Monday 18 December 2017

Ireland 1, Yob FC 0: A night that shamed English football

Damian Corless on how 20 years ago, neo-Nazi thuggery voided a famous Irish victory and slapped the writing on the wall for a sporting landmark

An English fan is restrained by gardai in Lansdowne Road.
An English fan is restrained by gardai in Lansdowne Road.
A casualty of the riots, James Eager
Gardai restrain an English fan during the riots at Lansdowne Road.

Damian Corless

It's an old cliche, but there are times when a picture really does tell a thousand words, and one of those times arrived exactly 20 years ago when the Beautiful Game got a right kicking at Dublin's Lansdowne Road.

The picture in question was of seven-year-old James Eager wrapped in his Irish scarf and cocooned protectively by dad Seamus, rooted petrified on the pitch as bedlam erupted all around. Lumps of wood, bricks and uprooted seats rained down on a milling throng of gardai, officials and fleeing fans. The Upper West Stand of the 99-year-old stadium was being ripped asunder by a raging militia of England football thugs, delighted at the extra throwing length they were afforded by their lofty perch. The look on the face of young James in fact boiled down to just seven words: "It's not supposed to be like this."

His picture of bewildered, betrayed innocence was beamed worldwide, but it impacted with a special force at home, because it reflected the bewildered, betrayed innocence of an entire nation. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

For those pouring into Lansdowne that mid-February teatime in 1995, life as an Irish football fan had been one endless Mardi Gras for as long as almost anyone could remember. The previous decade had brought the valiant adventures, the street parties and mass migrations of Euro '88, Italia '90 and USA '94. The team never actually came close to winning a trophy, but that was beside the point when every footballing stronghold from Germany to Brazil feted the Irish fans as the Best In The World. Ole!

And besides, the players were great. A pantheon of trusty gladiators like Paul McGrath, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge and Roy Keane had been clasped to the nation's bosom, to the point where no Urban District Council meeting could conclude without a motion to make manager, Jack Charlton, a Freeman of somewhere or other. And that was something else to feel good about, that the Greatest Living Irishman (Honorary) was one of England's most revered sporting greats. After 800 years of bickering (depending on who was counting), it really did seem in February 1995 that Ireland's relationship with Britain had never had it so good.

Navan man Pierce Brosnan had recently been signed up to play that most British of heroes, James Bond, while all across Britain, teenage girls were swooning for Dubliners Boyzone. Meanwhile, the first series of that great Irish-British collaboration, Father Ted, was in the can and ready to air.

The other great Irish-British collaboration of the time was the Republic of Ireland outfit itself. The starting line-up against England that night featured just three Irish-born players - Denis Irwin, Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton. The other eight members of the Republic's starting selection were all born in England. One of those was Birmingham-born David Kelly, a journeyman striker nearing the end of his on/off international career. As Kelly and his seven fellow English-born Irishmen lined out alongside their English manager Jack Charlton, there was a toxic taste to the Lansdowne air.

The storm began brewing with the foreplay of the national anthems. The jeering that greeted God Save the Queen from some Irish fans was repaid with interest as the band struck up Amhran na bFiann. The Irish anthem was met by Loyalist anti-IRA songs, chants of "Seig Heil!", nasty Nazi salutes, and a tide of personal abuse at Irish president, Mary Robinson.

For the Irish fans on the ground, and the many more watching on TV, there was something not quite right about the England fans packed into the upper stand. English football had been through the wars over the preceding decade, but had seemed to emerge from its purgatory of soul-searching much the better for it.

Ten years earlier, rioting Liverpool fans were involved in riots that led to the deaths of 39 people at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. The slaughter led to a ban on English clubs, and their unruly fans, from Europe. The Heysel disaster, caused by hooliganism, came just two weeks after 56 supporters died in the Bradford City stadium fire, with the blame this time being fixed squarely on the antiquated Victorian superstructure.

Fate took another cruel twist in 1989 when 95 Liverpool supporters died in an horrific crush at Sheffield's Hillsborough Stadium. That tragedy led directly to the Taylor Report, which blamed the deadly chaos on inept police control, in conjunction with an old stadium no longer fit for purpose.

The Taylor Report sent a wrecking ball through Britain's ancient stadia, with hallowed grounds like Liverpool's Kop and Manchester's Stretford End amongst the terraced spaces bulldozed in favour of all-seater, family-friendly safety. And as the new stadia shot up, new TV money was pouring into the newborn Premier League courtesy of Sky.

As the anthems played at Lansdowne in 1995, it seemed for all the world that, a mere six years after Hillsborough, English football had been transformed out of all recognition. Gone were the bare concrete terraces where the thugs had once roamed free, replaced with bucket seats for all the family.

On the pitch too, the picture had changed from homegrown black'n'white to multicolour swap-shirt, as the great entertainers from around the world followed the lure of the TV money. Just two weeks earlier, one flamboyant import, Eric Cantona, had even injected true grit into this froth with a kung-fu kick on an abusive supporter in an episode headlined "The Shit Hits the Fan".

Minor blips like that aside, everything was rosy in the English garden. As reward for good behaviour, England had been awarded the 1996 European Championship Finals. The Lansdowne friendly was part of the build up to the party billed as Football's Coming Home.

But the banners hanging from the Upper West Stand didn't fit with this cheery melting pot image beamed into countless Irish homes each weekend. There were none in the bright insignia of Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea. Almost all consisted of a red cross on a plain white background, and the names they bore were of Millwall, Walsall, Exeter City, Derby County and other outposts of Little England writ large on the flag of Saint George.

The game itself was 21-minutes old when David Kelly slotted home what should have been the crowning goal of his international career - which it was, for a full six minutes. The goal hit the firing pin on a pre-planned riot and all hell broke loose as anything that wasn't nailed down in the English sector, and much that was, including the ancient bench seating, was converted into missiles.

As much as the fans and the officials, the gardai on duty seemed stunned by the fierce assault, something put under the spotlight by reports that the Irish police had been warned in advance that the neo-Nazi group Combat 18 planned trouble. A swift report by Justice Thomas Finlay found that the gardai had declined an offer of manpower and intelligence by the British authorities that could have snuffed out the threat that led to 20 injuries and 40 arrests. It was not the first such security failure. In 1978, thousands of Loyalist Northern Ireland fans had been escorted by gardai past a building site stocked with stacks of bricks. The ensuing riot was dubbed The Battle Of Lansdowne.

If lessons weren't learnt in 1978, they were in 1995. While Gary Lineker didn't cover himself in glory by appearing to shift some of the blame to the flying benches themselves, it was obvious that the end was nigh for the Victorian stadium. The Finlay Report confirmed that the narrow aisles created bottlenecks easy for the thugs to defend and hard for the gardai to penetrate. The bulldozers trundled into action in May 2007.

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