Friday 19 April 2019

'A few minutes into the game we heard an anguished whisper from the son saying, 'Daddy, there's five Fenians in front of us''


Northern Ireland captain Alan MacDonald and his Republic counterpart Andy Townsend lead out the teams under the watchful eyes of the RUC. Photo: Sportsfile
Northern Ireland captain Alan MacDonald and his Republic counterpart Andy Townsend lead out the teams under the watchful eyes of the RUC. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell talks to southern fans who made the journey, and a Northern Irish player whose family had a foot in both camps.

The build-up

When committed fan Gary Spain first sourced tickets for the Republic of Ireland's final World Cup '94 qualifier in Belfast, he had no idea how important and symbolic an occasion it would turn out to be.

Spain, a passionate football follower from Limerick, had made long-range plans to ensure he would be present for the November 17 encounter at Windsor Park.

At the beginning of Northern Ireland's qualification campaign, he contacted the IFA HQ to secure a block booking ticket for all of their home matches. His order was refused when he gave a Galway address. A call back with a friend's Northern Irish address changed his luck.

But as Group 3 progressed, and it became clear that the campaign would go down to the wire for Jack Charlton's side, Spain went looking for more.

He gave his ticket to a Northern Ireland fan and bought five tickets for November 17 through the IFA so he could go with pals; the only caveat was that they had to be purchased on a two-match deal with the September qualifier with Latvia. "Things were quite normal in Northern Ireland around then," says Spain. "Or as normal as it could have been."

That all changed on October 23 when two IRA men walked into a fish shop on Shankill Road carrying a bomb which detonated ahead of schedule.

Ten people died, including the bomber. It kicked off a brutal wave of revenge attacks on the Catholic community, the worst of which was the Greysteel massacre in which members of the UDA opened fire on a Halloween party in a pub in the Co Derry village. The opening shot was accompanied by a shout of 'Trick or Treat'.

It was one of the darkest periods of the Troubles and, suddenly, the prospect of the Republic of Ireland coming to Belfast sprung to the top of the news agenda. FAI officials sought to get it moved to a neutral venue, with safety of travelling supporters one of the arguments presented. FIFA did not play ball with that idea.

Jack Charlton is welcomed back to Dublin Airport by Taoiseach Albert Reynolds Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Charlton is welcomed back to Dublin Airport by Taoiseach Albert Reynolds Photo: Sportsfile

Read more: A night in November: 25 years on

Spain's potential list of companions fell by the wayside, citing official advice. His Kerry pal Tim Doyle had joined him at the 1988 World Cup qualifier between the sides in Belfast and was committed to going again. The fact that he would be attending ended up as the subject of a quarter-page story on the back page of 'The Kingdom' newspaper.

Another friend was begged not to travel by his father and pulled out. The owners of the other tickets made their excuses although one was dispersed to a stranger.

"We couldn't get rid of the tickets," recalls Spain, who was left with two spares. "I was working in Galway and offered them to loads of people that followed the team home and away. These were £10 each at face value."

Security advice ruled that Charlton's team should fly to Belfast rather than taking the bus. The pockets of visiting fans had to choose between rail and road; they were advised against wearing colours.

Match day

In the end, Spain did find a home for his spare tickets. Two friends of friends from Co Limerick who had never been to a football match in their lives volunteered to go and they cadged a lift.

"They were nice lads who knew nothing about football," says Spain. "And they'd never been to Northern Ireland before. We didn't even know their second names."

This became apparent when they met an Ulster Defence Regiment checkpoint just across the border. Names were requested. Gary and Tim tersely gave theirs. Eyes turned to the back seat where an enthusiastic voice barked out: "Michael Collins!"

"I remember Tim looking at me and saying that he better not be joking," laughs Spain. "But that was actually his name. We were just let go on then.

Read more: Bingham stoked fire with plans to 'stuff the Republic'

"Was I worried about travelling? I wasn't actually. I couldn't comprehend missing the game and I was 27 then, I was single. I had been to Northern Ireland a few times.

"I was cautious and drove in daylight because of the situation and arranged to stay with friends of mine in Hillsborough so I would be driving back down the next day. I arranged parking with my company's office in Belfast as I reckoned that would be safer than having a southern car around the ground. And we went into the ground as soon as it opened as we felt that was wise."

The tickets were for the lower deck of the North Stand. "Brilliant seats, right on the halfway line," he continues. "And it was very relaxed at first. I had the radio on. An hour before the kick-off, San Marino went 1-0 up against England.

"We were having a laugh about that and chatting to the people around us. We didn't feel threatened. Loads of them knew where we were from.

"Around five minutes before kick-off a crowd came in from the pub and the atmosphere changed in seconds. It wasn't so much what they were chanting; you just felt very tense. We totally shut up at that point and went silent. We didn't even talk to each other."

RIVALS: The Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams line up before their clash at Windsor Park, Belfast, in 1993

Doyle has two specific memories. In the late rush, he heard a very young son ask his father why there were no tricolours or southern fans. "There'll be none of them here tonight," replied the father as they found their seat in the row behind the incognito visitors.

"I'll never forget this," said Doyle taking up the tale. "A few minutes into the game we could all hear an anguished whisper from the son saying, 'Daddy, there's five Fenians in front of us'. There was no response from Daddy."

Fenian number five had travelled independently and was not known to the others. He had no desire to speak. Doyle established he was from Killorglin, and had his own method of communication. Every time there was a dodgy chant, the Kerryman would press his foot down on Doyle's shoe. "My big toe was in agony at the end of it," he laughs.

With Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham conducting the crowd, abuse was raining down on visiting players. Alan Kernaghan, a former ballboy at Windsor Park, was despised because he played for the Republic - the IFA wouldn't pick him because he wasn't born in Northern Ireland.

"All the players were getting it, but he got horrific abuse," says Spain.

Niall Quinn has spoken of his shock at hearing the phrase 'Trick or Treat' getting an airing amid the rancour.

The American dream appeared to be slipping away when Jimmy Quinn put Northern Ireland ahead. But Alan McLoughlin's volley silenced the din. Spain was so engrossed in the match that he forgot where he was.

"I jumped when we scored. It was purely instinctive. I was the only one in the whole North Stand. We were gone, we were out so I lost it. I was up in the air thinking, 'Oh my God, what have I done.' The other boys hadn't moved."

Doyle remembers that the whole section had remained on their feet after Quinn's goal and the view was obscured. He gave his pal a dig in the ribs to try and halt his impulsive reaction. No damage done.

"The guy in front of me was one of the worst bigots," continues Spain, "He'd been at it all through the game. Singing the Billy Boys and screaming at Alan Kernaghan. He looked around in a bit of shock.

"And then he asked me what the score was in Seville."

Alan McLoughlin scores for the Republic of Ireland in the Windsor Park cauldron of 1993. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Ireland's qualification was reliant on ten-man Spain holding out for a victory against Denmark. When the full-time whistle blew in Belfast, the other match was ongoing. A posse of locals lingered around to listen.

"Tim and the boys had disowned me, they'd walked away at full-time," says Spain. "I think Tim had said to the lads, 'If we have to help them kill the Fenian bastard, grab his car keys'. But I didn't feel under any threat. There was a policeman at each entrance and the guy at our one had checked the England score with me so I felt he had an eye on us."

It was eventually confirmed that Ireland were through. The angry man in front offered his own take on that. "Jammy bastards," was his parting message.

The opposition

For 26-year-old Northern Ireland defender Gary Fleming, the build-up to November 17 was accompanied by the knowledge that he had friends back in Derry who had already booked tickets to America to support the Republic of Ireland.

This was the reality of being a Catholic in that dressing room. They knew their nearest and dearest had mixed feelings.

Within Bingham's camp, there were no divisions whatsoever. Both communities were represented and the banter between the respective groups actually helped to strengthen bonds.

But there were idiosyncrasies that the Catholics became used to. Fleming vividly recalls his home debut at Windsor Park - a 1987 encounter with England - where he was the target for flak.

"I was walking down the tunnel and there were some people rattling the fences and shouting, 'F**k off back to Derry you Fenian bastard'," he reflects. "That's just the way it was. You get a tiny minority."

Fleming was close to Anton Rogan, who became a target for grief once he joined Celtic in 1986 - a portent of what was to come for Neil Lennon. "We knew not to walk out with Anton," he quips.

Another running joke was related to another West Belfast man, the former Luton and Manchester United defender Mal Donaghy, who explained to his team-mates that his brother would always time his arrival at home games for five minutes after kick-off so he wouldn't have to stand up for the anthem.

"You couldn't have got a tighter-knit group of lads," stresses Fleming. "It was half and half and you'd have lads from the Shankill and Derry and Andersonstown and all places mixed together. It (the differences) never came into serious conversation. It was light-hearted."

Still, the Northern Irish camp were aware of the vibe around the Republic visit. The Barnsley player had followed the dreadful news from home which attracted worldwide attention to the game.

His father would travel to games with the same group from the Rosemount area of Derry. One of their party was a Catholic priest who still decided to go ahead and attend on November 17 but took suitable precautions. "He had to come in disguise," Fleming chuckles. "Dress down a little."

The full-back can remember the intensity of the contest, the building pressure on the visitors who became more animated as the minutes ticked by. John Aldridge's growing frustration stood out.

"You were aware of the abuse the Republic were getting," he recalls. "It was highly charged. But once you're on the pitch, I guess you are concentrated on the game."

Fleming was one of the first to jump onto the shoulders of Jimmy Quinn when he opened the scoring. He would hear all about later on. "My brother had watched the game in our local pub," he explained. "And he got some stick over that. I went back to Derry that night and went out for a couple of drinks and the locals were telling me I was lucky that Alan McLoughlin scored. They were joking that they were going to go down and knock my mother's windows in otherwise. It was good banter. That was the area. It was Celtic fans. Republic fans."

That night in November: Post-match tension in Windsor Park for World Cup game in 1993.

Fleming - who retired early due to injury and now runs his own physiotherapy practice in Nottingham - remembers a peaceful end to the evening after all the hostility that went before.

Niall Quinn came into the dressing room afterwards to say a few words. The striker had been touched by the fact that Northern Ireland's captain, the late Alan McDonald, had gone in to congratulate their World Cup-bound rivals. Fleming was smiling away to himself.

"There was obviously people involved on our side who wanted to stop the Republic from going through," he said. "And the funny thing was that before the game Big Mac was one of them, he was in the dressing room roaring saying, 'Let's get them into them. We don't want them to go to America.'

"But Big Mac was very friendly with a lot of the Republic lads and I think the draw was the best result for everybody at the time. Nobody lost the game; the Republic qualified. And I think everybody was pleased for them that they had."

That's why Fleming's take on the occasion is favourable. He remembers the aforementioned home debut against England as a much more fraught affair. A car bomb went off nearby before the match. "You could see the smoke," he says. "And you could see the English players visibly shocked."

In that context, 1993 went off without a hitch. "It could have been one of them nights where something stupid happened," says Fleming. Worst fears were not realised.

The aftermath

Spain recalls the stadium emptying very quickly. His contingent didn't hang about either. "Once it was over in Seville our reaction was, 'Great, let's get out of here.' I don't remember seeing any familiar faces around the ground."

For Charlton's side, the celebrations would only really begin on their flight back home where they were greeted at the airport by jubilant crowds.

The next day's 'Evening Herald' detailed the party. Most of the team went from the revelry straight to the airport to fly back to England.

"The party is only starting," Roy Keane told reporters. At check-out, he couldn't find his ticket, but discovered he had Packie Bonner's passport and sent it back to the hotel. Carefree times.

But the crowd scenes in Belfast, the sectarian chants and all that went with it, did prompt a strong reaction in political circles. Fine Gael TD Austin Deasy called for Billy Bingham to be prosecuted for incitement to national hatred. He also called for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to be kept apart in future draws.

Deasy's wish was not granted and the Republic of Ireland were back on Belfast soil within 12 months - on November 16 to be precise - for a Euro '96 qualifier. Spain made the trip again, as Charlton's charges registered a smooth 4-0 success.

A larger number of away fans made the journey as the IRA ceasefire in August and the development of the peace process had allayed fears.

Ironically enough, Spain recalls more trouble in the stands during that game as goals were openly acclaimed by southern voices and scuffles broke out. "A lot of people took exception to our fans celebrating," he says. "It was more pushing and shoving than anything else."

Ireland haven't been back since but Spain has. The avid football tourist goes to Windsor Park for Northern Ireland games if his schedule allows. "It's very inclusive and totally different now," he asserts.

He remains good mates with Doyle, who now lives in St Louis. They never saw their travelling companions from Limerick again. Or the toe-tapping Kerryman, although his fellow countyman is convinced he was a recognised face from local politics.

Doyle emigrated in 2003 and has dined out on his Belfast experience on countless occasions. 'Exhilarating' is the word that keeps springing to his mind.

That night in November was of its time. Those present will never forget it.

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