 draw against Lisburn Distillery in a friendly match arranged to officially commemorate the opening of the stadium.  Then a few days later came the first competitive game played at the stadium when Linfield gained a 1–0 win over Glentoran.

Over a period of time, the political divide in Ireland crept into football with a sectarian divide becoming visible at football matches and resulting squabbles over flags and identity. Linfield, like Glentoran, had a mainly unionist following, while Belfast Celtic had a mainly Irish nationalist following.  Sectarian violence between the two clubs became the norm at Windsor Park when the two teams played.  This culminated in a riot on 26 December 1948 at Windsor Park in a game that saw three Celtic players injured by attacks from Linfield supporters.  As a result of this riot, Belfast Celtic left the Irish League and Glentoran became Linfield’s biggest domestic rivals.

For years Windsor Park was one of the most ramshackle and piecemeal stadiums in the British Isles. Watch a video of the British home internationals and you see a Windsor Park open to the elements.  Wide open expansive terracing was the main character of the stadium against a backdrop of terraced housing yet it was not unknown to see crowds of over 50,000.

Then came the 1970’s and the ‘troubles’ and security issues both within and outside Windsor Park was tightened up.  For a while matches of the national team were switched to the UK mainland and in 1972 Windsor Park suffered at the hands of terrorism when an IRA bomb blew up part of the railway end.   Later on, plastic bullets were fired by RUC when football fans clashed outside the stadium.

Despite its crumbling and outdated interiors (there are some who say Windsor Park should have been demolished after the Bradford fire of 1985) the ground was still often referred to as a ‘shrine’ of Irish football.  What Windsor Park lacked in facilities it made up for in a raucous atmosphere and character. The ground was very notable for the Union and Ulster flags that were flown all around the stadium but the teams – both Northern Ireland and Linfield – remained mixed teams with Catholics and Protestants born in the north playing for the team.

Although the Northern Irish team qualified for the 1982 and 1986 FIFA World Cups the years afterwards were unkind to the national team.  While the South enjoyed its best ever period the Northern Ireland squad struggled to score goals let alone come near to qualifying for a major tournament.

The 1993 clash with Eire at Windsor Park was said to have been the most intense match ever played at Windsor Park and the game was exacerbated by the tense political climate of the time and an English manager in charge of the Republic. The 1-1 draw for the Republic secured the Irish a place at USA 1994. Windsor Park meanwhile took a pounding from safety investigators with reports slamming its condition, fan behaviour, accusations of intimidation and poor viewing lines.

By 2000 it was clear Windsor Park had little future and a major phase of refurbishment was required to bring Northern Ireland’s home ground up to respectable standards for international football.  The stadium remained the largest association football stadium in Northern Ireland, with Glentoran’s ground, the Oval being the next largest.

Owing to the increasingly poor condition of Windsor Park various proposals for its upgrade or replacement were noted including the idea of a multi-purpose stadium being built that would host all the major sports of Ireland namely football, rugby and GAA.  There was mention that this new facility would be built on the site of the former Maze prison or built as part of a major leisure development at Sydenham in east Belfast.

However, the plans for the multi-purpose stadium at the Maze site was strongly protested by many Northern Ireland supporters and fans of Linfield.  Various petitions in opposition to the suggestion, as well as organised displays of opposition at Linfield matches and the presentation counter-proposals, were arranged by Supporters Clubs in a bid to block any move of the national team to the Maze.

Essentially, Linfield were the owners of Windsor Park and the governing body of the Irish Football Association leased the ground for use by the Northern Ireland national football team.  Linfield due to this received a percentage of Northern Ireland international match gate receipts straight into club finances.  This led to years of accusation that Linfield was an ‘arm of the state’ and that they were allowed to buy domestic success each year at the expense of other clubs.

Linfield dominated the Irish league throughout the 1970’s and continued to do so during the years of the troubles throughout the 1990’s up until more recent years.

The Modernisation of Windsor

The landscape of the city of Belfast has changed dramatically since the height of the troubles.  New historical landmarks have emerged and it’s a clean and safe city with numerous places of attraction.   Much work has gone into making Belfast an inclusive city and the government drive to rid Belfast of the sectarianism of previous decades has been hugely praised.

With Windsor Park a central home of sporting culture in Belfast it was naturally earmarked for modernisation in an attempt to scrub clean its sectarian reputation and make it fit for a new era.  During May 2014 work began on the redevelopment of Windsor Park thanks to a release of funds from the Belfast power-sharing executive.  This stadium project saw the ground being completely overhauled and included were a new playing surface; new stands; improved drainage; demolition work; modern seating installation and integrated media and lighting facilities.

Once simply Windsor Park the home of Linfield FC, the stadium was to become ‘The national stadium at Windsor Park’ – home of the Northern Ireland football team.   Funding for the redevelopment came from the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive in Belfast and the IFA took over daily management of the stadium.

National Stadium at Windsor Park

But the name of the stadium and the role of Linfield in its future caused huge problems and arguments. Once in control of Windsor Park, Linfield lodged a number of official complaints to the IFA surrounding how they would make use of the stadium for matches. Ownership and the ‘identity’ of the stadium became a key point of contention between Linfield and the IFA.

Even in recent years, it has not been uncommon for the marketing campaigns of Linfield to be perceived as sectarian.  Match ticketing initiatives were often lined up alongside sales punchlines like ‘stay blue or stay away’ and the nationalist community saw Windsor Park as a place where Protestants, loyalists, unionists were welcome but others were not so welcome.  A yearly friendly match against Glasgow Rangers held at Windsor Park did little to detract from these perceptions.

But Linfield the club have contested those accusations noting the arrival and welcome of numerous Catholic players to the club.

While the IFA wanted to call the stadium the ‘National Stadium’ Linfield disputed this. There was a feeling from many who followed Linfield that the Belfast executive wanted to ‘airbrush’ Linfield out of its historical past. Linfield insisted that ‘Windsor Park’ should remain part of the stadium naming conventions.

Other meanwhile claimed that the stadium should be renamed completely by way of a corporate sponsorship deal.

The flaking murals of NI legends have been removed from the railway bridge nearby.

Windsor Park, therefore, became embroiled in conflicts over renaming, identity and its cultural setting. Its future status within the context of a Northern Ireland ‘shared society’ came to the fore as redevelopment work started.   For some who followed Linfield the dropping of Windsor Park was viewed suspiciously as part of a Sinn Fein drive for equality and diversity to be reflected in sport.

There was a suspicion from some in the Loyalist community that ‘Windsor’ was to be dropped from the stadium name due to its perceived royal family connotations.

For those eager on modernisation and seeing perceived impressions of sectarianism removed, the stadium name was changed simply to represent the international nature of the football stadium.    As it stands Linfield receive an annual payment of £200,000 from the Irish Football Association as part of a new 51-year deal for the future use of the new stadium.

However, Linfield was not alone in questioning the future status of Windsor Park and the funding arrangements.  For years other rivals clubs have viewed Linfield as being an ‘arm of the state’ and that this bias has led to years of domestic success.

Crusaders raised an objection to funding being pumped into Windsor Park stating that millions of pounds being invested into Windsor Park’s redevelopment and a yearly payment of £200k to Linfield amounted to ‘unlawful state aid for a footballing rival’ i.e. Linfield, and that competition laws had been breached.

Against that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and partners at the IFA argued that the development of Windsor was part of a wider initiative to regenerate and integrate sport in Northern Ireland. This regeneration also included a redevelopment of the Ulster Rugby pitch at Ravenhill and the home of GAA at Casement Park.

During June 2016 the Northern Ireland football team played matches at the 2016 European Championships in France.  The qualifying campaign with home matches played at Windsor Park was a successful one with the team winning the group.   The playing squad meanwhile was a mixed one with both Catholics and Protestants playing. Efforts were made by the IFA at integrating the squad and the fan base via social media initiatives, pre-tournament school visits and a fan park in Belfast.

However, it still wasn’t too hard to detect the cultural divides of old.  As ‘God Save the Queen’ the national anthem was played before the group games it was noticeable amongst players that more than half sang the anthem but the rest stood heads bowed as the tune was played without uttering a word.

In the stands amongst the travelling fans, only Union and the Ulster flag were noticeable; the latter still being a symbolic flag often perceived as marking the territory of the loyalist community.

Despite this, the IFA and the Northern Ireland government are doing all they can to welcome all members of the community to matches of the Northern Ireland football team.  Marketing campaigns focus on ‘football for all’ messages but many claimed tickets for Northern Ireland matches in France were unfairly distributed with loyal fans missing out at the expense of fairer distribution policies.

Overall, however, a great many simply want to see a Northern Ireland team that has the support of the entire Northern Ireland community. It is within this context that Windsor Park has had to change if not in setting but in its appearance and perception.

Friendships have been formed by the IFA with local GAA clubs and youngsters from these sports have been offered free tickets to matches of Linfield.  Outside Windsor Park references to Linfield have almost gone completely aside from the official Linfield club shop which sells official club merchandise.  Moreover, the murals of former Northern Ireland national team players which were once visible near the railway bridge outside Windsor Park have been removed.

But criticism still comes the way of the new stadium. The new working arrangement between Linfield and the IFA has officially been said to be ‘taking a time to bed in’.  For others though the accusation is that Linfield was for many years spoiled and that the club ‘simply do not want to move with modern times’.

There have been and continues to be numerous complaints and ‘grumbles’ surrounding match ticketing and the question of supporter bus parking near the new stadium.  Matches involving Linfield meanwhile continue to attract only 2,500 fans on average but many domestic games remain all ticket at the request of the IFA.

With its green, white, blue seating and pleasant viewing opportunities from all stands, the National Stadium at Windsor Park is now a venue fit for international football when for a long time it was perceived to be an outdated, unwelcoming and dangerous structure.  Yet, outside just streets away, the scene could not be more different.  From family homes, street corners and along pavements almost everything from street lights to bridges is adorned territorially with Union and the Ulster flag with not an Irish tricolour to be seen.

Once upon a time, Windsor Park was known as ‘Whinger Park’ such was the hard to please, rough and ready nature of those who gathered. Even with its new stands, improved sight-lines and colourful interiors, it would seem that there are still some that are just too hard to please.

You can see some images from Windsor Park here

Management:                         Irish Football Association

New Capacity:                        18,000 fully covered and enclosed

Pitch:                                         110 v 75 yards

Location:                                 Donegal Avenue, Belfast