Less than eight years after Cliftonville’s iconic Irish Cup triumph of 1979, Ireland’s Oldest Football Club found itself on the brink of going out of business but, thanks to the efforts of the Red Army and stakeholders from right across the Irish League spectrum, an unthinkable disaster was thankfully averted.
Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the Annual General Meeting at which it was announced that sufficient finances had been found to keep the doors open after a mammoth fundraising effort that The Belfast Telegraph said “unquestionably revealed the soft spot everyone in the game has for Cliftonville”.
First reported in January 1987, the Club’s troubles were formally confirmed two months later when Chairman Robert Finlay launched a public appeal that would conclude with an Open Day at Solitude on May 30.
Citing the “astronomical” costs of maintaining the ground amid the loss of revenue from Cup Semi Finals and Finals no longer being held at the venue, Mr Finlay outlined his hope that the project would “help to save Cliftonville from extinction”.
“We have tried everything to keep the Club going, but the bills keep coming in and are getting beyond us,” he admitted.
During a seven-week spell without a home fixture, among the initiatives the Board are understood to have considered were – according to contemporary reports – “running a market and leasing the ground to an American Football Club”, while speculation about Solitude being sold to property developers did little to assuage fears about what the future held.
It goes without saying that Reds supporters (who had contributed to various fundraisers in the years building up to this impasse) did everything they could to help meet the £40k target, including a sponsored walk from Dublin to Belfast, however it should never be forgotten that significant assistance was received from fellow Clubs, their supporters, local associations and celebrities, while the first contribution to the appeal was made by Irish League President John Crossen, who donated an Irish League kit.
Linfield goalkeeper George Dunlop publicly expressed his desire to spearhead efforts to stage a benefit match, suggesting that “we should aim to bring in players from England to meet a local side, boosted by League of Ireland players if necessary”.
Speaking after he and his Blues team-mates had held a whip round to donate £50 to the cause prior to a Gold Cup victory over the Reds at Windsor Park, Dunlop (above) added: “The Cliftonville Club is in deep trouble, terrible trouble, and we should try and help. If we can arrange such a game before the summer months, it might save the Reds. I firmly believe it is now the time for everyone to rally round”.
BBCNI’s social media platforms recently featured archive footage of a charity fixture staged at Solitude (where an eye-catching goal from former Cliftonville player Jackie Fullerton took the headlines) and, just days later on June 9, 1987, Members at the Club’s AGM were informed that, while the overall target had not been met, the £33k raised thus far was enough to prevent winding up orders being issued.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that the Reds had “overcome the most serious crisis in their history” and congratulated the football public for their “magnificant response” in the Club’s hour of need.
Though there was further work to be done, Vice Chairman Jim Boyce insisted “Everyone at Solitude is determined that we will succeed” and, some 33 years to the day since that decisive AGM, it’s fair to reflect on the strength of that fighting spirit – but it could not have been achieved without the efforts of the entire Irish League family.