'Bits of wooden seats went flying just past my head'
Mark Evans recalls England's 1995 visit to Dublin on a night he'll never forget
Published 06/06/2015 | 02:30
'You nuts? So you want to meet the scum?"
Even the steward knew there was a sense of menace in the air. It was intimidating enough being an Irish fan among your own in the East Stand or Havelock Terrace. Watching the match with England's hooligans was another level of fear and tension altogether.
Twenty years ago, I was a young journalist with our sister paper, then called the 'Evening Herald'. Writing colour pieces at football matches, both football and Gaelic, was an occasional treat: a chance to follow the fortunes of the all-Ireland winning Dublin team (a rare thing in those days) or the colour and fun of Jack Charlton's Ireland side, whether at home in Lansdowne or away in Lisbon or New York. Even the sectarian cauldron that was Belfast's Windsor Park was no match for the atmosphere of the night of February 15, 1995.
Ticketless that morning, I had the brainwave of writing about the much-anticipated game after securing a ticket for the match. The only catch? It was in the West Stand, among the away fans. Looking back, it was a bad move. The atmosphere had been building up in Dublin throughout the day. Away fans normally bring noise and a sense of joy. Many of the English fans I met brought beer and one-fingered salutes.
The Ireland of 1995 was on a high. The Celtic Tiger was finally growing claws, Charlton's team had made tricolour-waving the done thing, not something that would have the Special Branch calling at your door. 'Fr Ted' was months away from becoming the top comedy on British TV, a little Eurovision interval act called 'Riverdance' had captured the imagination of the world. And Temple Bar was beginning to replace Magaluf as the destination of choice for the not-so discerning British hen party.
Britpop may have dominated by the charts, but its biggest act was Oasis, and they're Irish anyway, we congratulated ourselves. We Irish love to be loved, and by now even the old enemy was starting to embrace us. The arrival of England was going to be a party where a new Anglo-Irish relationship would be the winner.
It's a pity no one gave the script to the hooligans.
They couldn't have found an easier stage to parade their mindless stock in trade. Many ticketless fans got in on the gates; few in authority seemed to expect trouble, but others knew better from early on.
"There's a few lads in the crowd. There's going to be trouble tonight," a Manchester United fan, seeing my Ireland jersey and knowing I was in their end, warned me in the Oval Bar hours before kick-off.
He said Combat 18 - a neo-Nazi group - were in town. "Once you see an umbrella go up, get out of there," he advised.
As the minutes counted down to the game, you could feel the ice in the winter air. A Union Jack-waving fan hopped into the schoolboy section of the South Terrace. I never saw him again, but the flag ended up being torn and tossed around. "We're ready for those f***ers if they cause any trouble," a group of Irish fans from the North told me. At least they had an idea what was coming.
Then I took my seat, the lone Irish journalist, surrounded by Millwall fans, a club that was once legendary for the wrong reasons: its hooligan problem.
'God Save the Queen' came over the tannoy. Boos rang out. Not from the Irish fans, but from many "supporters" around me. If you can boo your own anthem, you're capable of anything, I thought.
'Amhrán na bhFiann' was drowned out by chants of "no surrender to the IRA", accompanied by Nazi salutes, and "Rule Brittania, Brittania rules the waves, Enger-land will never be slaves."
Then, 21 minutes in, David Kelly's goal for the Republic.
And the umbrella.
As bits of wooden seating went flying past me faster than the fists punching all around them, I froze, as if watching a movie. I could see looks of disgust on the English players' faces as a tiny, twisted minority of their countrymen ran riot and the Irish majority surged away.
Escaping onto the pitch, I was followed by the Millwall fans. They were just kids. "We just want to go home," they told me as I posed for a picture with them.
But hooligans shouted at them: "He's f***ing press, don't tell them anything!"
We watched together as helpless English fans were pushed forward by the cowards in a surge into the oncoming gardaí, with predictable results.
A photographer colleague had been injured. I and the few remaining snappers took in a scene of chaos. One garda, I felt, had lost it, as I walked around with a colleague's discarded long-range expensive camera; not much use for football action shots now. Fear in the garda's eyes, he ordered me to drop the camera. I responded: "Do your job against the real threat." The garda walked away. In a night of chaos and unpreparedness, it was shambolic, but understandable.
It wasn't until midnight that we finally got off that pitch, ringed by stewards and gardaí as the English contingent was safely gone.
Walking through an eerily silent and locked-down O'Connell Street that night, I still remember one little gouger walking up to a lone garda.
"You whacked dem," he smiled - and got a smile back.