Cliftonville supporters have expressed “dismay” and “embarrassment” at how the football club has conducted itself – both before and after the conviction of Jay Donnelly for a sex offence.
The 23-year-old striker was sentenced to four months in prison after pleading guilty on Thursday to distributing a photo of him having sex with a 16-year-old girl while she wore his team shirt.
Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard how Donnelly had shared it with a friend and to 10 other players in a WhatsApp social media group.
The player had continued to represent the club while on bail but has not been selected for the team since being found guilty of the offence in late November last year.
Following the sentencing hearing on Thursday, Cliftonville said the club “noted” the outcome and would give the matter “due consideration”.
In response, a number of supporters posted messages on social media voicing concern that the club was continuing to employ Donnelly (pictured) – while at the same time failing to publicly display any sympathy for the young victim in Thursday’s statement.
The North Belfast Reds supporters club said they were “dismayed” by the club’s response.
“We believe that in light of the sentence and what is now in the public domain, that the club must act swiftly and begin full disciplinary proceedings against the player. To wait until the outcome of any possible appeal is unacceptable and damages the reputation of the club,” they said in a Facebook post.
The statement added: “Finally, and most importantly, there was a 16-year-old girl at the heart of this crime and our full sympathy goes out to her and her family. Victims should be our prime concern, not the convicted.”
The footballer, of Ardilea Drive in the Ardoyne area of the city, has been placed on the sex offenders’ register.
Brian Smyth, a Green Party NI representative and Cliftonville supporter, said there is a “sense of despair” among many fans at what he called “a sad mess”.
He said: “I am just saddened by it all. There is a young girl at the centre of this and I feel sorry that she has been dragged into this.
Mr Smyth said the statement issued by the club on Thursday “wasn’t enough.”
Speaking on the BBC Talkback programme, he said he hadn’t been to see Cliftonville play since Donnelly was convicted three months ago.
“I can’t see how the player can play for the club again, but I am conflicted – I believe in rehabilitation. I believe that once the sentence is done...the person should be allowed to rebuilt his life, but I struggle to see how he can play for our club again. I don’t know how he can. It’s a sad mess.”
On the same radio programme, Elaine Crory from Belfast Feminists Network said: “Whenever this happens the focus is nearly always on the perpetrator, and very rarely on what happens to the victim. What she went through is appalling. We need to have a serious conversation about how, in situations like this, the is a double standard for how men and women are expected to be treated.”
The Cliftonville statement issued on Thursday said: “The judgment, as well as the outcome of the appeal, will be given due consideration by Cliftonville Football Club. The club are mindful of their duties and responsibilities and will continue to act on this basis.”
However, the club issued a more comprehensive statement last night, saying the club “is acutely aware that a young woman has suffered because of Jay Donnelly’s actions”.
It said: “We wish to reiterate, as we said in our statement of December 1, that the Club does not condone such behaviour and recognises the impact that this has had on the victim and her family. We condemn such actions without question.
“We previously stated that the Club will not shirk its responsibilities to our members, supporters and the wider community and that remains the case. The Club is currently receiving legal advice and, when we are in a clear position to act, the Club will do so, responsibly and within the requirements of employment law.”
Despite the further statement, a number of fans continued to express their disappointment.
One said: “As a female fan I am heartbroken that the club have acted so poorly and ineffectively. Have a look at my timeline there are plenty of vocal angry fans.”
Another said: “Being shamed by @bbcradioulster and fans into making a longer wordy statement isn’t enough. I can’t believe how wrong you keep getting this.”
• In full: statement from Cliftonville FC on Friday evening
Cliftonville Football Club are aware of various enquiries, comments and speculation regarding the Club’s position on the Jay Donnelly case and related matters.
We wish to reiterate, as we said in our statement of December 1, that the Club does not condone such behaviour and recognises the impact that this has had on the victim and her family. We condemn such actions without question. We previously stated that the Club will not shirk its responsibilities to our members, supporters and the wider community and that remains the case. The Club is currently receiving legal advice and, when we are in a clear position to act, the Club will do so, responsibly and within the requirements of employment law.
To our fans, we understand this has been a turbulent period on and off the pitch and our supporters, who remain at the heart of our Club, have a right to receive communications through our official channels.
We understand and appreciate that our supporters and others would welcome detailed commentary and statements on this matter, but we are constrained by the framework within which we as employers are legally obliged to operate.
We ask for your patience and continued support going into tomorrow’s fixture with Ards and assure our supporters that, as well as being amenable to addressing our fans as closely as possible, we remain dedicated to acting in the best interests of Cliftonville Football Club pertaining to all matters at all times.
Cliftonville Football Club has today asked both the Irish FA and NIFL to be part of a consultative group that will help frame the Club’s player education policies going forward. We will also continue our work with all the relevant authorities and other charitable and advisory bodies and cooperate as necessary.
Cliftonville FC takes its position within the football and wider community very seriously. We expect our players’ behaviour, on and off the pitch, to reflect the proud history and culture of our Club. We will seek out the most appropriate way to reinforce that message, including bringing in external advisors who can work with all our players on issues around relationship behaviour, social media and mutual respect.