Wednesday 16 October 2019

Lise Hand: The night Combat 18 brought terror to our streets

An English fan is restrained by gardai after rioting at the Republic of Ireland v England friendly at Lansdowne Road in 1995
An English fan is restrained by gardai after rioting at the Republic of Ireland v England friendly at Lansdowne Road in 1995

Lise Hand

Imagine Giovanni Trapattoni feeling the hand of history on his shoulder. Imagine the spectre of potential violence impelling the Ireland manager to plead with the travelling Green Army not to tear open centuries-old wounds which now are slowly healing by singing pro-IRA chants in the HQ of English football.

Imagine Trap having to do precisely what England manager Roy Hodgson has been obliged to do with his country's fans in the run-up to the England-Ireland match in Wembley tonight, asking them not to sing 'No Surrender' during the playing of the national anthems.

It's simply unimaginable. When it comes to international football, it's literally a game of two haves – in England there has been a tradition of violent, tribal hooliganism, in Ireland there has not.

Which is why, on February 15, 1995, Dublin was so utterly unprepared when England came to Lansdowne Road to play the Republic of Ireland in a friendly. Hooliganism was something that happened elsewhere, but not in our sportsgrounds. Not in Croke Park or Tolka Park or Thomond Park. Tempers may flare and passions spill over – but there were no water-cannons, police horses, cordons or pitched battles. Not then, not ever.

Not even on the proud day in 2007 when 'God Save the Queen' rang out unchallenged in Croker and every Irish person walked a bit taller.

The gardai were oblivious to the danger signs which were everywhere on that day in 1995. This reporter, working for the 'Sunday Independent' at the time, decided to conduct a lunchtime recce of the pubs around the city centre to gauge the mood, garner a bit of colourful copy before the match that evening.

What I found wasn't colour, but darkness and menace on the streets. In one pub close to the Gresham Hotel, there was no Jack's Army-style craic in evidence, just huddles of men silently drinking pints. A request to chat was met with a snarled "f**k off", although one bunch of Londoners – Millwall, Arsenal and Chelsea supporters, they grudgingly revealed – explained they had no tickets. "We'll just storm the turnstiles," they said matter-of-factly.

Around the corner, Madigan's on North Earl Street was hot and heaving with a sea of hopped-up skinheads, mainly from Stoke. They were, they declared, from something called Combat 18. I had no idea what that stood for, had never heard of the white supremacist, neo-Nazi group.

One very drunk skinhead pulled an evil-looking knife out of his jacket and began waving it close to me. "D'you want to see my blade?" he slurred. "I like trouble, see".

The atmosphere was febrile with hostility. The men were in groups talking tactics, and it wasn't football tactics under discussion.

Nearby in The Flowing Tide pub on Abbey Street, a window had been shattered. The rattled barman explained how a group of 30-odd English fans had been drinking quietly, when three other English supporters walked through the door.

All hell had broken loose, said the barman. "The crowd at the bar went bananas – bottles, stools and glasses started flying and they started roaring, 'How dare they come into OUR pub'."

The portents of dooms were staggering up and down the streets for all to see – even the dogs on the city's main thoroughfare knew there would be trouble.

But the forces of law and order were ambushed by the disorder which erupted that night as pieces of wood and metal rained down like spears from the upper tier of the West Stand.

The main emotions of the Irish fans around me were outrage, anger, disgust and fear. But not shock.

When the match was abandoned in ignominy, a group of us headed for a pre-arranged meet-up in Smyth's pub near the stadium. The shutters were rolled down, we knocked and were admitted after the owner checked us, speakeasy-style through a slit in the metal.

Inside, the place was packed with silent Irish fans watching replays of the battle on the telly.

Then there was a knock on the shutters. It was one of our group, Adrian, England fan and avid supporter of Gillingham, who had travelled over for the game. He surveyed the room of Irish people, and his eyes filled with tears. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," he repeated, shamed and betrayed.

The room sprang into action. Consoling pints were placed before him. It wasn't his fault, he was assured. It wasn't the fault of most of the English in the ground. And what's more, the gardai were a bunch of dozy eejits.

How very Irish, I thought. How very quintessentially Irish.

Irish Independent

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