It was all made too easy for them.
England’s national soccer team had long since been hijacked by a notorious band of far-right hooligans who had circled the date of February 15, 1995 into their diaries as the night when they could display their brand of nationalism on enemy territory.
As these misguided followers boarded planes and boats and headed to Dublin that spring weekend 25 years ago, the inevitability of what was to follow did little to dilute the impact of the chaos they would cause.
The ‘friendly’ international between the Republic of Ireland and England always had the potential to attract the thuggish element who found their way into the Upper West tier at a Lansdowne Road stadium, with the subsequent abandonment of the sporting contest a failure of society, security and sporting authorities on a grand scale.
The condemnation of the perpetrators was universal, yet there was also a widespread acceptance afterwards that the FAI’s security arrangements around such a high-profile fixture contributed to the mayhem.
Twenty-five years on, the story of one of the darkest nights in the history of Irish football needs to be told as it serves as a reminder that those desperate scenes can never be allowed to unfold again . . .
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The warning signs were there – but they were shamefully ignored.
Some England fans had put the best part of two decades into their efforts to establish themselves as the most despised of their type in world football, as they continually sought confrontation with European police forces at venues all over the continent. This thuggish obsession overrode a desire to see the team they purported to support win matches.
A game against Ireland was perfect for their agenda. Even though the Provisional IRA had declared a ceasefire to their military activities six months before Terry Venables’ England flew to Dublin for a match against Jack Charlton’s Ireland, history should have told those charged with overseeing the security of a game that this was a fixture laced with significance for those eager to cause trouble.
The two previous matches between Ireland and England had been marred by hooliganism. A qualifier game in Dublin in November 1990 was tarnished by clashes between fans on O’Connell Street, while there was also a battle in the Irish exiles’ stronghold of Kilburn High Street in London when the sides met at Wembley the following year.
Yet the FAI and the Gardaí still declared they did not believe there was a need to take special measures to enforce segregation for the 1995 game, with FAI general secretary Seán Connolly insisting he was satisfied with the plans in place ahead of kick-off.
"Security personnel will be on duty, but there will be no structured segregation of fans in the accepted sense," declared Connolly ahead of the match.
"We don’t believe that the situation warrants it."
How those words would come back to haunt him.
Two England fans were arrested the night before the game after they stabbed a local man with a bottle at McGrath’s pub on O’Connell Street and further arrests were made after disturbances on Dublin’s quays and Parnell Street.
Yet authorities seemed to be comfortable with their plans despite warnings from the British National Criminal Service that a number of known offenders were travelling to the match.
"I just hope everyone behaves themselves," observed former England captain Gary Lineker, when I interviewed the England legend at the old Jury’s Hotel just a few yards away from what was to become a crime scene less than 24 hours later.
The inevitability of what followed in Dublin 4 cast all involved in a bad light.
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IT was not a typical game night in the capital, with the unusual 6.15pm kick-off time leading to inevitable traffic chaos on Dublin’s streets.
As you walked from Jury’s Hotel, it didn’t take long to observe the kind of England ‘supporter’ that was being herded towards the stadium, as they sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ in a singular note that they adopted en masse.
There were suggestions that the playing of the British national anthem would help to bring the already boiling frustrations of England fans to the surface, yet it was a moment in the game on the pitch that seemed to do just that.
The Nazi salutes the English mob had offered up to greet the playing of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ confirmed this was a group intent on attention-seeking on a grand scale and when David Kelly opened the scoring for Ireland when he fired a shot past England goalkeeper David Seaman in the 22nd minute of the match, the touch-paper was ignited.
David Platt then saw what he thought was an equaliser for a red-shirted England side ruled out by an offside flag and with that a reservoir of venom began to flow from one corner of the ground.
As they began to kick and break the crumbling seats that were, in theory, meant to house supporters keen to watch a football match, huge chunks of wood, metal and seating began to rain down onto the pitch and, ironically, on to their fellow England supporters who were seated in the stand below them.
Quickly, Dutch referee Dick Job appreciated the gravity of the situation and ushered the players from the field of play.
They would not return.
* * * * *
The players caught up in the chaos recall the occasion as a lost opportunity, with England midfielder Paul Ince admitting the trouble that got the game abandoned took him by surprise.
"I remember it all happened very quickly," recalls Ince.
"It was a pretty hostile atmosphere and you knew it was going to be a battle against that Ireland team because of the way they played, but we didn’t imagine it would end like that.
"One minute you are playing, focusing on the game and then suddenly the referee is telling you to get off and you realise it is the England fans causing trouble again.
"I just assumed they’d get the guys out and start the game again, but it never happened."
Ireland goalscorer David Kelly saw what could have been his breakthrough night on the international stage ended by the riot, with his reflections of the moment tarnished by personal frustrations.
"I just remember being so proud to have been picked to play in the game against England," Birmingham-born Kelly said. "They were building up to Euro ’96, had a great team and the spice between the two sides was added to by the history between the two nations, but the politics off the pitch were nothing to do with us.
"We had a man who had won the World Cup with England as our manager and I was born in England, but we wanted to beat them more than anything else and none of us could imagine what was going to happen."
The sight of angry Ireland manager Jack Charlton marching onto the field to confront fans and assess the carcass of the match that had been abandoned symbolised the needlessness of it all.
Here was an England hero from their 1996 World Cup-winning team on the end of cries of ‘traitor, traitor, traitor’ from a mob that had brought shame on their country.
* * * * *
The post-mortem on the night stretched for weeks, with one group keen to claim the ‘glory’ for their display of vile nationalism.
English football authorities were fully aware of the orchestrators of the trouble in Dublin, yet the notion that it was an organised plot from a coherently-run hooligan firm was swiftly dismissed by security services, who were keen to downplay the rising menace of a thug club who called themselves Combat 18.
A neo-Nazi group led by Paul David Sargent (who went by the name of Charlie) proudly claimed full responsibility for getting the game abandoned in an effort to raise the profile of an organisation that was determined to establish itself as the defenders of a white Britain.
This was a small band of individuals that saw its members wear C18 T-shirts – a badge of honour for skinhead thugs eager to associate themselves with the group – and the ideology they promoted and the methods they wanted to use to enforce their views were given a showcase at Lansdowne Road in February 15, 1995.
For those of us unfortunate enough to travel back to London with these perpetrators of crimes against sport the following day, the experience of sharing airspace with them left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
As they gathered on board a mid-afternoon flight out of Dublin to toast their 'victory' over the Irish, they delighted in their association with a hooligan cult.
They passed newspapers around the plane, proudly and shamelessly spotting images of themselves and their comrades who had carried out this successful ‘mission’ on enemy territory.
Some who had been toasting their glory then had the audacity to stand in front of waiting TV cameras at Luton airport and put on an acting display to claim they had been horrified by what they had witnessed.
The tragedy was that they were allowed to disappear into the night once they disembarked, doubtless encouraged by the events of their great night in Dublin to wreak havoc on another foreign land sooner rather than later.
As for their 'leader' Sargent, his days as the figurehead of Combat 18 were not to last for much longer – he was handed a life sentence for murder in January 1998.
* * * * *
The cost of that infamous night 25 years ago was as much symbolic as it was game-changing for football on these islands.
English football had already begun a rebranding exercise that was sparked by the horrors of the Hillsborough disaster six years earlier, with the glitzy new stadiums that are now the norm in the Premier League rarely a stage for such old-style soccer thuggery.
Hooliganism is not dead in this new century, but it is as dormant as it will ever be and when Ireland hosted England in a Dublin friendly in 2015, the muted atmosphere around the rebuilt Aviva Stadium contrasted the toxic, hate-filled war zone created by the Combat 18 ideology from on that night 25 years ago.
The events of February 15, 1995 won’t be forgotten – but we can be reasonably confident that they will never be repeated.