After the shambles at Old Trafford, horrific attack on Euros is a real possibility
Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30
On the evening of last November 13, the idea of suicide bombers targeting a packed stadium was the stuff of nightmares and pulp fiction. By midnight, 130 people lay dead in Paris, the nightmare had become a reality and a new Rubicon had been crossed.
The events of that night, outside the Stade de France, just before a France-Germany friendly, chilled the blood of every observer. A lone suicide bomber had attempted to gain access to the crowded stands, where he planned to detonate his vest. That in itself would have killed dozens, but the plan was to force a panicked evacuation onto the streets outside the stadium, where another two suicide bombers were lying in wait to mingle with the crowds before detonating their own vests, which would have caused immeasurable loss of life.
On that occasion, an efficient but rather unfortunate security guard patting the 'fan' down discovered the vest and the attacker blew himself up before he got into the ground proper.
Those surreal images from that cold November night came flooding back on a balmy Sunday afternoon when the first reports began to emerge of a controlled evacuation from Old Trafford.
From a terrorist's point of view, Old Trafford was the perfect target - it was the final day of the season, all the games had to kick off at the same time to ensure no team had an unfair advantage over their league rivals and the stadium was, as usual, packed with fans and media from around the world.
Terrorists pledging their allegiance to the black flag of Isil are media-savvy and well aware of the publicity value of a 'spectacular'. In fact, once you put yourself into the mindset of the attackers, hitting a densely populated area, such as an enclosed stadium makes perfect sense - mass casualties and, even more pertinently, massive global publicity and an even larger increase in public anxiety and fear.
While the first and most obvious suspects for the suspicious device were some sort of Isil offshoot, it wasn't long before the recent escalation in the terror levels from Irish republicans on UK soil was mentioned. Even at that stage, however, it was almost inconceivable that whatever name the IRA now gives itself would be responsible. After all, with the possible exception of Anfield, no other ground in England would contain as many Irish people.
Of course, the truth was out within a few hours and it was the oldest excuse in the book - simple human error. As we now know, a training exercise conducted by stadium security had resulted in a fake bomb left stuck to a toilet door. Now, simply because someone failed to do an inventory of their equipment at the end of the drill, Manchester United are looking at a £3m (€3.8m) bill and massive reputational damage for such basic incompetence but, far more importantly, it has cast a shadow over next month's Euros.
It doesn't matter that this was neither a viable device nor a real attack.
It reminded people that, post-Paris, such an attack is no longer inconceivable and was another sign that even the most basic act of simply going to a match will now be fraught with delays, frustration and an ever-present soupcon of fear.
Many Irish fans going to France face the prospect of match-day security around the stadiums which will be even more rigorous than the airline security they faced when they were travelling there.
In fact, the future of match attendance looks a lot like what we now endure at an airport check-in - rigorous baggage inspection, requisite ID and rules against talking to security staff.
For a country of sports fans who have become known - and have been criticised by several national coaches - for sinking pints in pubs near the ground before rolling up just in time for kick off, we can already predict the horror stories we will hear from Irish fans who didn't realise that, for instance, they will have to bring their passports to every game.
Frankly, the days of having a relaxing few beers at your own leisure before ambling into the ground are gone forever and will now be replaced by one of repeated security scans and, rather like air travel, you'll be required to be in the ground for several hours before you either need or want to be.
But, as frustrating as that is, what's the alternative?
It's easy to say that we shouldn't give in to fear or else, to use that terrible cliché, the terrorists will have won. And it's certainly true that people shouldn't completely change their usual routine out of concern that they might find themselves in the middle of a terrorist atrocity.
The problem we all face is that while personal defiance is undoubtedly the proper response, the idea of an attack on a crowded stadium is no longer a paranoid, worst-case scenario - it's now an established, horrifically effective part of their modus operandi.
It's not only the grounds where the matches will take place that are targeted, of course. Only yesterday, the mayor of Paris suggested that they may have to cancel the planned fan zone around the Eiffel Tower because it provides such an easy picking for anyone with an explosive waistcoat and an AK47.
That's a lovely prospect.
Sunday's confusion may not have been terror-related.
But we can only hope it doesn't provide an eerie taster of what we can expect in a month's time.