BELFAST –– There was a time when Kevin Johnson thought he might be killed on his way to a soccer match.

“They tried to overturn the bus,” Johnson says, remembering the Protestant mob that threatened him and fellow Catholic soccer fans as they arrived for a 1996 match in Portadown, 23 miles southwest of Belfast.

Back in the 1990s, Johnson and his fellow Cliftonville supporters, a club with a mostly Catholic fan base, needed police escorts to watch their team play in Protestant-heavy towns during the tensest of times in Northern Ireland.

A devoted fan since he was 7, Johnson proudly wears his red Cliftonville hoodie in the bar underneath Solitude, Cliftonville's stadium. He started going to games with his father and brother in the late 1980s. Now 33, Johnson hails from the predominantly working-class, Catholic area of Belfast known as the "New Lodge," a former stronghold of the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the country's infamous "Troubles." Sectarian violence between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups erupted in the New Lodge on an almost daily basis throughout the 1970s and early 80s.

Few aspects of Northern Irish society were immune to violence in those days and attending a soccer match was no different. One of the most horrific incidents occurred two years before Johnson’s own troubles in Portadown. Not far away, inside a pub in rural Loughinisland, a gunman murdered six Catholics who were watching a World Cup match on television.

"Everywhere we went," Johnson says, "You would have got your buses stoned, golf balls and other things thrown at you when you were inside the stadium."

Protestant fans traveling to Solitude didn’t exactly get the red-carpet treatment either. "There would be young ones hanging about throwing stones at them,” Johnson says. “It was just society at that time. Certain people went to matches for a bit of 'aggro' [aggression] on both sides."

Nowadays, the violence has subsided. The changing atmosphere at soccer matches in Northern Ireland is a prominent example of the country's evolution as a whole during the past decade.

While the physical hostilities may have died down, conflicts still remain. Many Catholic soccer fans in Northern Ireland still don’t feel part of the sport’s local fabric. But battles once fought by fans, players and coaches are now being waged by politicians.

A British Sport in Ireland

Ever since fans of the game from a Unionist background brought soccer to Belfast in the late 19th century, the sport has been strongly linked with that community. Unionists want Northern Ireland to maintain its union with the United Kingdom. For many years, Catholics grew up playing traditional Irish sports like hurling and Gaelic football, a sport that locals describe as a combination of soccer and rugby.

Even today, support for Northern Ireland's national soccer team still comes primarily from unionists. That's largely because Belfast's Windsor Park, home of the Northern Ireland team, was a cauldron of hate while Johnson and Catholics his age were growing up in the late '80s and '90s.

"The symbolism was very much around unionism and loyalism,” said David Hassan, an expert in the sporting history of Northern Ireland at the University of Ulster. Loyalists in Northern Ireland are those who swear allegiance to the British crown. Hassan called the atmosphere at Windsor Park “poisonous,” noting fans used to drape the stadium’s terraces with Union flags and sing inflammatory songs. “The chanting from the fans was often in favor of Protestant paramilitaries. Catholics wanted nothing to do with it."

Johnson says that any Catholic heading to Windsor Park was taking a potentially fatal gamble. "You wouldn't have dared in case someone noticed you or found out you were Catholic. You probably would have been killed if you stumbled across the wrong crowd."

With these fears in minds, the vast majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland grew up supporting the Republic of Ireland soccer team rather than the one representing the country of their birth. But Johnson, like many Catholics, doesn't even consider himself Northern Irish. “I see Ireland as my country,” he says. “I was brought up in a nationalist community with a nationalist background."

One event that lives long in Irish memory can help put this complex dynamic into perspective -- at least in terms of soccer.

The setting was a 1993 World Cup qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. Northern Ireland had no chance of advancing to the finals in the U.S. the following year, but the Republic needed only a tie to make it through. After Northern Ireland nabbed an early lead, sectarian chants rang throughout Windsor Park. The team’s manager, Billy Bingham, himself a Northern Ireland legend as a player, egged on the crowd by waving his arms in the air on the sidelines. The Republic did eventually tie the match and advance to the World Cup Finals.

"I remember watching it in [my] house,” Johnson says. "That was the worst. He was whipping the crowd up, singing 'The Billy Boys,' which is an anti-Catholic song."

Hassan said the Bingham incident was a critical turning point that caused Catholics to look south for their national soccer allegiances. "This game becomes almost a microcosm of the wider problem," he said. "It did little to ameliorate the suspicion of many Catholics that Northern Ireland was a place they weren't entirely welcome and that their team was now the Republic of Ireland."

But that decision came with violent consequences for some. The six Catholics gunned down in Loughinisland had gathered to watch the Republic of Ireland play Italy in the World Cup.

Healing wounds

Twenty years after that game, there is wide praise in Northern Ireland for the Irish Football Association’s work in combating sectarianism during the last decade. A "Football For All" campaign, a community relations campaign undertaken by the Irish FA to tackle sectarianism and racism, has gone a long way toward healing the divide among fans. Both the European Union and European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, have recognized the association's cross-community efforts through activities including social responsibility and diversity workshops in schools and youth soccer camps.

Through the program, coaches and volunteers throughout the country have received awareness training, and Irish League clubs have launched extensive community relations plans in partnership with various local groups, fans and volunteers to spread the Football For All message at a grassroots level.

"Over the last ten years, the Football For All Project has transformed the atmosphere at Northern Ireland international football games creating a fun, safe and family friendly environment," said EU commissioner for regional policy Johannes Hahn told UEFA.com

Hassan and Johnson both agree that the IFA have also made tremendous strides in creating a more hospitable atmosphere at Windsor Park by cracking down on sectarian songs and chants. The team even has a Catholic manager and captain -- a remarkable turn of events considering current Glasgow Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s abrupt international retirement 11 years ago following a death threat.

The IFA also encourages fans to wear Northern Irish green and white to matches rather than the red, white and blue of Britain and Glasgow Rangers. The number of Union flags in the stands has also dwindled.

But hurdles still exist. Many Catholics are still rankled that "God Save the Queen" is played before every home match. And the IFA feels it necessary remind supporters via a printed warning on match tickets that “booing Northern Ireland players" is not appropriate behavior.

Geoff Wilson, who served as the IFA communications manager until his position was eliminated earlier this month, said its efforts have had a noticeable impact. “We’re seeing more Catholics go to the game. We’re seeing more Catholics supporting Northern Ireland,” Wilson said. “When you identify Northern Ireland shirts in a very nationalist area, you know you’re doing something right.”

For fans like Johnson, though, it’s not enough to bring them to root for the team.

"I've always supported the Republic of Ireland,” he says. “I’m not going to change.”

Despite Johnson's soccer loyalties, a testament to how far soccer support has evolved, fans from Cliftonville and its Protestant North Belfast rivals, Crusaders, walked arm in arm to a February match in defiance of Union flag-waving loyalists unhappy about the presence of Catholics in their neighborhood. (Despite the act of unity, officials called off the game as a precaution.)

The Protestant Fans

Linfield F.C. is Belfast’s most successful Protestant club and plays its matches at Windsor Park. Ryan Taylor, 18, from nearby Bangor, manages a popular Linfield and Glasgow Rangers supporters’ group on Facebook.

Taylor attends all Northern Ireland home games and most of Linfield's matches, both home and on the road. He even travels to Glasgow to watch Rangers a few times a year. He's not interested in seeing the two countries merge teams. “I am not in favor of an all-Ireland team. Northern Ireland is a British country. Ireland is not.” He also thinks the religious divide between the two sets of supporters would “spark a lot of fights."
But he's pragmatic about the issue of Northern Irish players joining the Ireland team. "The Irish FA can't do much about this happening," he said. "It's down to the player and what they choose to do with their career.

The call for unity

Many Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Republic have called for the formation of an all-Ireland soccer team to build on this progress even further. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, plus Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister and its Minister for Sport have all expressed their support.

This push has been in the spotlight in recent years due to the defection of top Catholic soccer players in Northern Ireland, such as James McClean and Darren Gibson, to the Republic when they turn 21. The Good Friday Agreement allows every Northern Irish citizen to choose between an Irish or British passport.

Johnson, who favors the plan, doesn’t think an all-Ireland soccer team is likely to happen anytime soon because “too many people on the Protestant side wouldn’t want it.”

There's no rush.

For now, Johnson is content meeting for a few beers and “a bit of a laugh” every Saturday with fans he once thought might kill him.

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