| 18.2°C Dublin

'It was like Beirut up there'


The last time we played England on home soil was on 15 February 1995, when the game was famously abandoned. This photo shows David Kelly, Republic of Ireland, scoring the opening goal past England goalkeeper David Seaman. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

The last time we played England on home soil was on 15 February 1995, when the game was famously abandoned. This photo shows David Kelly, Republic of Ireland, scoring the opening goal past England goalkeeper David Seaman. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

The last time we played England on home soil was on 15 February 1995, when the game was famously abandoned. This photo shows David Kelly, Republic of Ireland, scoring the opening goal past England goalkeeper David Seaman. Picture: David Maher/SPORTSFILE

HE wore a purple Umbro top and stood maybe 20 yards from the press box, a knife shimmering in his hand. To his immediate right, we could see bottles, timber planks and the steel arms of seats fly out of the west upper stand onto people below. Men with shaven heads made Nazi salutes, whilst bellowing anti-Irish bile. Then the chant turned to "Judas, Judas" as a clearly furious Jack Charlton marched towards the trouble, like a parent about to scold.

Seeing the debris fly, Big Jack suddenly equivocated. Security men surrounded him and you could tell he was being counselled against trying to become peace broker. Reluctantly, Charlton wheeled back towards the players tunnel and, as he did so, fighting broke out on the South Terrace. This game was clearly over.

Those of us assigned to get post-game player quotes had to all but brush past the man with the knife in our haste to the steps at the back of the stand. He seemed impervious to our very existence, just grinning manically as the old place was slowly reduced to a skeletal husk.

Directly underneath the riot, the players would gather in a dressing-room corridor. "We should all go together," Charlton shouted over to England manager Terry Venables. "Get your lads together and we'll try to get away on the one bus."

The chief executive of the English FA, Graham Kelly, stood facing a battalion of media people. "Yes," he agreed in response to a meandering question.

"Yes, I am embarrassed!"

The first hints of trouble came in small, angry flash-fires that afternoon in 1995 on Dublin's streets.

The threatening presence of Combat 18 members, an offshoot of the British National Party, began to register on Garda radars. They had been planning the riot for three months as a protest against the Northern peace process and were now, clearly, present in some force.

Five minutes before kick-off, the FAI's security officer – Bernard O'Byrne – was told by a senior Garda member that a National Front element had infiltrated the English support. The authorities had a problem.

When England visited for a European Championship qualifier five years earlier, the city was in a virtual vice-grip of security. Riot police had been positioned under the West Stand, "ready and waiting."

This time, the preference was for a more discreet and subtle approach. They hoped that by making England's fans feel welcome, the possibility of trouble would significantly diminish. But the English FA's 'Travel Club' had failed to weed out known troublemakers from those in receipt of tickets.

In doing so, they left Dublin prey to chaos. There had been, as the FAI's chief executive Sean Connolly would later put it, "an information gap."

English football was a persistent front-page story at the time, an FA Cup game between Millwall and Chelsea having culminated in a riot just one week earlier. One week before that, Eric Cantona had, famously, lunged into the crowd at Crystal Palace. And a story was about to break of Vinnie Jones viciously biting the nose of a veteran English journalist in the residents' bar of Jury's Hotel.

Now some England supporters unfurled a giant flag of St George, decorated with what looked like a swastika. On closer inspection, the image was seen to be two crossed sledgehammers.

After Mary Robinson's introduction to the teams, both national anthems were intercepted by loud howls of derision. During 'The Soldiers' Song', a great roar of 'Rule Britannia' erupted from the West Upper. Already, the first friendly between Ireland and England for 31 years had begun to reek of trouble.

The hope, palpably, was that the football would distract the thugs. It might have done, too, but for the fact that it was Ireland who began to play with thrilling focus and aggression. The strike partnership of Niall Quinn and David Kelly had Gary Pallister and Tony Adams in clear trouble.

Then, in the 29th minute, Kelly latched onto a John Sheridan pass to sweep home a wonderful goal and, unwittingly, toss a lit cigarette towards a petrol leak. Within minutes, the West Upper was a scene of collective rage.

As O'Byrne would read it, "It was like Beirut up there, a war zone. In 10 minutes, we went from a situation of handling 30 or so trouble-makers to a virtual military operation."

The players were removed from the pitch and at 6.50, just 35 minutes after kick-off, it was decided to evacuate the stand. Six minutes later, the game was formally abandoned.

Down in the dressing-room tunnel, eyes glazed over with bemusement.

Tapping into a footballer's natural facility for resilience, Eddie McGoldrick chatted as if the game had run its natural course. "We were really pulverising them out there," he said. "Myself ... the whole team was bubbling."

For Kelly though, his eighth and most precious international goal had just triggered the worst violence seen at a game in Dublin. As it began to flare, he'd walked towards the trouble with England's David Platt only for a flying piece of a chair to miss them by "a couple of feet".

Kelly's consolation was, he told us, that he'd placed £50 on himself at 9/1 to score the evening's opening goal.

"My wife has video-taped the game and I will look at the goal," he told us. "It was a sweet goal, certainly one of my best. I suppose I am the only one with anything to take out of this awful night.

"Jack is very upset. We all are."

And Charlton did, indeed, look crestfallen as talk turned towards the possibility of England now forfeiting the right to host the following year's European Championship finals.

"I got a bit frightened out there," he said. "Somebody beside me threw a bottle into the stand. I think it was one of ours and I just grabbed him by the neck and told him to stop it.

"The whole nation is going to suffer because of 2,000 lunatics," he said. "It's crazy!"

OVERHEAD, ENGLISH VOICES STILL SANG out "No surrender to the IRA" and, climbing back up the stairs, we could hear the enduring acoustic of wood splintering and glass bottles breaking.

By now, a line of riot police had formed a protective cordon around the press box and were advising journalists to vacate the stand. Just yards separated us from the chaos and it became clear the gardai were planning a baton charge.

"Out, everyone out of here NOW," shouted one to nobody in particular.

Pathetically, we mounted timid protests about newspaper deadlines, as if we might work away discreetly on our laptops just yards from the looming charge. "NOW," he repeated.

Maybe half a dozen of us instantly ran, laptops in hand, to the tiny, windowless 'writers' room' facing the top of the stairs. As we filed in, a watching garda advised us, "Do not open this door again under any circumstances." It was 8.15.

Within seconds, the sounds outside rose dramatically in decibels and anger. People could be heard running past, screaming. Objects smashed against the door. Inside, we tip-tapped frantically for the morning editions, sportswriters cowering in a war zone.

One of my jobs that evening was to phone Paul McGrath and ghostwrite his column. "Football feels meaningless tonight," he told me.

Soon, the noise outside began to taper as if someone was turning the volume down on a TV set and, eventually, the only surviving noise became that of fingers on laptop keys.

It was closing on 10 when we finally opened that door to step tentatively out into an eerily quiet February evening. Old and ripped asunder, the concrete skeleton of the West Upper Lansdowne now ached with a kind of suppressed grief.

The mob had been hunted out and taken straight to the airport and the ferry ports. Among them, a man wearing purple with an alligator's smile.

Irish Independent