So on Monday, December 27th, the two teams took to the pitch, with the Celtic players keeping a beady eye out for any loony bins in the stands who would be intent on carrying out the threats delivered in the mail.
For Kevin McAlinden, Belfast Celtic’s Catholic goalkeeper and the target of the intimidation carried by poisoned pens, it must have been the loneliest day in his life.
Standing in front of the Linfield fans at Belfast’s Windsor Park, in full knowledge that there would be little he could do if someone wanted to get him, he would have been forgiven for his nerves by anyone in the Celtic support.
Iron railings which had traditionally kept players and supporters apart had been melted down long ago, their metals moulded into ammunition casings and aircraft wings.
Only 6 months before, McAlinden, an amateur player, had stood under the Union Jack at the summer Olympics, representing Great Britain in the sport he adored.
Yet here were the most loyal of all Her Majesty’s subjects intent showing him who was in charge – he was shit on the soles of their shoes, a taig, a tarrier, a tattie muncher, an animal, a sneaky croppy who would lie down or be beaten down if he didn’t accept the way of things.
It was natural here. It was the way of things. The Catholic Irish did what they were told and if they did, that was fine – God’s in his heaven, all’s right in the world.
But Belfast Celtic was never a club to accept the natural order and had become a football colossus in Ireland, sweeping all before them in a blaze of sporting glory.
Apple carts were being upset – it was time for change.
The game had been played in the midst of a whirlwind. Linfield’s Bob Bryson had been carried off on a stretcher just before half time.
A full blooded challenge for the ball between himself and Jimmy Jones, Celtic’s hustling, bustling, barrel chested (and incidentally, Protestant) centre forward, had resulted in Bryson’s leg being broken and the Windsor Park crowd’s blood began to boil.
Joe Mackey, the bigoted Secretary of the Belfast Blues, took the microphone and announced to the crowd that Bryson was on his way to hospital – mercury burst through the thermometer – the temperature rising to explode.
Celtic were a goal up but ten-man Linfield had kept battling for the points and a late penalty ensured that, on the field, honours were even.
At the final whistle though, all honour was lost and the Linfield fans immediately rushed onto the pitch to attack the Celtic players.
Two Celts found themselves isolated, furthest from the pavilion, away from the safety of the dressing room – McAlinden in the Celtic goal and Jimmy Jones the striker, who was still lingering around the opposition goal.
McAlinden raced for the pavilion – kicked and punched ferociously as he battled his way to the touchline, he suffered serious cuts and bruising for which he would later be treated. He would survive the ordeal, to tell the tale, the death threats had not been carried to the letter.
Jones however, was in no position to get through the throng of Blue men who were setting about anything in green and white they could find.
Furthest from the dug out, he was kicked and beaten over a wall and into a parapet, where hate filled bigots rained kicks onto him.
By sheer luck, Jones life was saved by a man called Sean McCann, Kevin McAlinden’s opposite number at Ballymena United (who Celtic had played in the ‘in between’ match just days before the big game at Windsor).
Selflessly, McCann threw himself on top of Jones to take the blows for him but Jimmy began to fight him off, believing him to be one of the assailants.
But the ‘keeper was not to be stopped and he screamed at Jimmy to lie still, that it was his friend Sean and that he was there to help him.
Just feet away, a Policeman was heard to say; ‘If you don’t stop kicking that man, I will draw my baton!’
As the attackers dispersed, McCann lifted Jones from the deck and the young Celtic forward immediately collapsed again – his leg could take no weight as it had been broken.
A few hours later, Jones and Bryson lay in the same ward at the Royal Victoria Hospital – one man’s leg broken by accident – the other man’s leg broken by bigotry.
Kevin McAlinden got off light – he knew that – Jimmy Jones had taken the beating that was meant for him.
The Celtic Directors, had had enough – Celtic were out of football forever and after fulfilling their league fixtures at the end of the season, they withdrew from the Irish League.
When Neil Lennon stood on the same pitch at Windsor Park in November 2000, was Jimmy Jones and Kevin McAlinden on his mind?
Jones lived in Mourneview, the opposite side of the tracks from Neil Lennon in Lurgan, but their stories were similar – young men from a provincial town who had achieved sporting excellence.
He’d got the threats, if you play you die, but he played regardless.
Like McAlinden, he’d stood to attention to God Save the Queen while playing for Northern Ireland, but again this made little difference.
He was shit on the soles of their shoes, a taig, a tarrier, a tattie muncher, an animal, a sneaky croppy who would lie down or be beaten down if he didn’t accept the way of things.
But Neil Lennon won’t lie down – he won’t be cowed – and that’s why Rangers fans are sending him nail bombs.
Get your head down, educate yourself, get a job, make a difference – like most of us, this will have been the message from Paul McBride’s QC’s parents to the young man as he passed through his student days.
Now, almost at the peak of his own particular game, he won’t lie down – he won’t be cowed – and that’s why Rangers fans are sending him nail bombs.
As the Celtic Chairman said recently, the days of sitting at the back of the bus are gone. Scotland is convulsing in a fit of anti-Irish and Catholic pique that is reaching another mercury busting crescendo thanks to the Tax Man and UEFA.
Celtic fans must pull together, we must remember the lessons of the past – the Hugh Keevin’s of the world, the sneering, know-all hacks from the Scottish media, should take Reid’s advice and check the history books.
We must remember that in 1952, Celtic Chairman Bob Kelly was ready to do exactly what Belfast Celtic did three years before – withdraw Celtic from the league – as he faced down Scottish bigots who were offended by the very sight of an Irish flag on Scotland’s green hill.
Now is the opportunity for the millions of fair and decent Scots to treat forever the sickness that infects Rangers football club – the club which refused to employ Catholics for 100 years, that banned Eggs Benedict from the menus, that offered corporate packages for £1,690, that banned pepparami and green straws, that according to Nigel Spackman this week replaced a green snooker ball with an orange one.
Take a stand and protect the integrity of the country.
To those who say it’s just a West of Scotland problem, I say wise up – Celtic fans hear the bile and bigotry in every ground in Scotland, the provincial clubs and diddy teams patronised by the press are just as bad as Rangers in many cases.
Lennon’s debut was at Dens Park in Dundee on December 10, 2000 – the boos were there for all to hear.
Why Lennon? Why then? A fortnight before this game most Dundee fans couldn’t have picked Lennon from a crowd, yet overnight the six-million pound man became Scotland’s public enemy number one.
He has had his car rammed off the road, he has been beaten unconscious in Glasgow, he has been forced to move house after his home was attacked, he has received live ammunition in the post and now Rangers fans have tried to kill him with a bomb.
Stop making excuses, stop the deflection, stop the blame game, toss out the two sides of the one coin and stand against this bigotry, or the parable of the two Lurgan men– Lennon and Jones – one Catholic, one Protestant but both Celts – will haunt us forever.
Read more about Belfast Celtic on the official site.