Thursday 25 December 2014

Why England will always hold a special place as our sporting enemy

Published 14/04/2014 | 02:30

The last time we played England on home soil was on 15 February 1995, when the game was famously abandoned. This photo shows David Kelly, Republic of Ireland, scoring the opening goal past England goalkeeper David Seaman. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
The last time we played England on home soil was on 15 February 1995, when the game was famously abandoned. This photo shows David Kelly, Republic of Ireland, scoring the opening goal past England goalkeeper David Seaman. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

The Tricolour flying over Windsor Castle was indeed a sight to behold last week. The incongruity of our flag alongside the Union Jack made for a curious juxtaposition and was a rare sight for Irish people.

While we have reached a new phase in our political and social relationship with Britain, there is another rivalry which is not likely to dissipate or be diluted by our new-found friendship any time soon. And that is the one played out on the international sports field.

Sporting encounters between Ireland and England hold a unique fascination for Irish sports fans. There is something visceral and almost tribal about the encounters.

Who will ever forget the image of John Hayes in the team lineout at Ireland vs England at Croke Park in 2007 as he tried admirably, but in vain, to hold back the emotions of a nation? As tension, history, progress and possibility all combined in one line of men standing for their national anthem, we faced our oldest enemy on sacred sporting ground. Our sporting battles with England are littered with moments that are not only about the scoreboard, but have captured the political landscape at a given time.

This week the smarty pants down at the FAI cleverly chose to announce an international friendly match between Ireland and England to be played in Aviva Stadium in 2015. The announcement was made at this time to tap into the positivity of the presidential visit to the UK.

This will be the first time that we have played England on home soil in soccer since the infamous game at Lansdowne Road in 1995, when on February 15 a game was abandoned after just 22 minutes as rioting broke out. Some of the visiting English fans decided to renovate the West Stand with their bare hands and use the furniture as firepower. As seats rained down on Irish fans, an iconic image of a bewildered young boy James Eager was beamed around the world. As James looked on, it was clear he could not yet understand the historical baggage which was being unloaded before his young eyes.

The next day in the FAI (where I was working at the time), we were swamped with international queries in relation to security arrangements. Irish media sought out National Front spokespeople for explanations. The issue was raised in the Dail. Physiologically, it felt like we had all taken a leap backwards in terms of our relationship with England.

But great enemies also inspire great victories and there have also been very memorable, and poignant days. In terms of soccer, we have played England 14 times. We have won just twice, drawing seven times and I will let you do the maths on the rest. But surely, the standout Anglo-Irish game for any self-respecting Irish soccer fan is the glorious win in Stuttgart in the finals of the European Championships in Germany on June 6, 1988 – when Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net and Jack Charlton's 'Green Army' was born. Two years later, almost to the day, we squared up to our old enemies again in the World Cup in Italia '90. The venue was Cagliari and Kevin Sheedy saved us by equalising and kept our Italian dreams alive with a 1-1 draw. I recall an Irish journalist trying to explain the relationship to an Italian journalist who nodded in appreciation as he acknowledged "ahh, they are the special enemies".

Rugby has also provided its fair share of political footballs. Former England captain Martin Johnson cannot have imagined the media maelstrom that was to follow his refusal to move English players from their position as they waited to be greeted by Mary McAleese in the game against England during the Six Nations in 2003. After the game, Johnson said "people don't come here to watch the presentations" and in a way, he was right. But when it comes to Ireland versus England, the pomp and ceremony, the flags, and the anthems, matter more than ever. Johnson's inability to read that situation was inexcusable. In the end, the IRFU was forced to apologise to Mrs McAleese for the incident.

But it was those tough gentlemen of rugby who were responsible for what may be our most touching tale. During the height of the Troubles, England's rugby players bravely defied IRA death threats to take on Ireland in Dublin in 1973. On match day, the idea was for both sides to walk out together as a sign of unity. But such was the extraordinary and emotional ovation for England from the 50,000 Lansdowne Road crowd, that the English team were prompted forward to take their applause alone. Ireland versus England sporting encounters have stirred men's emotions for centuries. So while we revel in the new relationship with the queen and her country, surely it's okay to allow ourselves the occasional outburst.

They say in sport that it's not about the winning, or the losing, but the taking part. But for us where England is concerned let's be honest, it's really about the winning.

Irish Independent

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