Wednesday 18 September 2019

Bingham stoked fire with plans to 'stuff the Republic'

Billy Bingham. Photo: Ray McManus
Billy Bingham. Photo: Ray McManus

Jim Gracey

When all sense, sanity and humanity go out the window, months like October and November 1993 occur.

For those young and fortunate enough to have been spared the horrors of that time, the staging of a football match between two neighbouring countries might seem inconsequential, a distraction even, when set against the backdrop of the terrible atrocities on the Shankill Road, at Greysteel and the litany of murderous attacks less well documented amid the 25-year anniversaries just marked.

In a bloody two weeks, a total of 23 people were indiscriminately slaughtered in a vicious circle of tit for tat.

How could football matter at a time like that, an outsider might wonder, let alone become a conduit for further division? Didn't football, like all sports here, help provide a semblance of normality in the most abnormal of times?

But in a pervasive, poisonous atmosphere, with tensions ratcheted up to 11 and base instincts bringing out the worst in even the normally moderate, Northern Ireland v the Republic in a high-stakes Windsor Park World Cup qualifying fixture in the aftermath was a nightmare scenario for seriously overstretched security forces.

Read more: A night in November: 25 years on

As the death toll on the streets mounted and the temperature gauge of community relations plummeted as fast as fear and tensions sent the mercury rising, the game became a focal point for all the wrong reasons, a microcosm, it can now be seen, of the toxicity of the time.

In the days leading up to the Wednesday evening kick-off, tensions were ramped up and seized upon. Even the two managers, Billy Bingham and Jack Charlton, the most agreeable and outreaching of men, were later to regret uncharacteristic, incendiary outbursts, ignited by the heat of the moment.

Bingham was facing into his last match as Northern Ireland manager, having announced his retirement, and in the normal course of events, with his team out of the World Cup running, the game would have become a celebration of his glorious 13-year reign with two British Home Championships and qualification for two World Cups, Spain '82 and Mexico '86, to his eternal credit.

Charlton, for his part, found himself needing a win to make his second successive World Cup finals, though a draw would suffice, depending on the outcome of the Spain-Denmark game in Seville.

He would never have expected his biggest football rivals to roll over and rubber stamp the Republic's US visa. But Charlton, his FAI officials and Republic fans were shocked when Bingham, renowned for his considered and measured choice of words, lashed out in his first pre-match press conference, describing players recruited by the Republic under the parentage rule as 'mercenaries' and vowing to wreck their World Cup hopes.

"They couldn't find a way of making it with England or Scotland," he said of players like Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. "I take a totally cynical view of the whole business. I am not prepared to skirt the issue, the same as I am happy to state it is our intention to stuff the Republic."

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

Any hope of a lid being kept on the pressure cooker disappeared when FAI officials made behind-the-scenes moves to have the game moved to Old Trafford, on the grounds of safety concerns for their players and fans. An understandable request on their part, given the murderous climate. But Northern Ireland fans reacted furiously, believing the move to be a ploy to gain an advantage in pursuit of their World Cup dream.

And it wasn't just the fans frothing, the mood being reflected in an astonishing back page editorial in the normally uncontroversial 'News Letter' which abandoned all logical argument to declare: "We will tell you why they don't want to come here. It is because they are yellow!"

In the event, Fifa accepted IFA and security force assurances that Windsor could safely host the game, albeit with 2,000 police, soldiers, stewards and barking attack dogs deployed.

The Republic team had flown up, rather than drive, for security reasons, and on their team bus on the short journey to the stadium, they were accompanied by armed guards, dressed in tracksuits. As sectarian abuse rained down from the stands, Paul McGrath and team-mate Terry Phelan suffered the added indignity of racial taunts.

But the fiercest torrent engulfed Alan Kernaghan, the Bangor-raised Protestant who had played for Northern Ireland schoolboys but whose path to the senior team was blocked because both his parents had been born in England.

Amid the rancour, a football match broke out and in the circumstances, it was understandably dire until Jimmy Quinn scored a stunning volley for Northern Ireland in the 71st minute, changing the whole qualification picture for the Republic, who now needed to score.

Once again, caught up in the fevered atmosphere, Bingham's No 2, Jimmy Nicholl, now assistant to Michael O'Neill, reacted as he has never done in his football life, before or since, by shouting 'Up yours' (or words to that effect) in the face of Charlton's No 2, Maurice Setters.

While that was happening, Charlton was turning to substitute striker Tony Cascarino to hopefully get him that goal. But Cascarino, for the only time in his career, had forgotten to put his kit on. When Cascarino unzipped his tracksuit top, all he saw was a plain cotton T-shirt. "Jack's face turned purple," Cascarino recalled. "I thought he was going to have a heart attack."

On the final whistle and with their qualification still not confirmed, Charlton made a beeline for Bingham.

"I spotted Billy talking among his players and moved in his direction to congratulate him on his retirement and compliment him on a good game," he said in his autobiography. "At least that was my intention. Instead, in a moment I still find difficult to understand, I pointed a finger at him and blurted 'Up yours too, Billy'."

Charlton says he regretted the words instantly, not least because it hadn't been Bingham who gestured at Setters in the first place, and apologised shortly after. A surreal night ended with Charlton presenting Bingham with an award to mark his retirement. "Some of the people who'd been abusing me all evening are stood there cheering. I think that said it all about a crazy, noisy night."

Irish Independent

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