Protest over soccer match on Sunday

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CHRISTIANS protested at the Oval as the Irish League held a football fixture on a Sunday for the first time in more than 60 years.

Supporters of Glentoran and Bangor faced around 60 Free Presbyterians when they arrived for the landmark clash.

As fans passed through the gates of the east Belfast venue – a stone's throw away from the Mersey Street Presbyterian Church – the Rev David McIlveen and his band of followers sang and handed out tracts slamming the game.

The Free Presbyterian minister was also one of dozens clutching placards with the message: "Remember the Sabbath, keep it holy."

But despite the protests, the Glens' devout Christian striker Michael Halliday proclaimed he was happy to take part in the landmark clash at the stadium, renowned for its long-standing 'Jesus' banner in the spectator stands.

The Rev McIlveen said the Sunday game represented further erosion of Christian values and was a "sad day" for football in Northern Ireland.

He added: "The Irish League has scored an own goal by deciding to hold a fixture on the Lord's Day.

"Myself and the protestors were expressing our belief that the Bible teaches us to keep the Sabbath holy. It is one of the later commandments and it should be kept holy.

"It's completely ironic that this happened at a stadium where the name Jesus is so predominantly displayed."

The Rev McIlveen said Sunday matches would draw children and congregations away from church.

He added: "I hope these fixtures do not continue because if they do it will break the bond children have built with their Sunday schools which have been a great source of strength for the Belfast community."

When asked how he felt about Halliday's decision to play despite his faith, the Rev McIlveen said: "It is not for us to measure an individual's faith – but we don't believe any player should play on a Sunday."

Around 1,800 supporters turned up for the match which saw Glentoran storm to a 1-0 victory, cementing their joint second spot in the JJB Premiership.

The east Belfast club ended up hosting Bangor at the Oval after more summer downpours heaped misery on Ulster.

Heavy rainfall left the pitch too waterlogged to play the match on Saturday as scheduled and it had to be rearranged after inspectors declared the ground unplayable.

The Sabbath play signals a dramatic shift in IFA policy as the body changed the Sunday rule to allow games to go ahead if all clubs were in agreement.

Glentoran chairman Aubry Ralph said yesterday he was delighted the team could be involved in a historic date.

He added: "The match had a very family-orientated atmosphere in spite of the protest which we all expected.

"But with Christian striker Michael Halliday agreeing to play, we decided there should be no problem going ahead with the match.

"It was a great victory, a good crowd and the IFA were very helpful in giving the game the go-ahead."

The Glens' boss said both teams were keen the match would get the green light because there was already a backlog of fixtures.

Bangor secretary Jim Steed said his club was "very glad" to be part of the historic clash which he hailed a "great day" for Irish League football.

The seasiders lost after a classy 56-minute strike by Gary Hamilton became the first competitive Sunday goal in more than six decades.

But Bangor gave their rivals some nervy moments and their goalkeeper Andrew Plummer performed well, saving a penalty by Darryl Fordyce.

Mr Ralph added that it "remained to be seen" whether the Sunday match would become a regular fixture.