Festive Football: Northern Ireland’s Great Holiday Tradition

Spanish football shuts down for the holidays so this weekend I’ll be making my way back home in search of a festive football fix. And quality time with my friends and family of course.

In contrast to Spain, the Christmas/New Year fortnight is when football in Northern Ireland goes into overdrive. Weather permitting, between 21st December and 4th January Danske Bank Premiership clubs will play four league games and a fifth round Irish Cup tie. The entire shape of the season could be altered in the space of a fortnight.

Modern day managers often claim that the Christmas schedule is insane and is bad for players but they’ve got it easy compared to the players of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Christmas Day fixtures as well as Boxing Day ones were commonplace and on some occasions, when Christmas was on a Thursday and Boxing Day a Friday, the regular Saturday league fixtures would be played on the 27th.

Such things would never happen nowadays of course. Christmas Day football had all but died out in the UK by the middle of the 1960’s.

Speaking of which…

The Christmas Day Cup Final

It’s not just the big clubs that are looking forward to the Christmas period, many smaller clubs will get their moment in the sun (not literally, this is Northern Ireland after all) through one of the many cup competitions that reach their climax at this time.

The most famous of these is the Steel and Sons Cup, the final of which takes place at Seaview in Belfast at 11am on Christmas morning, making it the only official football match taking place in the UK that day.

The competition is for non-senior teams in the area covered by the County Antrim FA (which confusingly also includes clubs from the northern part of County Down) including reserve sides of senior clubs.

This year’s final is between Newington and Linfield Swifts, the reserve side of the Irish League Champions, which will actually be the third time in the last four runnings of the competition that they have met in the decider. Last season’s competition was, like the rest of intermediate football in Northern Ireland, cancelled.

Regardless of the teams taking part, for many people in the Belfast area, going to the game is as much of a tradition as opening their presents or eating a turkey dinner.

Other regions of the country also play their intermediate cup finals around the festive season with the Craig Memorial Cup (for clubs in the North West) and the Bob Radcliffe Cup (for Mid Ulster teams) usually being played on Boxing Day morning.

As for the afternoon…

Boxing Day Derbies

Whoever came up with the idea for this, I salute you.

No one really wants to travel too far at Christmas, even in a small country like Northern Ireland, so the idea of the Boxing Day fixture being against your side’s local rivals makes a huge difference. With people visiting home for the holidays (I am now one of those people) the crowds get a huge boost from people who wouldn’t normally be able to watch their local team in action. Most teams’ Boxing Day attendances will be their highest of the season.

And there’s the extra spice of taking on a local rival too which adds extra importance to the fixture, even for the casual fan. Unless of course you happen to be without a local rival in the league… sorry Institute and Warrenpoint fans, though in their case that game is at least a six-pointer in the relegation battle.

The main rivalries are…

The Belfast Big Two: Linfield v Glentoran

As the two most successful clubs in the Irish League, this is arguably the marquee fixture of the Irish League calendar and is usually the best-attended domestic game of the season outside of the Irish Cup Final.

Glentoran’s revival in fortunes thanks to foreign investment after a few seasons in the doldrums has made it a vital match in terms of the destination of the title, as they aim to end Linfield’s recent domination of the Gibson Cup.

The North Belfast Derby: Cliftonville v Crusaders

The recent success of both Cliftonville and Crusaders has turned this into one of the most important fixtures in the Irish League calendar.

Their matches are usually closely fought, with quite a few goals and the occasional red card thrown in for good measure.

One of their most memorable meetings was on Boxing Day 2009, when the game was the only one to survive a spell of cold weather, thanks to Seaview having an artificial pitch. Remarkably the match saw five red cards, four for Crusaders (who also had their manager sent to the stands) and one for Cliftonville, who ended up winning 2-1.

The Mid-Ulster Derby: Portadown v Glenavon

The Mid-Ulster Derby had its heyday in the 1990’s when both Portadown and Glenavon were title challengers and regularly packed out Shamrock Park and Mourneview Park.

One such meeting, on the last day of the season in 1994, was even a de facto title decider. Had either side won, they would have been crowned champions with the added satisfaction of doing so against your arch rivals to boot. However, they ended up drawing, a result which allowed Linfield to pip both of them to the title.

The fixture had been missing from the calendar for a number of years due to Portadown’s relegation in 2017 and although they were promoted again in 2020, all Christmas football was wiped out by the reimposition of lockdown in Northern Ireland. So this Christmas fixture is one which is sure to be eagerly anticipated.

And of course…

The Derby that doesn’t really have a catchy name: Coleraine v Ballymena Utd

No one really knows what to call this one, the two teams are on different counties, different regions and aren’t even that geographically close to each other. Some use the name of the 26 mile stretch of road that connects the two towns, which would make it the A26 Derby.

Regardless of the lack of a name, the rivalry is pretty intense, the two biggest clubs north of Belfast have large fanbases despite years of underachievement and a win against the nearest and dearest always makes a Christmas complete.

I have plenty of happy memories, of Sean Armstrong’s 2003 hat-trick, Stephen Carson’s winner in 2006 when Ballymena players were still celebrating their equaliser, the Barcelona-esque passing move finished off by David Scullion in 2012 and more besides. Let’s just not talk about the years when Christmas was ruined by a poor showing from the men in blue and white.

Other Noteworthy Rivalries

The East Antrim Derby between Larne and Carrick Rangers made a return to the Danske Bank Premiership schedule in 2019 but the two sides have vastly different objectives. Larne, bankrolled by a local businessman, have their sights set on the title, whereas Carries will be happy to survive again.

Alas there will be no North Down Derby between Ards and Bangor this season (in the league at least) due to them being in different leagues, the former in the second tier Championship and the latter in the Premier Intermediate League which is the third tier.

Since Ards have been without a ground in their own town since leaving Castlereagh Park in 2001, a large number of seasons since then have been spent as tenants of their rivals from Clandeboye Park, latterly the Bangor Fuels Arena, which has added a bit of an extra edge to the rivalry.

And let’s not forget the Derby between Newry City and Warrenpoint Town, if only for the fact someone once called it “The Mourne Ultimatum”. Alas, this year Warrenpoint are one of those teams who are left without a local rival to play, so their big derby is against Dungannon Swifts – just the 39 miles away!

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