Belfast trip cannot be underestimated

THE underlying importance of Ipswich Town's trip to Belfast cannot be underestimated, according to exiled Blues fan Chris Hare.

Derek Davis

THE underlying importance of Ipswich Town's trip to Belfast cannot be underestimated, according to exiled Blues fan Chris Hare.

Originally from Colchester, Hare is the founder member of the Northern Ireland branch of the Ipswich Town Supporters Club, which now has 20 members.

As an Englishman working in Ulster for the past 20 years, Hare is well aware of how things are changing for the better and the visit of the Blues further helps to cross the divide.

Hare said: “The games Jim has organised in east, west and north Belfast will encourage supporters to get across the city and see different areas of the city than they normally would.

“That is brilliant for the kids. My son for example has never been to certain parts of Belfast, but now he will, which is down to football and that is great. We have been promised good football and great hospitality. It is helping to break down barriers.”After years of conflict between Loyalists and Nationalists the country is returning to normality and the welcome visitors get in Belfast is incredibly warm, with tourism an important factor in its renaissance.

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Blues boss Jim Magilton is a son of Belfast and is amazingly popular with all sections of the community and mobbed everywhere he goes. He, along with coaches Bryan Klug and Steve Foley, also took youngsters for coaching sessions.

Taking a team to Donegal Celtic, in the neighbourhood he was born and brought up in, and Cliftonville sited in another hardcore Republican area, along with Glentoran in a Loyalist stronghold brought a lot of people together, something that would have been impossible not many years ago.

Hare said: “Irish league clubs are working extremely hard to encourage non-sectarianism at their grounds. That in turn will encourage supporters from their own community to go along and people from other communities to go along, too.

“Donegal Celtic are in a strong Nationalist area, but they went out of their way to make everyone welcome. The reception teams who are not a Nationalist side get is second to none, which is very encouraging. If football can help Northern Ireland in any way then that is brilliant.”

Magilton decided early on politics and religion were not going to stop him playing football where he wanted and he is roundly respected for his stance. Much is down to his decision to play for Northern Ireland, captaining his country and winning 52 caps, which was a big step for a Catholic from west Belfast.

Hare said: “There were people, perhaps there are still some, who would not go and support the Northern Ireland team for one reason or another.

“He is a Catholic brought up in a Nationalist environment, so the easy option for Jim would have been to have supported the Republic of Ireland and even play for them, but he had the urge to play for the country he lived in. Hopefully that will encourage the kids from his neck of the woods to play for Northern Ireland and that would be great all around.”

Football is gaining popularity in the province and it is hoped the newly-formed Irish Premier League will attract bigger money and a bigger following.

Hare said: “Irish League fcootball has a lot to do to catch up with what they see on the mainland, but from grassroots up people are working very hard with young players to play good football and so encourage families to support a team.

“You see at the airport every weekend with fans in Liverpool, Man Utd, Burnley and Aston Villa shirts for example going over and that is hard for Irish League football. They are losing money to those guys going over to the mainland and want to encourage them to stay here and support their own local team.”

While Hare watches football in Belfast, his first love is the Blues and he watches them whenever he can, planning visits to his parents in Frinton with matches at Portman Road so it has longed been his dream to see them in his adopted city.

“It is brilliant that Ipswich Town are here. It will help Irish football, give the three clubs a few quid and generate good relations between the clubs and break down barriers. If they can unearth a gem then even better. We have seen how well Chris Casement has done coming through from Belfast and playing in Town's first team.”

As the Northern Ireland branch expands so Hare is looking to find a president with another legendary Ulsterman high in his thoughts. He said: “Allan Hunter is a legend for us in Northern Ireland maybe we could convince him to be president.”