Champions in 2014, Cliftonville are Ireland’s oldest football club. Perceived as representing the Catholic community of north Belfast, The Reds were founded in 1879 and were prime movers behind the formation of the Irish FA a year later.
Based at the wonderfully named Solitude from 1890, Cliftonville were a major force in the early domestic game, and even competed in the FA Cup in England. At home, they shared the Irish League of 1906, won it outright in 1910 and notched seven Irish Cups.
But for all the historic significance of the club’s early days – Solitude even saw the first penalty in international football, in 1892 – perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that Cliftonville were lifted from some 70 years of near obscurity by the Irish Cup win of 1979. Though the winning strike in the dying seconds came from Tony Bell, goals from club legend John Platt had taken The Reds to the final.
Also a winner that day, Marty Quinn returned to manage Cliftonville in 1994. Within four years, he had taken The Reds to the league title, 88 years (!) after the last one. Goals from Barry O’Connor kept Cliftonville in the hunt, defender Marty Tabb winning Ulster Footballer of the Year.
Tabb would return as manager, winning his first trophy with the League Cup in 2003, but inconsistent league form usually cost Cliftonville dear.
Consistency came from goal machine Chris Scannell, a striker who recovered from long-term injury to captain Cliftonville from 2008-09. Challenging for silverware once more, The Reds eventually took another league title in 2013. The decisive game was a late 3-2 win over holders Linfield. Liam Boyce, a teenage prodigy, returned to his old club to notch 29 goals and pick up the Ulster Footballer of the Year award.
Boyce continued to score in 2013-14, as did fellow young striker Joe Gormley, helping The Reds defend their trophy – but their departures saw Cliftonville allow Crusaders in to take the title two years running, the second achieved in front of Reds fans at Solitude.
Ireland’s oldest football ground, hosting Ireland’s oldest football club, Solitude was the de facto national stadium from the time it opened in 1890. Two years later, Linfield’s Sam Torrans took the first penalty kick in international football, Ireland failing to half England’s lead when his shot was saved here. Two years after that, Ireland gained their first draw against England here.
Though Cliftonville faded into relative obscurity, Solitude continued to be used for neutral fixtures when Windsor Park was out of commission, such as the cup tie of 1949 between Linfield and Glentoran when fire destroyed the West Stand afterwards.
Rebuilt in two tiers, this main stand is where you’ll find the social club. As Cliftonville began to enjoy success from the late 1990s, so Solitude was gradually modernised. The away, Bowling Green End, and the Cage End opposite were both revamped. The touchline opposite the main stand remains open to the elements. A new 3G synthetic surface replaced the grass pitch in 2010.
A new main stand in 2016 brings seating capacity up to 2,500.
From Donegall Square North, Metrobus Nos.12A, 12B and 12C run every 10min and take 15-20min to reach the bus stop opposite the stadium on Cliftonville Road. You’ll see a Spar supermarket and large, open playing fields to your left as you come to the stop.
Admission at the turnstiles to the right of the main stand, at the end of Cliftonville Parade, is around £10, £5 for under-16s. Away fans have their own turnstiles to the left of the main stand, at the end of Cliftonville Drive.
Internet sales are for season tickets only.
The Reds Shop at Solitude (Thur 7.30pm-8.30pm, close-season Sat 2pm-3pm, match days) does a nice line in 2 In A Row flags and beanie hats. There are also online sales.
The nearest spot, on the other side of the waterworks, is Cassidy’s (347-349 Antrim Road), a standard locals’ bar squeezed into the junction with Limestone/Cavehill Road. You’ll also find the Cliftonville Social Club in the main stand.