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Belfast Celtic: Could the Grand Old Team be revived?

2:53 am, 18th August 2018

The team have not played a competitive fixture for nearly 70 years, but former players like Jimmy Jones and Charlie Tully are immortalised in the murals along the Falls Road.

Belfast Celtic withdrew from the Irish league in 1949, having won 14 championships and eight Irish Cups.

Now, another West Belfast club are hoping to resurrect The Grand Old Team.

The chairman of Sport and Leisure Swifts, Jim Gillan, says he has a business plan and financial backing to create a side that will eventually compete at the top level.

He told Sky News: “We have people behind us who are putting their money in, they are going to arrange for us to get players in. It is just such a positive thing for the area, we just felt it was too good to pass up.”

Sport and Leisure play in the shadow of the Black Mountain on the edge of West Belfast. It seems a long way from the old Celtic Park in the heart of the Falls, where crowds of 30,000 regularly gathered on Saturday afternoons.

Football writer Barry Flynn says that Belfast Celtic were not just a name, but part of the social fabric of West Belfast, lighting up people’s lives in hard times.

“There was a famous saying: ‘When we had nothing we had Belfast Celtic and when we had Belfast Celtic we had everything’,” he said.

The club’s directors decided they could no longer carry on after the players were attacked in a sectarian riot at the end of a Boxing Day derby against rivals Linfield at Windsor Park.

Striker Jimmy Jones was knocked unconscious and his leg was broken as he tried to leave the pitch.

The consequences reverberated far beyond the terraces.

Fans say it told Catholics in Northern Ireland that the state wouldn’t protect them or allow them to compete on equal terms – in sport, the workplace or politics.

But the proposal to revive the Belfast Celtic name has opened up wounds both old and new.

As a boy, Charlie Tully Jnr was allowed on to the pitch for kickabouts with his dad, who starred for Belfast Celtic before going on to become a legend in Glasgow.

He is not convinced that Sport and Leisure can live up to the name of his heroes.

“I think that unfortunately this is not the right way to bring Belfast Celtic back,” he said.

“I think this is possibly an opportunity that has been seen to simply take the name and do something with it.

“Don’t get me wrong when I say Belfast Celtic cannot come back. It would be incredible if they could, but it would take millions of pounds and some sort of really futuristic planning to make it come back.”

If it was successful, the rebirth of Belfast Celtic could be another boost to a part of the city that saw some of the worst violence of the troubles.

Eleven of the 19 wards in West Belfast are ranked in the 10% most deprived wards in Northern Ireland.

But it would also revive a bitter rivalry with Linfield and some supporters of the Blues fear that the fixture would attract flag wavers and sectarianists.

Mr Gillan insists that his club have always been cross-community.

“I don’t see anything harmful in a team from West Belfast competing at the same level as teams from south, east and north,” he told Sky News.

He is disappointed that the Irish Football Association has not approved the name change in time for their new season, which kicks-off on Saturday afternoon.

But whatever the team are called, to win hearts and minds on the streets of West Belfast they will need to deliver on the park.