Thursday 20 June 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Billy Bingham stoked the venom from the sideline, orchestrating the malignant chorus with his waving hands'


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

Tommy Conlon

It's not often we see in TV pictures of vintage football games, supporters giving the old V-sign to the camera. Usually we see a heaving mass of excited men wearing scarves and rosettes and waving wooden rattles.

These are supposed to be more innocent times. But some of the gentlemen who were filmed at Windsor Park in December 1957 were in no humour for a bit of playful gurning for the benefit of Pathé News, or whomever was capturing the occasion.

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Northern Ireland were playing Italy in the final qualifying game for the World Cup in Sweden the following year. It was win or bust for the home side. But a blanket of fog left the Hungarian referee stranded in London. Italian FA officials in Belfast refused to accept a compromise appointment organised by the Irish Football Association. FIFA stepped in at the last minute and changed the status of the fixture to a mere friendly. The news was announced over the tannoy to a crowd of some 40,000, many of whom were shipyard workers who'd been granted a half-day to attend the match. Hence the old Harvey Smith gesture as the camera panned across a terrace packed with furious locals.

The footage is one of many sequences of glorious black-and-white film to feature in a new documentary which was shown on RTÉ1 last week. Division - The Irish Soccer Split tells the fascinating story of how this small island ended up with not one but two national football teams.

The documentary is marred only by a heavily overwritten script. But it provides a classic example of how sports history can encapsulate the wider social and political backdrop of a time and place. The upheavals that convulsed Ireland in the late 19th and most of the 20th century were mirrored in the newly-flourishing realm of organised sport. And the short answer as to how the island ended up with two teams is, of course, that we ended up with two countries. But there is a world of incident involving a rich cast of characters in the decades before and after the split.

The IFA had been early out of the blocks, becoming just the fourth national football association in the world after England, Scotland and Wales. Naturally, it was a Belfast-centred organisation from the beginning. So when the Leinster Football Association was established in Dublin in 1892, the tug-of-war between both cities wasn't long fomenting, albeit that the LFA was affiliated to the IFA, and therefore subordinate to the mother ship in the north east.

Dublin became increasingly resentful of an apparent Belfast bias in the administrative wheeling and dealing that was soon part and parcel of the emerging science of sports-committee-craft. The tensions that were inevitably generated by geographical distance were compounded by the unionist-nationalist divide among the blazers of both cities.

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The founding of the Football Association of the Irish Free State in 1921 should have drawn a clean and separate line between the two bodies from then on - in theory at any rate. The Free State sent a team to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where they lined out under the tricolour and stood to attention for a hastily-chosen anthem - 'Let Erin Remember', the ballad previously popularised by the famous composer and lyricist Thomas Moore.

And yet, for decades afterwards, various players continued to represent the two Irelands now fielding teams at international level. It wasn't until 1950 that FIFA called a final halt to the carry-on.

The team that was eventually, officially designated as Northern Ireland beat Italy in their re-scheduled qualifier, in January 1958, and duly took its place among the nations of the earth in Sweden that summer. Billy Bingham was a member of that stellar side and as manager famously brought Northern Ireland to the '82 and '86 World Cups.

Down south, that groundbreaking team was cheered at those tournaments as though they were our own. Most people in the Republic did not know or care who was Protestant and who was Catholic. Although we probably knew, if we were asked, that someone named Sammy McIlroy hadn't in all likelihood played much hurling in his youth.

In November 1993, a large swathe of the same southern population lost its innocence when it came to the nature of Northern Irish soccer. We were back in Windsor Park. The Republic of Ireland under Big Jack needed a point, at least, to qualify for USA '94; Northern Ireland had nothing to play for - or so we thought.

The sectarian poison, the viciousness of the bigotry unleashed by many of the home supporters that night, left us shocked. The V-signs of December '57 were a gesture of peace and love by comparison. For that swathe of the population down south that had switched off completely from the Troubles, the veil had suddenly and irrevocably parted. The country had tuned in to watch a football match; they came face to face with depraved Loyalism that night; they couldn't unsee it; the sickness in this corner of the island was graphically revealed. The goodwill in the Republic that had shone down on Bingham's team in the 1980s suddenly evaporated. Bingham himself had stoked the venom from the sideline, orchestrating the malignant chorus with his waving hands. It is a legacy that has followed him to the grave.

Near the end of the documentary, a few talking heads discuss the possibility of one team some day representing the whole island - the old aspiration of a United Ireland XI. The film-makers didn't dwell too long on the subject because there isn't much to say; it is not remotely feasible right now; there is virtually no clamour for it on either side of the border. It barely exists even as a Utopian piety nowadays.

We have gone our separate ways, and maybe it is just as well.

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