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Starting positions

Every story begins somewhere and today we’re going all the way back to Cliftonville’s formative year.

From the opening game with a Rugby team through to a validating exercise against Scottish visitors, the 1879/80 season saw the Reds lock horns with a number of familiar foes from both sides of the Irish Sea.

A total of 14 friendly fixtures were contested between September and April as the institution formed by John McCredy McAlery and Robert M Kennedy – both of whom played their part on and off the pitch in that crucial developmental period – began to find its feet, literally in some cases.

Continuing a retrospective series examining noteworthy terms in the Club’s history, today reflects on the facts and figures behind Ireland’s Oldest Football Club’s first ever campaign.

It was at 4pm on September 27, 1879 – just seven days after the Club’s founding notice had been printed in the News Letter and Northern Whig – that the first ever Cliftonville team took to the field to face a Rugby side by the name of Quidnuncs.

Played on a pitch “almost under water and during a heavy downpour of rain” contemporary reports record that the contest (which the Reds lost 2-1) “could not be considered a good exhibition of the association code”, with both sets of players continually handling the ball through sheer lack of familiarity with the sport and, perhaps most startlingly of all, it is claimed that Cliftonville’s best players had been unavailable to participate that day.

The clash with Quidnuncs was deemed to have “served as good practice” for Cliftonville’s big test against Scottish outfit Caledonians the following month and, for all we know, perhaps it did – although the 9-1 scoreline the visitors won by would suggest that any benefits were negligible.

Four games. Four wins. Eight goals scored and none conceded.

That three of those 2-0 victories came against a Knock team that had also been established by Cliftonville’s founding fathers is as inconsequential to Club Historians as the fact that the other was recorded over a Banbridge Academy side that had never witnessed a game of football before.

The only match played this month was not an official Cliftonville fixture, but nevertheless saw a Secretary’s XI (overseen by McAlery) take on a Treasurer’s XI under the stewardship of a Mr DC Ritchie – the outcome of which unfortunately remains a mystery.

The new year began with a home game against Portland FC from Kilmarnock and, in keeping with their form against Scottish opposition, the Reds were simply no match, again going down 9-1 despite being granted the assistance of “two crack Scotch players” in the form of Queen’s Park goalkeeper AM Buchanan and Rangers forward William Dunlop.

As seemed par for the course when Cliftonville required a pick-me-up, a friendly with Knock was arranged and the team duly delivered with their biggest win of the season, registering seven unanswered goals (admittedly against a goalkeeper who had never played before) a fortnight before travelling to Glasgow for a return tie with Caledonians.

This time around, it was noted that the Reds “rendered a somewhat better account of themselves” in trailing by just two goals with 15 minutes remaining… only to ship another four before the close of play. Notably, this was the first game in which the Club had failed to score and the only time such an occurrence took place this season.

Valentine’s Day saw Cliftonville mark the opening of Moyola Park’s eponymous home ground with a 3-0 win in Castledawson, with the final fixture at the venue also seeing the Reds emerge on top by the same scoreline 129 years later in 2009.

The Club’s first ever draw came in the form of a 1-1 stalemate with Ulster United on March 13, 1880, ahead of a 5-0 home win over Banbridge Academy, who may or may not have been more au fait with the game by this stage.

Knock – naturally – were beaten 1-0 on a day when an almighty goalmouth scramble led to Cliftonville’s goalscorer being officially recorded as ‘Scrimmage’ before the season ended in a 2-2 draw with Ardeer in Ballynafeigh, which both brought an end to the Reds’ losing streak against Scottish opposition and extended the team’s unbeaten run to an encouraging five matches.

In Review
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Official Club Records suggest that Renwick M Potts made more appearances than anyone else in Cliftonville’s maiden season, having featured in 10 of the 14 fixtures contested.

Founding fathers John McCredy McAlery and Robert M Kennedy played eight and five times, respectively.

With no known record of who registered Cliftonville’s goal in the Club’s first ever match, W Jackson holds the honour of being the Reds’ first acknowledged scorer thanks to his strike in the 9-1 defeat by Caledonians.

Due to half of the team’s goals being as-yet-unaccounted for, J Beyer’s three strikes mark him out as the top scorer, with a further three players (Renwick M Potts, Donachie and W Robertson) all on two.

Cliftonville made use of five goalkeepers in just 14 matches, with AM Buchanan, J Coulter, Dornan, Joe Potts and Sherrard having shared duties across the season.

September 27, 1879: Cliftonville 1-2 Quidnuncs (Scorer unknown)
October 18, 1879: Cliftonville 1-9 Caledonian (W Jackson)
November 1, 1879: Cliftonville 2-0 Knock (J Beyer, OG)
November 15, 1879: Cliftonville 2-0 Knock (Bullick, R Potts)
November 22, 1879: Banbridge Academy 0-2 Cliftonville (Lowry, Thompson)
November 29, 1879: Knock 0-2 Cliftonville (Scorers unknown)
January 3, 1880: Cliftonville 1-9 Portland (W Dunlop)
January 17, 1880: Knock 0-7 Cliftonville (J Beyer 2, Robertson 2, Donachie 2, R Potts)
January 31, 1880: Caledonians 6-0 Cliftonville
February 14, 1880: Moyola Park 0-3 Cliftonville (Scorers unknown)
March 13, 1880: Ulster United 1-1 Cliftonville (Scorer unknown)
March 20, 1880: Cliftonville 5-0 Banbridge Academy (Scorers unknown)
April 3, 1880: Cliftonville 1-0 Knock (‘Scrimmage’)
April 21, 1880: Cliftonville 2-2 Ardeer (Scorers unknown)