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The night Lansdowne became a battlefield

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An injured  English fan following the riot at the Ireland v England game at Landsdowne Road in 1995. Pic David Conachy

An injured English fan following the riot at the Ireland v England game at Landsdowne Road in 1995. Pic David Conachy

An injured English fan following the riot at the Ireland v England game at Landsdowne Road in 1995. Pic David Conachy

AS IRELAND prepare to face England in an friendly at Wembley next Wednesday. EAMON CARR recalls the notorious night that the teams last met 18 years ago.

It was the night that Ireland came face to face with the snarling face of terrace thuggery.

An occasion that marked the end of Ireland's sporting innocence. It was an evening when hatred, stupidity and violence stuck the boot into everything that's aspirational and glorious about sport and forced a friendly match between Ireland and England to be abandoned with just 21 minutes of football played.

In February 1995, television viewers tuned in hoping to see Jack Charlton's Ireland team repeat the heroics of Euro '88 by beating our noisy neighbours in a friendly match at Lansdowne Road. What they witnessed was a furious pageant of prejudice that spat in the face of decency and took a Stanley knife to Ireland's happy-go-lucky shaky shamrock culture.

I was there that night, one on which knuckleheaded thugs sent shockwaves round the world as they rampaged through the creaky stadium.

Drunken yobs ripped up seats and hurled wood, metal clamps and chunks of cement from the upper deck of the West Stand on to the pitch and spectators below. Luckily no-one died, but over 50 people were injured and while first aid workers and ambulance staff dealt with injuries, some hooligans urinated on those below. The Garda riot squad, which had been on standby, arrived too late to contain the violence and save the match.

It wasn't immediately clear this was an orchestrated campaign of mayhem stoked by British neo-nazi extremists intent on hijacking a high-profile match. But it should have been.

 

 

Rumours suggested there'd be trouble. However, because Ireland had played England four times in the previous eight years without major incident, apart from flare-ups when England visited five years earlier, the authorities opted for a softly-softly approach.

Their complacency was to prove costly.

The match was a sell-out. 4,500 of the 45,000 in the stadium were England supporters. Not all of them were hooligans. But that afternoon it was evident that members of the militant neo-nazi Combat 18 group were in town.

On the way to the ground, Ireland fans with painted faces were bewildered by the invective. Unprovoked jeers of "IRA scum" and "IRA bastards" went beyond usual pre-match banter.

In the stadium the usual big match tension was replaced by an air of incipient violence. Both national anthems were all but drowned out by booing and chanting. The arrival of President Mary Robinson was greeted with nazi-style salutes and a wall of vocal abuse including "Ulster is British" and "Sieg heil".

In 1995, the Peace Process was at a delicate stage with an official ceasefire between the paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland.

Combat 18 were associated with the British National Party. They'd infiltrated certain football hooligan gangs and were beginning to make their presence felt at league matches in England. Avowedly racist and right-wing, they used the Lansdowne Road match to grab the headlines by chanting "No surrender to the IRA".

When the match kicked-off, Irish supporters tried to ignore the sectarian and racist abuse. And that night, the Ireland players seemed to be hitting a vein of form. A free-flowing move towards the South Terrace resulted in a goal from David Kelly on 21 minutes. Tragically, it became the cue for the thugs to begin rioting. As missiles rained down on them, supporters on the lower deck scrambled onto the pitch. Stewards and police were unprepared for the ferocity of the onslaught. Dutch referee Dick Jol, brother of Fulham manager Martin Jol, was forced to take the players off the pitch.

Chaotic scenes, with distraught fans on the pitch, first-aid workers attending to the injured and the police appearing unable to cope, bore an uncomfortable echo of the Hillsborough disaster.

But this was different. This was an orchestrated bout of violence that shamed true England supporters and sickened everyone who witnessed it.

The iconic image from the event wasn't of the rat-like riot leaders venting their spleen. It was the face of young James Eager, trapped on the pitch watching wide-eyed as the horror unfolded around him.

The referee was forced to abandon the match and Ireland manager Jack Charlton was livid. "It's a disaster for Irish football," he said.

The England players were equally horrified. Nick Barnby said, "It's a disgrace. Spoiled by a mindless few. They weren't football fans."

The Gardai made 40 arrests and the repercussions were felt for years afterwards. It was a night of shame.

hnews@herald.ie


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