Saturday 1 October 2016

English football's long black night had never looked so far from dawn

Published 06/06/2015 | 02:30

'That night was marked not only by the violence and hatred but a terrible sense of futility. It seemed it was a problem beyond resolution'
'That night was marked not only by the violence and hatred but a terrible sense of futility. It seemed it was a problem beyond resolution'

In the small hours of the morning that followed the violent squalor of Lansdowne Road, February, 1995, there was a heavy downpour that invited the half-whimsical thought that perhaps some of the worst of it might be washed away.

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Twenty years is a long time for such wish-fulfillment but in Dublin tomorrow there is reason to look back with strained belief that there could be a time when football was so besieged by such virulent hatred that the idea of another match between Ireland and England in the city seemed so much more than implausible.

Rather it was an affront to the senses. The virus which had spawned so much English football hooliganism across the world had rarely seemed so firmly rooted.

Certainly it was easy and forlorn to recall the words of the fine old manager of Tottenham Hotspur, Bill Nicholson, uttered in the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam 23 years earlier.

As the Dutch police baton charged rioting Spurs fans, as 200 injured were taken to hospital, Nicholson went on the stadium public address and declared in a shaking voice: "You people make me feel ashamed to be an Englishman."

Resonance

There were countless occasions across the world to provoke such emotion but the resonance of Nicholson's cry had a special force that night in Dublin.

It came with the sickening sense that football was not so much still under persistent invasion as formally occupied by a malevolent force. Jack Charlton's rage and bewildering is still vivid, as is the resignation of his England counterpart Terry Venables. "Go home, go home," Charlton bellowed.

Graham Kelly, secretary of the English FA, was less forthright, saying that it was too soon to say what implications there might be for Euro 96, to be staged in England the following summer.

That tournament staggered through without major incident until a full-scale riot in Trafalgar Square on the night England were expelled by Germany.

There was a fatalism in English football that in these more tranquil days may be hard to imagine.

It is easy to recall another care-worn aside by Kelly three years after the Dublin riot. It was in Marseille after French riot police had fired tear gas into hordes of rioting fans on the waterfront before England's World Cup tie with Tunisia.

"Is there a solution?" Kelly was asked. He grimaced and said, "It's hard to think of one short of mass executions."

There wasn't too much black humour in Dublin. Just the pervasive memory of a bewildered Irish boy in the arms of his father as the worst of the rioting unfolded - and a Garda inspector holding up a piece of iron that he said had missed his head by mere inches.

No doubt there will be some contention on the terraces tomorrow and equally certain is that an Irish triumph would have a sweetness unconnected with its meaning to next week's vital European Championship qualifier with Scotland.

But then the worst of that old acrimony is locked away in a hateful archive of lemming self-destruction.

Martin O'Neill and Roy Hodgson have both spoken of a new age of Anglo-Irish football relations and there is some irony in the fact that while football has never been so bedevilled by problems off the field, these no longer reside on much better ordered terraces but in the offices of power.

That night in Dublin was marked not only by the violence and the carefully orchestrated hatred but a terrible sense of futility. It seemed that there was a problem beyond resolution.

It was embodied in a new and institutionalised hatred, a nihilism utterly detached from any of the games we play.

The anti-IRA chants came from some dreadful Orwellian image of a malignant, robotic future. The tearing up of seats and the throwing of missiles was a relentless, methodical chore. It felt like the end of something, of some basic, communal decency.

And then, before dawn, the rain came. English football's long, black night was so far from over, but then as we walked through the puddles no doubt we would have settled for a mere 20 years.

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