My name is Haydn Milligan. I was born and raised in Belfast. My father and both grandfathers were Linfield fans and so it was destined that I would become a Blueman too. I followed the Blues home, away and even abroad. During that time I became treasurer of Belmont Linfield Supporters Club. In 1978 my work took me away to the south of England. For many years my Dad would faithfully send me copies of the 'Ulster' so that I could keep up with football matters in NI. I would also get back many times over the years and would always look forward to the 'Big Two' Boxing Day game.
Watching football was addictive and for the 40 years that I was away I followed Portsmouth, being a season ticket holder at Fratton Park for most of that time. I saw them rise from the old Fourth Division to the First, drop down for a while, rise again into the Premier League and then fall back down to the fourth tier once more. I was at Wembley when they won the FA Cup in 2008. Most fans here have never experienced relegation or promotion. Believe me, it can be the worst of times and the best of times.
Following retirement my wife and I moved back 'home' in 2017, this time settling in Bangor. It was only natural that I took up with Linfield yet again. Things here have changed massively in 40 years but I am glad to say that the feeling your get seeing the ball hit the back of your opponent's net hasn't changed at all.
Where to start?
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" said Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Well I wasn't planning to go that far but I knew that this project was going to take some time. Exactly how much I didn't know but I was now retired and so I had the time. In addition the COVID-19 lockdown had just started and so I really didn't have too many places to go! In the end it's probably taken the best part of two years to get to publication. I identified three main parts to the project. The first was to find all the data, the second was to compile that data into meaningful formats and the third was to put that data out onto the Internet.
I'm now into my seventies (just) and over the last few years I have thought back to matches and occasions in my earlier years. Sometimes I could remember results but not the scores, the occasion but not the result or else the score but not the date. Out of interest I would look online expecting to get all the answers only to be disappointed and frustrated. After all if you wanted to know past facts about Manchester United or Liverpool you can find them with ease. Why can't you do it for Linfield or Glentoran (or any other team in Northern Ireland?) I decided to do something about it. I wanted to build an archive of ALL the results for ALL the senior teams in ALL competitions since football began here in 1881.
Why I thought I could do it?
I spent the last forty years of my career working in Information Technology. The last several years of that time saw me specialise in data. A lot of that work was of a forensic nature since the data was incomplete, in more than one place, in different formats or whatever. So collecting data and getting it into a meaningful format would not faze me. In addition I had also created websites at various times. Creating websites is much easier nowadays because of some brilliant tools that are available. So that didn't faze me either. I was up for the challenge.
Where was the data?
As I was beginning this exercise shortly after the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, the only route open to me was the Internet. I knew that there was some data online but I didn’t know the extent of it. From the late 1990s, with the growth in the Internet, reports of games were usually available online from sources like the BBC. Before that, however, it was a different ball game.
Quite surprisingly, once I started to look online in earnest, a fair amount of the data was already there. However it wasn't in one place, nor easily found, and therefore I had to track it down. I decided, first of all, to try and identify all the competitions. Of course I remembered the old ones like the Ulster Cup, the City Cup and the various cross-border ones like the Blaxnit but how many competitions were there? Fifteen perhaps? Surely no more than that. Try 40! Yes there really are 40 competitions in which Irish League teams have completed up to season 2021/2022. I couldn't believe it. Wikipedia has good articles on most of those competitions and therefore that gave me a starting point for the season they commenced, when they may have been suspended and when they ended (if appropriate.)
Some people had made very reasonable efforts of putting data together but for various reasons the efforts have come to a premature end. What was there helped me a lot in putting together a framework for the format of the various competitions. A big issue was the time in the season when a certain competition would occur. Older fans will remember that the Ulster and City Cups usually took place at the start of the season before the Irish League. But when, for example, did the County Antrim Shield start? Well my research shows that it could have been any time within the season!
My search online also threw up some possibilities with regards to published books. Many supporters will be familiar with the Malcolm Brodie Yearbooks. Many supporters will have collected them. RIP Malcolm; what a legend! Only a few of the yearbooks were available to purchase online however, and at a considerable cost, so I closed that avenue down. I then came across a book entitled 'Northern Ireland Football League Tables and Results' by Alex Graham. This shows all the results for the Irish League and later stages of the Irish Cup from 1881 until 2014. I bought the book and it was a considerable help. But whilst I had the results and the final League tables I didn't have the dates of the matches nor the venues, with the exception of cup finals. To get these I needed other sources.
Newspapers were the obvious answer but the libraries were closed because of the lockdown. Then I discovered the ‘British Newspaper Archive’ resources online and later the ‘Irish Newspaper Archives.’ Both of these are subscription-based with the Irish one being substantially more expensive than the British one. Luckily I only needed the Irish one for a short time. If the 'Ireland's Saturday Night' had have been available I would have been in heaven but it wasn't there at the time. It is now! However the local newspapers like the Belfast Telegraph, Newsletter and Northern Whig carried most of what I needed. A myriad of other more obscure newspapers contributed as well.
I was off and running!
Getting the data
The central element of the exercise was a football match. And for a match I wanted the competition, the season, the date, the stage (round one, semi-final etc.), the home team, the home score, the away team, the away score and the venue. I also needed to add comments if and when necessary. Much later on I decided to add links to match reports and videos. I am still building up these links. I decided not to bother about the scorers. I started with the competitions that I knew about but gradually realised that there were a lot more than I initially envisaged! Then I found out when each competition had started and ended. Some were still running of course. I also found out that some competitions were suspended at times, the two World Wars being good examples of this. After that I just worked my way through, one competition at a time.
Because of my IT background, the obvious thing was to use a database to accumulate all the data. Not only would that allow me to pull out the data in various ways but it would also enable me to check for any obvious errors. As an example I knew that matches here were not played on a Sunday. So any date that was a Sunday would probably have been entered wrongly. As it happened I discovered that several games both here and abroad HAD been played on a Sunday. Also no team would have played twice on the same day.
The vast majority of the data that I needed was actually obtained from scores and match reports in newspapers. The ‘British Newspaper Archive’ was used extensively to obtain this information. This resource covers a vast range of papers but does not have them for all years. As a result I had to skip between different papers to get what I needed. As I initially suspected I couldn’t get all my information online or from books. But it was well over 99%, a figure that astounded me. Eventually I had to visit some libraries that would have the papers I couldn’t find online. Some clubs were contacted too. Not all bothered to get back to me! Eventually I tracked down all the outstanding issues.
I didn't leave this part of the project to the end. Whilst compiling the results I investigated the available website-building tools and decided on a product called Wix. With the results I had put together at the time I started the build of the website to give me experience of the tool and also to ensure that it would do what I needed it to. Wix is free to use up to the point where you need to use a suitable domain name and have your website picked up on Google searches. If you are thinking of building a website I would certainly recommend it.
It's been an experience, that's for sure. However I just felt that it was something that was missing for Irish League fans. I enjoyed doing it all and I hope that you will enjoy using it.
Haydn Milligan (Author)