Brendan Crossan: Flags, bunting, Irish Cup final fever, hospitals and Hummers

‘This is it. Saturday, 2.30pm at Windsor Park, the dream resumes’

<span style="font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; ">Joe Gormley celebrates with Reds fans during his first spell at Cliftonville&nbsp;</span>
Joe Gormley in front of the Cliftonville fans

IT’S amazing what flags and bunting can do for a place. Dotted around north Belfast, red and white bunting swings and flutters and large Cliftonville flags fly imperiously at the top of lampposts.

There’s a strong, emblematic feeling when you drive or walk by them. You’re overcome by a weird sense of pride that you don’t normally experience any other time of the year.

But this is Irish Cup final week. The insatiable search of the Holy Grail resumes. Cliftonville Football Club are back for another crack, this time against Linfield.

You think of those hearty souls who went to the bother of getting the bunting and flags, acquiring ladders, and erecting them - a gallant reminder that a sense of community can still be felt in difficult times - and how these seemingly small acts of volunteerism end up nourishing all of us.

Camera crews, photographers and journalists gathered at Solitude a couple of Tuesday nights ago for the club’s Irish Cup final press night.

Gerard Lyttle, Cliftonville’s assistant manager, is lining out cones.

A firm handshake and beaming smile from the former Reds player – bouncing fit and looking like he could still do a shift in midfield.

Chrissy Curran ambles into the ground for training alongside Jonny Addis, both of whom will probably be snaffled up by the awaiting media.

In front of the McAlery Stand, some of the Cliftonville players are enjoying a light-hearted rondo.

Upstairs in the boardroom, Jim Magilton chats amiably with a handful of reporters. Could Jim be the man to administer the last rites to the ‘Spirit of 79′ and graduate to Cliftonville immortality?

While working wonders at Dundalk in 2016, Stephen Kenny was evangelical about how sport has the capacity to lift the esteem of an entire community.

He, of course, had first-hand experience at Oriel Park and the Brandywell.

“It’s about the value of community and the impact a team can have on a community,” he said. “It can’t be underestimated.”

It’s impossible to imagine a world without big sporting occasions and the power and energy they generously bestow on people and places.

You couldn’t upset anybody associated with Cliftonville if you’d tried as the Irish Cup final inches closer.

There are people smiling about the place that haven’t cracked a smile since 1979.

This is their year.

Every Saturday you’ll see a thousand familiar faces in Solitude.

Everything about the place, the ‘social’, Ska music, the ‘Understanders’, the same half-time ballot sellers, the same people in the same seats they’ve occupied for a generation or more and the old, derelict Whitehouse that will outlive us all.

Through thick and thin. Diehards in every corner: this team, this club will always be their loveable rogue.

It’s hard to put into words the affection Reds fans have for the place.

Kevin, my elder brother, is one of those crazy, stupid, unrepentant diehards.

For most of his adult life, he’s been selling ballots, fundraising, organising Player of the Year nights, club dinners, offering business and commercial advice to the higher echelons, supporting every manager who had the courage to take the role on, following the team in Europe, organising buses – the most famous of which was Tommy Breslin’s 2013 league-winning team merrily touring around the city.

Every Cliftonville player who was on the bus that afternoon will declare to their dying day that it was the best bus tour that ever happened.

That’s what my brother does – a desperately generous soul, giving to a club weaved into his DNA.

Since the start of the year, Kevin has been to hell and back - a couple of times.

There are days that scar you forever. January 2, 2024.

He climbed into the passenger seat of my car, opposite the Co-Op shop on the Oldpark Road and broke the news that he’d to undergo life-saving surgery.

He knew of his fate a month earlier but didn’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas.

Our dear mother rocked back and forth in her chair crying like a banshee. For her eldest son, a thousand times over.

These types of scarring days are not unique to us.

So many families receive similar news - and worse - and they somehow summon the energy to get off their knees.

For the kids’ sake. For their brothers and sisters. Their partners. Mothers and fathers. And eventually for themselves. But it tires you out.

He spent 53 days and nights in hospital. Markers. Infections. Tubes. Blood tests. Scans. Weight loss. Hitting rock bottom a thousand times a day.

Barry Gray, another Red, was in hospital at the same time. The texts bounced from one ward to the other.

The kind of solidarity and support that you’ll never forget easily. Bound by a love of football and Cliftonville and now by similar illnesses at the same time in their lives.

But this is where local sport comes into its own.

Cliftonville players sent messages of support via text and video. Young Odhran Casey took time to visit Kevin in hospital. Now there’s a warrior footballer.

Winning tackles, heading balls, taking the occasional yellow card for the cause, and realising you have reach beyond the white lines of a football pitch.

It’s hard to measure how much those kinds of messages and gestures mean to people when they’re in the depths of despair.

Thankfully, Barry and Kevin are over the worst and the Irish Cup final moves ever closer.

Warrenpoint boss Barry Gray remains a popular figure among the Solitude faithful
Barry Gray had an enjoyable stint as Cliftonville manager

The Reds couldn’t have timed this Irish Cup final run any better because it sustains people and, as Stephen Kenny said, a successful football team can galvanise an entire place.

As the red and white bunting and flags flutter on the Cliftonville Road in May, my brother and indeed many others in this community have stared into the abyss.

It’s been a tough road.

The triumphant part of Kevin’s journey is that after everything he’s faced, he’s still standing.

Not every day will go as planned but there have also been times when he has probably never felt freer.

He’s hired a Hummer for the cup final. My two kids cannot wait.

The Cliftonville Road’s pulse is racing with excitement.

Tickets are like gold dust.

There are people smiling that haven’t smiled since ‘79.

This is it. Saturday, 2.30pm at Windsor Park, the dream resumes.

Where would we be without days like these? Start the Hummer...