The headlines should have been all about Coleraine and the club’s historic moment in the sun. Saturday’s win over Cliftonville was the Bannsiders’ first Irish Cup football final success since 2003 and the perfect riposte to their Premiership heartbreak of the week before, when they agonisingly lost the league to Crusaders on the final day.
Instead, events before the final even kicked off at Windsor Park have been the talking point. The sight of Cliftonville’s players, and manager, all deliberately bowing their heads as the national anthem was played, has infuriated unionists.
In the build-to the showpiece Cliftonville, as they were entitled to do, tried to persuade the Irish Football Association (IFA) to abandon the playing of the anthem. On the previous occasion the Reds reached the final in 2013 the anthem was not played, but later that same year the IFA’s board voted to change its policy and the national anthem has been played before the final ever since.
Whether the anthem should be played on cup final day is not the argument here. It was agreed IFA policy and once Cliftonville’s attempt to overturn it failed for this year’s final, they should have abided by the decision and concentrated their efforts on trying to change the policy at IFA board level further down the line. Indeed, in an IFA official statement last Friday, the football governing body said it had “sympathy” for Cliftonville’s position and would review the issue down the line.
Despite contrary claims by some nationalist commentators, the actions of the Cliftonville players and management amounted to a public political protest, a very public show of disrespect. For all the nationalist talk of inclusivity, Cliftonville’s deliberate disrespecting of the national anthem has perpetuated the notion, which they will of course dispute, that it is a nationalist club for nationalist players and supporters.
Cliftonville now have much work to do if they want to alter the perception that Solitude is a cold house for unionists.