Sunday 18 March 2018

Riot cops, skinheads and bloody terror in the terrace

You could feel the hatred ... there was a forboding atmosphere, recalls Nicky Larkin

The last time the Irish soccer team played England in Dublin, there was a riot in Lansdowne Road. It was 1995 and I was there, aged 11, as benches came hurtling down from tiers above us. Kids with split heads, riot cops splitting more heads. Blood and Union Jacks everywhere.

It was the most exciting moment of my life.

The two teams haven't played each other in Dublin since that bloodstained night in February 1995. But that's about to change today. Except instead of the crumbling ruins of Lansdowne Road, this time the match will be played in the glass and steel surrounds of the Aviva Stadium.

It would be a sickly cliché to say that this change in setting is metaphorically appropriate, given the recent healing between our two nations. It'd be the type of thing you'd hear a hand-wringing politician say.

But the political climate was quite different on those Lansdowne terraces in 95. It was still a couple of years before there was talk of a peace process. Fragile ceasefires interspersed with bombings and shootings were the order of the day.

And Britpop hadn't really kicked off yet either. So the Union Jack was still viewed with mistrust.

Even before the match started, a wall of sound struck me as I walked into the stadium. Over 36,000 Irish fans sung Come On You Boys In Green. It was overwhelming to the senses - the passion, the volume - it was opera.

And in the same way that chant was more than just a chant, this was more than a just a football match. But since the last time the two sides had met - five years previously - a sinister skinhead group had established. This proved to be the catalyst of that blood-soaked night in Dublin.

In 1992 the neo-Nazi White-Power group calling itself Combat 18 was established. Combat 18 initially styled themselves as a 'stewarding service' for the British National Party (BNP) - a group of former National Front extremists that make UKIP look like left-wing hippies by comparison.

By 1995 however, Combat 18 had distanced themselves from the BNP - for being 'too soft'. Instead, they refocused their activities purely on football hooliganism.

So a trip to Dublin was the perfect opportunity for the skinhead thugs to enact some well-planned mayhem. They chanted 'Sieg Heil' and 'No Surrender To The IRA' while Amhran na bhFiann was played. They roared 'Judas' at Jack Charlton. You could feel the hatred; there was a foreboding atmosphere while the anthems were being played.

And yet, nobody expected the worst to actually happen.

It was back in the day when you could stand at internationals. My dad got us right down the front to the barrier, near the half-way line. Then once it was obvious they weren't being used, he hoisted me over the barrier into the empty seats reserved for disabled people. I was pitchside!

I could feel the wind as Terry Phelan sprinted up and down the wing past me. If I reached out my arm I could have touched him. I felt like I was in the middle of it all. It was magical.

And then ironically - to ruin it all - we scored. David Kelly - himself from Birmingham, put one past David Seaman after 20 minutes. The stadium erupted as if we'd won the World Cup.

But Combat 18 weren't impressed. Mobile phones were produced - back in the day when a mobile phone was the size of a bible. Instructions were barked, and a viciously planned operation was quickly launched.

Benches came flying down on us from the upper tiers, advertising hoarding, chairs - anything that could be ripped up was thrown over the side and down onto the Irish fans.

When it became clear people were getting hurt, the referee abandoned the game. We were all ushered out onto the pitch, to escape the debris flying down from the skinheads up above us.

From the safety of the pitch, we could see the wave of violence moving slowly around the upper-tiers of the stadium, as riot cops did battle with neo-Nazi thugs.

It being 1995, the only people in the stadium with mobile phones were busy doing a riot, so there was no way of contacting home to assure our safety. This was a pressing concern for most people - as the whole thing was being played out live on television.

One boy about my age with blonde hair became the icon of the whole event, standing on the pitch looking up at the stands, traumatised. He was on the news, and the front cover of every single paper the next day. I often wonder what he's up to these days. That could've been me.

Hopefully, today's match won't feature neo-Nazi thugs and frightened young fellas.

I reckon the seats are a lot harder to rip up in the Aviva these days than the benches of the crumbling old ruin that was Lansdowne Road.

Sunday Independent

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