Glasgow Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has described the absence of his club’s supporters from Friday night’s Champions League match with Linfield at Windsor Park as a blow for Northern Ireland “as a nation”.
The Carnlough native launched a stinging criticism during a press conference on Thursday night near Belfast.
Rodgers, who will be visiting Windsor Park for the first time since he was a member of the Northern Ireland under-15 side which drew 0-0 against Brazil there in 1988, said the absence of Celtic fans should have been avoided.
The Scottish club did not take up a ticket allocation amid security fears.
“I’m disappointed for our supporters of Northern Ireland, who travel over religiously every week and travel all over the world watching Celtic,” he said. “There is now a game on their doorstep and they can’t make it.
“I’m also disappointed for us as a nation. This is a different Northern Ireland. I know it’s the marching season and all that sort of stuff, but this is a new Northern Ireland and should have been a place where the Celtic supporters could come in,” he said.
“It would be a passionate game but that’s what you want. Linfield supporters and Celtic supporters are both passionate. That creates a great game because football is about two sets of supporters. I’m saddened for Belfast, us and Northern Ireland that our supporters can’t be there. That obviously extends to my family, friends and whoever else.
“I grew up here over many years when there were issues but Northern Ireland, and Belfast especially, is a different place. There will always be tension around a game like this, but that’s the same in Germany, Italy or England.
“There will always be heightened level of security around fixtures. That’s why they have category A and B games. Play Liverpool v Man United as often as you want. There will always be a risk around those games. But this is a game that we should have been able to cope with. It would have made it an even better spectacle.
“From what I hear, the tickets went on general sale. That’s an organisational issue. Is it a concern that Celtic fans will buy tickets? No, because they will behave themselves. That’s not a concern but of course we would all liked to not have to think about it.
“Northern Ireland have hosted big games over here and there should be a safe environment for fans to go and support their team. But I’m sure everything will be fine, the game will go off okay and we will talk football. Then we can go back to Celtic Park next week and it will be a good game for everyone in front of 60,000.
“Of course, it will be a proud moment for me to go back to Windsor Park with Celtic. I have a watched a lot of the national team under Michael O’Neill in the last few years and he’s made it a real fortress.
“It will be nice to go back and it will feel like I’ve never been away from it. I’m looking forward to taking Celtic there and for a competitive game to narrow our focus. It just so happens it’s in Belfast.
“I was very nervous that night back in ‘88, more nervous than I will be for this game. It was amazing to play for Northern Ireland against Brazil and having their shirt afterwards was amazing. My dad loved Brazil. That was his team, he loved the Brazilians. To be able to get the shirt and give it to him was great.”