Celtic’s historic visit to Windsor Park ended with a 2-0 victory for the Scottish champions, but it was Linfield Football Club who took most of the plaudits for ensuring a potentially powder-keg Champions League qualifying fixture passed largely without incident.
A number of missiles, including a Buckfast bottle, were thrown at Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths close to the corner flag at one point but order was quickly restored by match stewards.
There was a very low key police presence throughout, until the brief outbreak of disorder in the South Stand led to the deployment of public order officers.
“Football was the winner,” former Ulster Unionist MLA and Linfield supporter Danny Kennedy said after the final whistle.
“To have Glasgow Celtic play in Belfast, in July, huge credit has to go to Linfield for their organisation and the way they have handled things. The Celtic fans were part of the occasion, and I think that also deals with the issue that it was somehow a ‘no go’ area for Celtic fans. Overall it’s been quite an occasion,” he said.
“I don’t want the activities of a few individuals to marr this occasion. It was primarily, and remained a football match, played at a very competitive level. Football was the winner and that’s what everyone wanted,” he added.
Blues’ goalkeeper Roy Carroll made a string of outstanding saves to keep the score a respectable 2-0 defeat against the former European Cup winners. He said both sets of supporters deserved praise.
“The fans were great today, both sets of fans. It was great what Linfield did with putting the Celtic fans in The Kop. Celtic never took the tickets and it would have been great to see more fans in the ground,” he said.
The PSNI said both sets of supporters “behaved impeccably” although one man was arrested for disorderly behaviour.
Superintendent Norman Haslett said: “I would like to pay tribute to and thank the vast majority of fans from both football clubs who behaved impeccably and enjoyed the football match in Belfast between Linfield and Celtic this afternoon.
“Unfortunately, there were a small number of incidents which police and other relevant authorities will be reviewing in the days to come.”
George McCutcheon, chairman of the 1st Raven Linfield Supporters Club in east Belfast said one Celtic player in particular was trying to wind up the Blues supporters ahead of the scuffles with stewards on the final whistle.
“Leigh Griffiths got a scarf from the crowd and tied it to the goal post and that kicked things off, but it was an excellent performance and they Linfield showed real true grit,” he said.
“They defended superbly and then slipped up when we had a couple of chances to score ourselves.”
Mr McCutcheon was critical of Celtic for refusing a ticket allocation.
“We should have had 3,000 or 4,000 Celtic fans there for the atmosphere,” he said.
Linfield manager David Healy praised the Linfield fans for creating a “red hot” – but not abusive – atmosphere.
“Linfield as a club have made giant strides over the years to cut out shouting and that kind of abuse that you get it in Old Firm games or Manchester derbies,” he said.
“You are always going to get a ferocious red-hot atmosphere, but our fans back the players through thick and thin”.
His Celtic counterpart Brendan Rodgers said the game was played “in good spirit in the main” but said the bottle throwing incident was “not what you want to see.”
He added: “The talk is more on the football and for us the score line is okay.”
Linfield Football Club issued a statement following the game – praising the “determined performance” of the team, as well as condemning those behind the missile throwing.
“The match was played in a very good spirit and both teams played their part in delivering a highly competitive sporting occasion,” it said.
“We were pleased that the majority of fans fully respected and heeded the advice we had given them ahead of the game and we commend the Linfield fans who got fully behind the team and produced a great atmosphere in the stadium. The operational plan to manage Celtic fans who purchased tickets against their club’s wishes also worked very well.
“The club will be reviewing our own footage and investigating an incident that took place during the match where a number of objects were thrown on to the pitch. We are obviously very disappointed that a small number of people chose not to respect the club’s wishes.”
The statement goes on to say: “Linfield FC strongly condemns these actions and will be taking all necessary steps to identify any individual who was engaged in this activity. The club takes the safety of fans, players and officials extremely seriously and there will be serious and lasting consequences for anyone involved.”