When founded in 1879, Cliftonville’s original home ground was at the old Cliftonville Cricket Club grounds.
Land opposite the Cricket Club on the Cliftonville Road was later purchased and on August 20, 1890 the new ground was officially opened. However, the event chosen to unveil the facilities was not a football game, but rather an athletics meeting. Like other Football Clubs, football was not the only sporting outlook, hence the Club’s full title of Cliftonville Football and Athletic Club. The first football game was against Milford, who were were defeated 8-2.
The land in the area had been known as Solitude since at least 1785 when the property, which formed part of the Oldpark Estate, was acquired by a wealthy businessman – John Brown, High Sheriff of Antrim and the first Sovereign of Belfast. He built a house on the land and gave it the same name. The house was located where the top pond of the present day Waterworks now sit. It was sold and eventually demolished in the 1830s by the Belfast Water Commission. It is thought that the name may have come from an ancient Rath located in the area know as Diamor which has also been known to refer to solitude.
When the penalty kick was invented, the first spot-kick in international football was in fact taken (and missed) at Solitude, which was home to the Ireland teams of the 1890s and 1900s.
Indeed, one of the most famous international fixtures at the venue was the March 3, 1894 clash between Ireland and England when, for the first time in 13 meetings, the Irish finally avoided defeat – Olphert Stanfield and WK Gibson netting as the home side battled back from 2-0 down to claim a draw.
In 1891, Cliftonville became the first Irish football club to use floodlights at games. As reported: “It seems to be incredible, but it is a fact that in 1891 two matches were played under electric lights at Cliftonville. Distillery defeated the Reds 4-2 and the Black Watch held Cliftonville to 2-2 draw. Kick-off in each case was at 8pm with lights suspended across the pitch. These were dismantled later with the announcement that spectators found it difficult to follow the action and that “the players seemed to have all the fun in the middle”. It had been a bold experience, but not a highly successful one with the public skeptical, almost contemptuous of this enterprising project.”
In the South-East corner of the ground is a building known affectionately as The Whitehouse. Formerly the hub of the Club’s operations, it once housed not only the changing rooms, but Members’ Lounge, Secretary’s Office and Boardroom as well as a balcony overlooking the pitch.
Solitude has seen three main grandstands since it opened. The first was blown down by a storm in November 1893, while the next was destroyed by fire in 1949 and was replaced by the structure that is still used today. Built in the 1950s, this is situated on the western side of the ground and, while consisting of mainly benches for the majority of its existence, had a selection of some tip-up seats added in the mid-1990s, with bucket seating for 1,000 installed in 2013.
The Main Stand used to house the majority of Cliftonville’s matchday support, but that honour is now bestowed upon the stand which was built behind the goal at the south of the ground in 2008. This stand replaced the old Cage terracing, very much the spiritual home of the Red Army since the 1970s when it was said supporters – so often regarded as the twelfth man – would almost suck the ball into the net, while ensuring visiting goalkeepers never had a moment’s peace.
The new stand not only provides seated accommodation for 1341 supporters, but is now the new base for all of the Club’s operations with a Control Room built alongside the Press Box in the upper corner with changing facilities, Media Room, Ticketing Office, Doping Room and new office areas within the main body of the stand, which was officially opened ahead of the Club’s 130th Anniversary Fixture with Celtic on October 13, 2009.
The Waterworks side of the ground no longer houses any supporters, but does accommodate the stadium’s dugouts. A fire in the late 1980s rendered terracing on this side of the stadium unusable and the Club retains plans to redevelop the area.
The away end (behind the northern goal) is also known as The Bowling Green end on account of the bowling pitches behind it and previously consisted of covered terracing but was the first section of the ground to undergo major surgery when, in 2001, an 880-seater stand was constructed, offering one of the Irish League’s best facilities for visiting supporters.
The playing area itself recently underwent a massive change with the old grass surface making way for new synthetic turf, which was used for the first time in a 2-0 defeat to Coleraine on September 21, 2010 and the laying of which was officially marked when Bolton Wanderers visited Solitude for a friendly fixture two months later.