English thugs were in Dublin to fight each other, not the Irish says former football hooligan
Ireland and England meet in Dublin for the first time since the infamous Lansdowne Road riots in 1995. We caught up with one former hooligan who was there that night
A plank of wood, hurled down from the top tier onto innocent families below, was the final straw. A day of vicious street fights in Dublin was fair game, according to one former football hooligan. But once normal fans were targeted, enough was enough.
Annis Abraham has been to 351 football grounds throughout the world and as a former member of Cardiff City's infamous firm - the Soul Crew - he has seen enough action off the pitch to publish seven books about his days of fighting football firms throughout England, Wales and the rest of Europe.
Lansdowne Road was one of those 351 football stadiums as he travelled to Dublin with three other Cardiff fans in 1995. Back then, it was different he insists.
The 70s in England saw rampant riots in every town in England on match days. For some, they would never return to football such was the ferocity of the street battles. For others, like Abraham, it became an addiction and almost every Saturday afternoon they would get their fix.
The early 80s saw a shift in the dynamic of football hooliganism as the casual was born. Football thugs swapped their jerseys and scarves for designer clothing like Pringle, Lacoste and Armani and football firms only targeted like-minded casuals who were up for trouble. The normal fan, for want of a better term, was no longer a target.
By 1995, football casuals were causing chaos throughout England and on February 15 of that year, the casual 'code' was thrown out the window as English thugs rioted in Lansdowne Road, attacking innocent Irish families in the West Upper Stand before hurling objects on those below.
What goes through a man's mind to even contemplate going to a football match to fight other fans?
We caught up with Abraham to give us an insight into the mind of a football hooligan at that time.
"Embarrassing" says Abraham, reflecting on events from that night when England fans brought shame on their country.
"I deplored it, totally against it. It was against the tradition of a casual. Football tops should never get touched, people with scarves should never get touched, people who aren’t looking for it shouldn’t get touched."
The finger of blame was quickly pointed at English right-wing gang Combat 18 with anti-Irish "calling cards" found in the stand the next day. At the time, English police admitted they were sceptical about a widespread Combat 18 campaign to travel to Dublin and Abraham agrees.
“No, no, no. There was no truth in anyone actually organising. There was no big clubs that went, it was actually all the smaller clubs. It was your Shewsburys, your Oxfords. The bigger clubs that were there were Sunderland and Newcastle. You didn’t have your Millwalls or your Chelseas. They were mostly youngsters who were over, trying to make a name for themselves," says Abraham.
"This is what people don’t realise. You get groups of lads who come together, they go on the drink. There was no organisation to fight Ireland fans because Ireland was never known to want to fight. So for most people it was a jolly, get drunk. A lot went to fight each other, rival firms.
“The hospitality we received in Ireland from the very start was second to none. I have to say that. The hospitality by the Irish people was second to none. I got the ferry over with three other Cardiff fans and a Portsmouth fan and we were treated brilliantly."
For a man who has seen it all from the Old Den in Millwall to pitched battles with Manchester United's 'Red Army' and Chelsea's 'Headhunters', it must take a lot for Abraham to admit the atmosphere in Dublin the night before and the day of the game was "nasty".
“The night before, there was Birmingham fighting clubs, there was Shrewbury and Oxford like I said. There were teams out looking for each other, they were never going to pick on the Irish. No intention. It was never about going to Ireland and teach them a lesson, never, no interest. Because the top dogs weren’t there, the West Hams, the Millwalls, the Chelseas, all the smaller clubs wanted to make a name for themselves.
“The night before was actually quite nasty on the streets. Some clubs were out for us because we were Cardiff but some clubs welcomed us as well."
While the night before set the scene, Abraham admits that he will never forget the walk from Dublin's city centre to Lansdowne Road.
“On the day of the game, I will never forget that walk from the town centre to the ground. I had arranged to meet Sunderland and came across one pub getting smashed up. I asked one of the lads running off who they were and he said Newcastle. Sunderland were chasing them out of the pub," added Abraham.
“From that moment, I walked down the streets with Sunderland, a lot of teams joined with them. This is what’s weird, Newcastle go with Shrewsbury and Carlisle, little groups join with each other to fight other groups of English.
“Sunderland go with Stoke and we walked with them. And every pub we passed for two miles, mobs of English were fighting each other. I don’t remember one incident of an English fan fighting an Irish fan.
“It was out of control, the police did not have control. It was carnage from the city centre to the ground. By the time they got to the ground Sunderland had a bout 200 in their mob with others joining to become the strongest mob that day."
While he insists the English brutes had no intention of targeting Ireland fans, the atmosphere amongst the travelling supporters was to change once they were inside the ground. They were now as one with club rivalries quickly shoved to one side.
"When I got to the ground there were Irish ticket touts everywhere and they were getting their tickets taken off them, no-one was paying. Merchandise was getting robbed, it was a free for all and the police had no control on it.
“There was about 700 ticketless fans outside the ground when we got there all trying to get in. Next thing you know, a lad got in and opened a gate and let them all in. You ended up with up to 700 extra England fans in an already overcrowded area. There was no-one to stop them. The Irish FA and police were not prepared for this.
“The Irish thought they could give a nice friendly welcome to deal with them but those English fans were not interested in that. There was one aim with that lot, to fight each other on the day.
“But when they were in the ground, they were all together, there was no-one fighting each other. Outside the ground I remember getting punched in the face by a Newcastle fan because he saw me with Sunderland earlier and by the time I had turned around he was gone.
“I had a ticket and didn’t even need it. Once we were in the ground, everyone was together and then the chants went up – ‘No Surrender to the IRA’.
“That’s what’s funny with English fans, they suddenly became one. There was no clubs then, they were all English. The atmosphere suddenly changed but it wasn’t ‘let’s attack the Irish’. It was more show them we are here."
Staunton to Phelan to Sheridan and a pinpoint through ball to David Kelly and it's Ireland 1 England 0. A packed Lansdowne was buzzing.
“Ireland scored out of the blue and 200 Irish fans jumped up in the middle of the English fans and of course these youngsters wanted to make a name for themselves. What really annoyed me and many my age is that the 200 Irish fans were normal families. There was no trouble makers amongst the Irish, none. And they were getting smacked on the way out and things thrown at them.
“What made it worse was a few Irish lads ran onto the edge of the pitch shouting abuse and stuck their fingers up but they were only reacting because they seen Irish fans attacked in their seats.
“The seats starting flying down, I am sure Jack Charlton came over and that made it worse. So he started taking a lot of abuse. More Irish started coming over calling us w*****s and everything. There was no stopping it then.
“There wasn’t a steward to be seen, there was no police to be seen. These Irish fans had to run out of there for their lives with no-one helping them and it was just going to get worse because these youngsters, there was nothing stopping them and there was no-one telling them to stop.
“They were young English hooligans looking to make a name for themselves and there was nothing to be proud of. I was never into wrecking grounds and I have never been interested in picking on non casuals.
“I can’t believe that people got out of there without serious injury. It is unbelievable it never happened that night, unbelievable.
“This was carnage for no reason, no reason at all behind it. It was cowards if you want the truth. The announcement came that the game was be to abandoned and could all England fans remain in their seats.
“Well they thought they were bravado, no-one could control them. People like me knew what was coming and walked out, we wanted no part of this."
Now the proud father of three girls, his hooligan days are well and truly in the past and admits the actions of the English that night may have left ever-lasting scars for some Ireland fans.
“They were scenes that probably put Irish people off football for life and it brought embarrassment to English football. That is one of the most embarrassing games I have been too because you have gone to a country where they don’t want to fight you. It’s not like they went to Argentina.
“It could have been prevented. The Irish authorities needed the help of the English police and they needed to be there from the beginning. I have been to 351 football grounds and that’s the only stadium I have ever seen it allowed to go on without weighing into them.
“They saw it as a success. They thought they put themselves on the scene. When they look back now that they are older they might look back and realise it was nothing to be proud of because they were not up against like-minded people. Most lads in the know are not proud of what happened that night. I have nothing to be ashamed of because I didn’t get involved in it. I was only ever into like-minded lads."
Originally published on February 2, 2015
Read more: Police to clamp down on trouble
For more on that night in Ireland, see http://www.annisabraham.co.uk