In February 1995, just over twenty years ago now, England travelled to Dublin to play Ireland in a football friendly.
But the match was abandoned after nasty right wing hooligan troupe ‘Combat 18’ started smashing the place up.
Working alongside Irish soccer hero Alan McLoughlin on his memoir of a life in the game, here’s how we captured the fateful moment it all kicked off at Lansdowne Road:
February, 1995. Ireland versus England at Lansdowne Road. An international friendly in the wake of our World Cup campaign and in the middle of our battle to qualify for Euro ’96 – the forthcoming European Championship to be held in England. It was a crisp, cold Dublin evening; the stars were lighting up the clear dark sky, and I was looking forward to the match. This would be the fourth time that I’d faced England while turning out for the Republic. This fixture always seemed to have a little more bite, a bit more fizz and tension than other international friendlies. For me, of course, it was extra-special. All the players knew one another from playing in England. And although England were supposedly technically superior, at that time we seemed to have the stranglehold over them. It was us who had graced the world stage the previous summer, while England had failed to qualify, and that gave us some extra confidence. Moreover, we’d already eased to victory in our first three European qualifying games, beating Latvia, Liechtenstein and Northern Ireland.
The atmosphere in the tunnel that evening was one of competitive rivalry, not hostility. Ireland were doing well in the European qualifiers and England, as the next host country of the tournament, didn’t need to worry about qualifying. But as we walked out that night, one thing struck me as strange right away. I looked over my right shoulder and up to the stand behind the dugouts. There were the green ranks of Irish fans. Then I looked up to the highest tier. There, to my surprise, were the Union flags and Saint George’s crosses … the England fans. This immediately struck me as bizarre. Why had the English fans been plonked up there? They seemed almost to be teetering on a precipice, arms aloft, piling forward as excited crowds do, squeezed against a single safety rail and within spitting distance of the Irish fans below. The booing and whistling during the anthems, which followed, was nosurprise. ‘God Save the Queen’ was drowned out by jeers. ‘The Soldier’s Song’ was met with anti-IRA chants. That was normal, though, and was nothing compared to that night in Windsor Park, 1993, when I’d sent Ireland to the World Cup finals with my goal.
We took the lead after half an hour. David Kelly scored a great goal from the left hand sideafter a lovely passing move starting deep from Steve Staunton. ‘You’ll never beat the Irish!’ rang around Lansdowne. And then it started. I was warming up, stretching on the touchline, when a ‘missile’ – an apple, in fact – stung the tip of my nose as it hurtled towards my head, before coming to rest in the turf at the edge of the pitch. For a second I looked at that apple, nestling in the soft turf, and thought how much it looked like a golf ball settled in the sand of a bunker. For a moment, strangely, in my mind I was back the golf links, thinking about how I would play the shot out of the sand. Then, reality kicked in. I looked up to where it had come from and saw fists flying, the unmistakable surge and jostle of crowd disturbance, and – everywhere now – big bits of plastic and wood raining down on the Irish fans. Some of those poor fans were now trying to clamber over the advertising hoardings, desperate to get away from the volleys coming from the English supporters above.
The referee blew his whistle and led the players back to the changing rooms via the centre of the pitch, thus avoiding the touchline where it was kicking off. The Irish players were actually in quite a buoyant mood. We were one-nil up and it was all to play for. We assumed that all the nonsense would die down in five minutes or so and we’d be back out there. But five minutes became ten. Then ten became fifteen. By that stage it was obvious that the match would be abandoned. Jack Charlton, meanwhile, was outside trying to calm things down. As a World Cup winner with England he thought that he would hold some sway over events. But in appealing to the English supporters he was just met with chants of ‘Judas’. He looked forlorn, cap drawn low over his face, as he re-entered the changing room.
When I saw the pictures on television afterwards I was outraged, like everyone else. It was reported that the English fans had been infiltrated by the neo-Nazi group ‘Combat 18’. On the night, though, I didn’t notice the Nazi salutes being thrust about and the ‘Sieg Heils’ being yelled: it was all part of the background noise behind me. One image really saddened me. The news clips kept featuring a wide eyed young boy, in his Ireland jersey, the picture of innocence and disbelief, seemingly turning to his daddy to ask him what was going on, as if the fun and beauty of football had been forever robbed from him in that instant. I shared that feeling of having been mugged. We were one nil up and had effectively had the game stolen from us by a small group of fascist thugs. The whole episode left me incredulous as to the decision to house those English fans in the top of the stand since the Gardaí were well aware of the far right element travelling to Dublin for the match
Some time after Combat 18 had announced themselves at Lansdowne Road that evening, they were mannerly enough to take the trouble of writing to me personally. Two envelopes arrived at Fratton Park one morning, one addressed to me and the other to Pompey’s Jamaican international Paul Hall. I thought mine was fan mail at first but, unfurling the letter inside, it was soon clear that it was anything but. Both Paul and I were English-born but playing for foreign countries, the letter proclaimed. Signed simply ‘Combat 18’, it warned me to expect trouble on account of my ‘treachery’. The club reported the letters to the police, who took the threat seriously. Soon, two special branch men were at my house, instructing me carefully on how to check my vehicle for a car bomb: a solemn ritual I performed diligently for a few months before deciding that I couldn’t live my life in fear of Combat 18 and their bigoted threats. Were they even aware of my parents’ nationality? Whatever the case, I couldn’t allow their reductive logic of national identity to scare me.