Tuesday, July 14, 2009 – Mourneview Park, Lurgan
Although not the only reason for my trip across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland, I was keen to shoehorn in a couple of games between doing all the usual tourist stuff, like visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge.
With hindsight I could have picked a better time of the year to go. Although the Province is generally peaceful these days, tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities tend to rise in mid July, coinciding with the marching season.
My first taste of football in Northern Ireland turned out to be quite eventful on and off the park as Crusaders got a decent result against Macedonian opposition.
Not being overly familiar with Northern Irish geography or transport, I did a fair bit of groundwork before flying to Belfast to make sure I could get to and from this game, which was played in Lurgan, a fair distance from Belfast.
With many of Northern Ireland’s football grounds deemed not up to the European task, Mourneview Park had been used by both Distillery and Linfield for their Europa League ties, with both ending in heavy and humiliating defeats.
Crusaders qualified for Europe on the back of their first Irish Cup win in donkey’s years and they too were forced to repatriate themselves to Glenavon’s ground for the evening after their Seaview home in North Belfast was ruled out.
My chosen mode of transport for the journey to Lurgan was train. NI Railways run a decent network of services across Northern Ireland, with a cross border service also making the two hour journey to Dublin.
Leaving at 1750, the train from Belfast Central was busy, although nothing like the commuter sardine tins you tend to get in central Scotland or other parts of the country. With a multitude of stops en route, it took about an hour to get to Lurgan, where the railway station is close to the town centre and about a mile or so from Mourneview Park.
Finding the ground was no major problem – it’s tall, modern floodlights make it relatively easy to spot. To get there meant walking right through the town, where red, white and blue bunting was much in evidence as were Union Jacks. As I wandered through, a crowd was starting to assemble for an Orange parade.
I saw some pretty disturbing sights, a dog wearing a sash being one of them, a young child wearing a white Rangers top with SIXTEEN 90 on the back being another.
I found this overt Unionism a bit of a culture shock if I am honest. Orange walks happen from time to time in West Lothian where I live, but they are much more low-key. In this part of the world they are mainstream, mass participation events – unless you happen to be Catholic of course.
I got to the ground with plenty of time to spare, so the place was near enough deserted when I took a seat in the back row of the main stand, which was the only area of the ground open.
It was one of three seated areas in the ground, all of which were populated with blue plastic seats. Directly opposite was a newish looking stand, albeit a very basic model. To my right, a converted terrace with five rows of seats is in situ, while the other is an open terrace topped with the rather surreal slogan – “LIFE WITHOUT JESUS MAKES NO SENSE”.
As the 7.45pm kick off time approached the crowd started to build up. I didn’t see any Macedonian supporters and the utter silence which accompanied their goal later on suggested that visiting supporters were conspicuous by their absence.
Sharing their home city with the Irish big two of Linfield and Glentoran, Crusaders have a small but loyal support and there was a decent turn-out for this big game. As the stand busied up a noisy group of fans congregated in the block next to me, singing an impressive (in the most part) medley of songs. Less impressive, perhaps, was their adaptation of the Erasure hit ‘A Little Respect’!
With good backing, ‘Crues’ started the game well and their tricky no 11 Martin Donnelly caught the eye. It was clear from the start that the FK Rabotnicki side, whilst technically decent were never going to inflict the kind of cricket score that other Irish League sides had been on the wrong end of.
The first half came and went with the scoreline still blank, Crues just shading it. However, they were dealt a blow just after half time when the Macedonians went in front.
They looked sunk midway through the half when skipper Colin Coates was controversially red carded for an alleged off the bar incident involving the Rabotnicki no 10, but to their credit they pushed players forward in the closing stages to try and salvage a draw.
Their luck seemed to be in when the Macedonian keeper tangled with Jordan Owens in the box with only four minutes to go, earning himself a red card and conceding a penalty in the process. Alas, the previously impressive Donnelly seemed to get a rush of blood to the head and he blasted the spot kick off the top of the crossbar.
After blowing that chance I felt that Crues had consigned themselves to a trip to Skopje with a one-goal deficit, but they kept at it in the final few moments – showing a decent level of fitness for part-timers – and got an equaliser in injury time, David Rainey scoring. It had a hint of offside from my angle but for me justice was done with Crusaders deserving at least a draw.
The late goal sent the crowd home happy, but the excitement didn’t end there. On the walk back into town I meandered past a Crues supporters bus just moments after it appeared to have been attacked with bricks and petrol bombs.
A couple of SWAT team style PSNI units arrived on the scene quickly, but being a bit naïve to these things I didn’t really realise what had happened until the following morning, when the incident got a mention on the Ulster TV news.
Largely oblivious to the potential danger I just wandered back into town, stopping off for a fish supper before the uneventful 2236 train journey back into central Belfast!
Scoring – 0-1 Bozinovski (47), 1-1 Rainey (90+)
Attendance – 1000 est
Admission – £12
Programme – £2
Food – Didn’t buy any
Match Rating: 5/10