The Life and Death of Belfast Celtic

With the Hoops in Belfast this week on European qualifying duty, we take a brief look back at the life and death of their now defunct Belfast counterparts in a potted history of the club and an extract from Barry Flynn’s book on the Celts in which he describes the seminal moment in that history when Jimmy Jones was attacked on the field of play, an incident that led to Celtic withdrawing from the league.

 At the foot of the Donegal Road in Belfast there stands a bright, modern shopping complex. But for those old enough to remember, it will always evoke a certain sadness, because the shops were built over the site of Celtic Park – ‘Paradise’ to the faithful – for 58 years the home of Belfast Celtic.

The club was formed in the summer of 1891 and the first Chairman, James Keenan, provided the first and only suggestion for a name, Belfast Celtic. The origin of his choice stemmed directly from Glasgow Celtic, then three years old, and the Belfast men realised that they would have to live up to all its expectations. The chairman added that the purpose of the team would be to, “Imitate their Scottish counterparts in style, play and charity”, but their main aim was to win the Irish Cup!

They didn’t have long to wait before they won their first league title, which came in season 1899-1900, the first of fourteen leagues and eight Irish Cups.

The club became an institution on the Falls Road and in the Twenties they were certainly the team to beat. At one time Celtic had five international goalies on their books at the same time, and no international select was complete without two or three celtic players.

Towards the end of the First World war Celtic had broken most of the records in Irish football and things seemed set for continued domination after World War II, until disaster struck in 1948.

Unlike their local rivals Linfield, celtic were never a sectarian club, but the fact that they and the majority of their supporters came from west Belfast meant that derby matches were inevitably fraught with tension.

Until Boxing Day 1948, terracing violence had never affected the players, but on this day that was all about to change.

The Celtic v Linfield match had been a scrappy affair, with a player from each side being sent off. But the storm broke ten minutes from time. With Linfield leading by a goal to nil Celtic were awarded a penalty. As Walker stepped up to take it hundreds of Linfield supporters rushed on to the pitch and attacked some of the Celtic players, resulting in a broken ankle for one of them.

The following day the directors issued a statement part of which said, “The attack on our players was without parallel in the annals of football. The protection afforded to our players was quite inadequate.”

Rumours that Celtic were going to withdraw from the league were soon confirmed, and Belfast Celtic ceased to grace the competitive scene at the end of the 1948-49 season.

Thereafter they played only exhibition games, one of which was against the Scotland national team, which Celtic won by 2:1.

After this tour Celtic ex-stars came together just twice more. The first occasion was an emotional match at Celtic Park on 17th may 1952 against Glasgow Celtic, whose team included ex-Belfast Celtic man Charlie Tully and the great Jock Stein.

It has been widely agreed that, since the departure of Belfast Celtic, Irish football has generally never recovered from the loss. The fighting spirit seemed to go out of the game and attendances sank dramatically.

Every Irish football fan wanted to see the Celtic because they knew they would see football at its best. There are no such events now, no crowds and no team even remotely similar in style. The game in Northern Ireland is dying and has been since 1949.

In any history of Irish football there will be a chapter devoted to the glory and triumph of Belfast Celtic, 1891-1949. For it is only the glory that remains – the glory, the memories and and a shopping centre built on what was once Celtic Park.

Political Football – The Life and Death of Belfast Celtic by Barry Flynn

On 27 December 1948, rioting broke out during a match between Belfast Celtic and Linfield. Jimmy Jones, a prolific goalscorer for Belfast Celtic, was dragged from the pitch by the opposing fans, and beaten so badly that his career was ended. And with that ended the existence of Belfast Celtic after fifty-eight years in the game.

In Political Football Barry Flynn traces the development of the team from its beginnings, in an attempt to discover the reasons behind the tragic events.

Like that of every football club, the story of Belfast Celtic is one of victories and defeats. Theirs, however, is a story riddled with violence and hatred culminating in near-murder.

Political Football reveals how the political and social unrest that took hold of the city of Belfast was reflected in the history of the club, how tensions between two communities spilled onto both the pitch and the terraces, with devastating consequences.

Political Football is a valuable reference for anyone with an interest in the famous Belfast counterpart of our own club, and in this extract the author describes the events surrounding the brutal assault on Celtic’s Jimmy Jones:

On 21 April 1949, the legendary Belfast Celtic resigned from Irish soccer four months after one of the ugliest incidents in the history the game. On Boxing Day, 1948, violence spilt onto the pitch at a Belfast Celtic v Linfield match at Windsor Park. The events of that day were the beginning of the end of one of the most successful Irish football teams ever. Sports historian and writer Barry Flynn looks back….

For two teams whose grounds were less that half a mile apart, Belfast Celtic and Linfield could well have existed in different universes. The sectarian divide kept both communities encased within their own areas and in front of 27,000 feverish spectators, a bruising and bad-tempered encounter ensued.

One player’s name became synonymous with the events that fateful day; his name was Jimmy Jones, the bustling Celtic forward from the Co Armagh town of Lurgan. In a twist of terrible fate, an accidental collision between Jones and the Linfield defender Bob Bryson in the thirty-fifth minute of the game, led to Bryson being stretchered off the field with a broken ankle. Mid-way through the second half, it was announced on the public address system that Bryson’s ankle had been broken. Given the tinderbox that existed within the ground, it was, to say the very least, an irresponsible act.

Given the festive season, there could be no doubt that a significant number of supporters had ‘drink taken’ before the match and many came with bottles to fortify themselves against the cold. A small detachment of RUC officers patrolled the ground and kept their eyes on the spectators but nothing untoward was expected that December day. The Belfast correspondent of the Irish Times reported that police moved through the terraces with batons drawn to try and stamp out any disorder before the game began. The signswere ominous as referee Norman Boal blew his whistle in the cauldron that was Windsor Park.

The game intensified and the tension in the ground rose considerably as rain began to fall and the light began to disappear. Ten minutes from the interval, the crowd erupted as the clash between Jones and Bob Bryson saw the Linfield defender writhe in agony as a stretcher was called for to take him from the field. The net result, given that no substitutes were then permitted, was that Linfield were now down to ten men and at a disadvantage as the game approached half-time.

Shortly afterwards, Linfield forward Jackie Russell was pole-axed and taken from the field after he had been hit full-on by the football and as the whistle blew for the break, Linfield had only nine fit players on the field. The opening forty-five minutes had laid the foundations for the chaos to come. The ground possessed an undertone of serious violence and sectarian hatred was bubbling below the surface.

When it was announced over the public address system that Bryson’s leg, rather than his ankle, had been broken, the genie was most certainly out of the bottle. This act of folly shortened considerably the odds of a backlash against Jones and the Celtic players. The game resumed in gathering darkness with Linfield still two players short. Russell had been sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital with severe bruising, while Bryson had a broken ankle.

With the game poised and scoreless, the temperature reached perilous heights when Celtic’s Paddy Bonnar and Linfield’s Albert Currie were sent off after they clashed with eighteen minutes left. Gaps opened up on the terraces as fighting broke out among spectators on the Spion Kop and the police again drew their batons. With ten minutes to go Linfield full-back Jimmy McCune upended Celtic’s Jackie Denver in the box and to the roar of the Celtic fans, Boal awarded a penalty from which Harry Walker scored. The situation was now bordering on the brink of chaos as Celtic seemed certain to take the points.

Many thousands of supporters sensed that there would be trouble and headed for the exits as the match entered its closing stages. However, Linfield attacked in search of an equaliser and were rewarded four minutes from time when Isaac McDowell burst down the wing and found Billy Simpson in the box.

The Linfield forward made no mistake as he finished past Kevin McAlinden to square the game. Immediately, masses of Linfield fans surged from the terraces and invaded the pitch in celebration. The police present battled to clear the field and the remainder of the game was played out amid a deafening roar. The final whistle saw the Linfield mob on the Spion Kop overrun the field and they began again to attack the Celtic players.

Furthest from the pavilion, at the far end of the field, was the solitary figure of Celtic’s Jimmy Jones. In addition to the ‘sin’ of being involved in the Bryson incident, Jones was targeted as he was, quite simply, a sublime footballer who had already scored twenty-six goals that season. By the time Jones had made his way to the running track at the side of the pitch, the ringleaders from the Spion Kop had reached him and he was dragged over the parapet into the terrace below the main stand.

The 20-year-old was now at the mercy of the baying mob as police elsewhere tried to clear the field. In the stand watching in horror were Jones’ mother and father who had travelled up from Lurgan for the occasion. What followed in the terrace was brutal and prolonged. Jones was trapped and hidden in a sea of bodies while the rest of the Celtic team battled through the raging crowd.

The beating was merciless on Jones. He was punched in the back of the head. However, as he tried to make his way up the terrace away from his attackers, he was tripped and dragged back down the steps.

The core of the mob now consisted of about thirty men and unhindered they set about the prostrate Jones.

The attackers knew what they were doing and immediately began to jump on the legs of the player to ensure maximum damage was inflicted on his career.

Heavy hob-nailed boots danced on Jones’ leg and ankle as the frenzied crowd took turns to jump on the hapless player. He was kicked around the terraces like a rag doll.

After what seemed like an age, a police constable arrived and tried to intervene.

Immediately, he shouted at the mob, ‘If you don’t stop kicking him I’ll use my baton!’ Not surprisingly, he too was beaten back as the attack continued unabated.
Despite the danger, a close friend of Jones – Ballymena goalkeeper Sean McCann – waded into the madness from his seat in the grandstand.

He wrapped himself around the screaming player, guarding his leg, which was badly broken. Finally, a dozen police officers arrived to aid Jones and the mob dispersed post-haste. It was too late, the damage had been done and the repercussions were about to begin.

Taken from ‘Political Football – the Rise and Fall of Belfast Celtic’ by Barry Flynn, published by Nonsuch priced £14.99


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