Ireland play England in a football friendly today and I just heard on the radio that it’s twenty years since that same fixture was abandoned in the midst of a violent riot. I was at that game.
In 1995, I worked for Guinness and three of us were on a trip over to St James Gate. We all loved football and we harried our Irish colleagues to pull some strings to get us tickets. They did the business, but so in demand was the game that we were split up and spread around the ground.
It was such an exciting prospect. England had been on a barren patch and not qualified for two international tournaments on the trot, but Jack Charlton’s boys in green were flush in the success of USA ’94 – Ray Houghton’s wonder goal and all that.
But it was also a very different era. In 1995, even mainstream England fans would unthinkingly (and ridiculously) chant “No surrender to the IRA”. And Ireland was a different country too – much poorer economically and perhaps a little more naive.
Having been for a couple of pints after work, we arrived at the ground just a few minutes before the kickoff. I’d not been to the (old) Landsdowne Road before, but I remember thinking it was a bit odd that you entered the ground by the corner flag and had to walk along the side of the pitch before going up to your seat. I’d not experienced that before.
I walked past the two tiers with the England fans in and turned to them, fists raised. In my head they would recognise me as a fellow countryman and smile. As it is, they assumed I was Irish and snarled, bug-eyed into my face. I remember being pretty shocked. What sort of friendly was this?
Our seats were in the back row to the left of the England section. so we had a good view across to them and also across the ground to the banks of Irish.
It wasn’t long into the game before things started to go wrong. The first sign was a smashed up seat being hurled onto the pitch. These weren’t regular England fans, these were ‘firms’ from Leeds, Chelsea or wherever – united under National Front ‘thinking’ and out for proper trouble.
There were one or two Irish idiots too and a couple of them got onto the pitch and stood in front of the English section goading them. The broader crowd upped the temperature too with a resounding, but inflammatory refrain of, “You’ll never beat the Irish.”
The stewarding just wasn’t up to this. I think one of the Roddy Doyle books, possibly The Van, makes a joke about someone getting such a job just to get into the match with no intention of managing the crowd. Whereas English police had years of experiencing of dealing with trouble, there was no such experience in Dublin and the situation was getting out of hand.
It came over the tannoy that the match was being abandoned and we should empty the stadium. The England fans would be held in, but the rest of us should leave.
By now, the atmosphere had really heated and there was a wave of urgency and panicky behaviour in our stand. Some people started to push as we got out of our seats. I was gobsmacked to see some people standing innocently, blocking the gangways staring goggle-eyed at the ensuing riot. I had seen Heysel, Hillsborough and Bradford on TV and I was really scared. I knew it didn’t take much for a football crush to go very wrong, very quickly.
We were herded onto the pitch and started to head to the corner away from the trouble. But the stadium was in no way designed for a safe, mass evacuation. That exit was jammed so we all turned round and started across the pitch for the opposite corner. I don’t know how these things start, but a rumour rushed across that the England fans had gotten behind the stadium and were charging us. Friends broke ranks and began to stampede. There would be people falling and childred separated.
At the opposite corner, the crush intensified as we tried to exit. Word got round that an Irish fan had suffered a heart attack (untrue) and some people started to get angry. People were jostling and the danger was real. I wasn’t all that keen to identify myself as English with my accent, but I started to shout and plea for people not to push.
To add twisted comedy to the proceedings, the small, narrow exit to the ground had a railtrack running across it (yes, really), and a DART train was approaching. We had to hold back the surging crowd as the carriages rolled past.
Eventually I was spat out into the surrounding streets and had to find my way to our hotel. I think it was Jury’s and it turns out that it was where the England team were staying. There was an unhappy mob outside the entrance and I had to push through and wave my keycard to get in.
I was shattered when I finally got to my room. I had to call a friend to get it out of my head even though he was in Spain and it cost me a fortune. I hardly slept and had bad dreams.
Thankfully it all seems like a long time ago. Landsdowne Road has been rebuilt, football doesn’t attract or enable crowds like that any more and the only artefact of that chant I now hear is when my local non-league club, Dulwich Hamlet, sing, tongue very firmly in cheek – and to no-one in particular – “No surrender. No surrender. No surrender to the Tooting scum.”