In December 2005, 100,000 mourners lined the streets of Belfast to honour the passing of the city’s most famous footballing son. George Best, raised in the Cregagh Estate, east Belfast, had succumbed after a lifetime of heavy drinking. His funeral cortege ran from Cregagh Road to the parliament complex at Stormont for the service in the Grand Hall, relayed on live TV.
Perhaps the greatest player ever produced by the British Isles, Best enjoyed his fame at the height of The Troubles, when Belfast was a divided city and Northern Ireland were forced to play home matches in England.
Best finished his star-crossed career with a testimonial at the national stadium of Windsor Park in 1988, 25 years after he was whisked away from Cregagh Boys by Manchester United. His last professional match, bizarrely for little Tobermore United against Ballymena in 1984, was his only one for any club from Northern Ireland.
Though problems remain, significant improvements have been made in the domestic game. The Football For All campaign has laudably and bravely challenged sectarianism on the terraces. Best has been honoured with signature murals across town, and one of the city’s two airports named after him. Windsor Park has been revamped, stand by stand, ready for the 2015-16 season.
Home to the national team for over a century, Windsor Park was built by record title-winners Linfield from south Belfast, whose rivals are Glentoran from east Belfast. Linfield’s ownership of and profits from the stadium give a financial lift other Belfast clubs crave, an advantage brought into focus when the Northern Ireland FA signed a century-long agreement to remain at Windsor Park in 1985.
The other half of the Big Two, Glentoran fielded some of the biggest names in the domestic game – and nearly a teenage George Best. The Glens play Linfield in Belfast’s traditional Boxing Day derby, though up until 1949 the Big Two were Linfield and Belfast Celtic. Linked with the Glasgow club of the same name, the Celts folded after a brutal Boxing Day derby in 1948 when Linfield fans attacked their players. A club museum has been opened in the shopping centre that occupies the plot where Celtic Park once stood in west Belfast. A new Belfast Celtic team in the Belfast & District League is another recent phenomenon.
The city’s other two main clubs, from north Belfast, are 2014 champions Cliftonville and winners in 2015 and 2016, Crusaders. The north Belfast derby between them, also a Boxing Day fixture, was heavily policed during The Troubles, given the mainly nationalist and unionist leanings of their respective supporters. Crusaders protested most vehemently about Linfield gaining a financial advantage from hosting Northern Ireland matches – in August 2013, Linfield fans boycotted a visit their away fixture at Seaview.
Three Belfast clubs feature in the lower flight for 2015-16, the NIFL Championship, including Harland & Wolff Welders from east Belfast, whose local rivals are Dundela, winners of the Irish Cup in 1955.
Donegal Celtic were formed in west Belfast in 1970, a cash-strapped community club that manages to run youth teams of both sexes, but whose first team lacks the consistency to stay in the IFA Premiership.
Public transport of Ulsterbus, Goldline, Metro Bus and local rail is run by Translink. Airport Express buses link both airports with the city-centre Europa Buscentre. For Belfast International, the No.300 (£7.50, £10.50 return) runs every 15-20min by day, every 30min off-peak and every hr through the night, taking 35min. For George Best Belfast City, the No.600 (£2.40, £3.60 return) runs every 20min (6am-10pm), taking 15min. A one-day travel card (£5.30) is valid for the No.600.
From the bus station, by the Europa Hotel of the same name, buses leave for Belfast International from bays 9/10, and for George Best Belfast City from bay 1.
Belfast tourist office has a database of hotels.
The most famous hotel in town is the Europa, by the bus station of the same name. Regularly bombed during The Troubles, this four-star has been significantly refurbished to accommodate visiting celebrities and a business clientele. A nearby alternative is the Belfast branch of Jurys Inn.
The nearby fitzwilliam is also upscale, in contemporary, boutique style. The affordable but comfortable Days Hotel is also conveniently located, near Great Victoria Street station. The Travelodge Belfast Central is central and slightly cheaper.
Sturdy and traditional or sleek and contemporary, pubs and bars are Belfast’s stock in trade. Many make a point of showing TV football.
Opposite the Europa Hotel, Brennan’s (48-52 Great Victoria Street) puts up a big screen for matches. The Morning Star is of equal vintage, with football and horse racing on TV. Also echoing the past, but now with plasma TVs, WiFi and two dozen pool and snooker tables in the upstairs Frames complex, the Titanic Pub & Kitchen is set in the high-ceilinged former headquarters of the company that partly furnished the legendary liner.
Live action flickers on the large plasma screens of the tiled Monico Bars (17 Lombard Street), the back room hosting live sounds at weekends.
The Bridge House is the main Wetherspoons in town, with a major branch to open on Royal Avenue. Morrisons puts a stronger focus on TV football, along with a similar formula of meal deals and four-pint match-time pitchers.
Finally, Northern Ireland international forward Niall McGinn is behind the fáilte restaurant and recently opened 26 West grill bar, attracting the sports fraternity to west Belfast with top-notch, locally sourced cuisine.