Sunday 25 September 2016

Clash against our oldest foe will be a whole new ball game

Published 01/06/2015 | 02:30

Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland side will meet England next Sunday in the first friendly between the teams on Irish soil since the riot in 1995
Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland side will meet England next Sunday in the first friendly between the teams on Irish soil since the riot in 1995

The walkie-talkie crackled, "there's a problem in West Stand Upper". We stood just inside the tunnel of Lansdowne Road in the middle of the West Stand Lower. Even with the chaotic clamour around us, those chilling words cut through.

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Suddenly, our worst fears were being realised. It was February 15, 1995 and the Republic of Ireland were playing England in an international friendly match. Some English fans were rioting.

After 27 minutes, the match was abandoned. Both sets of players shook their heads in bewilderment as they were ushered into their dressing rooms for fear that the situation would escalate rapidly.

We watched below from the pitch side as benches were wrenched from their metal holdings and used as missiles to be hurled towards the pitch and down on to the spectators below. The build up to the game was tense. In the stadium there was a frisson of tension as the anthems were played.

Newspapers had reported that members of Combat 18, a neo-Nazi organisation, had made their way through security and were intent on causing disruption at the match. And they did. We were in the midst of an unpredictable and volatile situation when lunatic fringe elements were infesting a crowd of over 40,000 spectators in a thunder of noise - the fear was palpable.

Disturbing memories of TV images from Hillsborough and the Heysel Stadium disaster before it surely flashed through each and every fan's mind. In the midst of all the madness and uncertainty, I wondered if we would become part of another epic tragic football memory. Thankfully, we didn't and the situation was contained and eventually controlled.

Next Sunday, Ireland will host our first international soccer friendly with England on Irish soil since that fateful match. Whilst the memory of the night lingers for what it could have become, it is unimaginable that such a situation could or would occur today. Not because we have better surveillance, not because we have a bigger, brighter stadium, nor because neo-Nazi organisations have almost disappeared. It is because Ireland's relationship with England has fundamentally changed.

As we prepare again to do battle on the field with our oldest foe, we do so in a much-changed political and social relationship environment. The understanding between our islands is the result of an effective, albeit fragile, settlement to the Northern Ireland question.

Twenty years ago, we could not have imagined that Queen Elizabeth would ever visit the Republic of Ireland, or that Prince Charles would visit the site at Mullaghmore where his great- uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was murdered.

In England, our own President, Michael D Higgins, was received in a warm and welcoming way by the royal family and by the British public.

It is against the backdrop of these important, historic and symbolic events that sporting encounters can take place without becoming a political football.

Sport is so often a cathartic outlet to vent our feelings and when it comes to facing the English, we are never behind the door. But now the battle is done in a different way. Now the battle is about national pride, not national politics. It is said that politics is the art of the possible, but while it is not always possible to forgive, we can at least forget long enough to allow the principles of peace to shine through.

However, wounded pride is a different matter entirely. In the world of international football, where the valour of old has been replaced by vanity and corporate coffers, some things remain sacred. Against our oldest rivals, England, it is still the winning that counts. No pressure Martin O'Neill.

Irish Independent

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