IT was Jack Charlton’s face that told the full story. All at once angry, ashen and bewildered, he could make no sense of what was unfolding in the West Upper at Lansdowne Road on February 15, 1995.
Born into a post-war generation in England and cut from Yorkshire cloth, Charlton was the kind of man who still believed that military service or a very heavy stick was the required medicine when young lads went off the rails, but this was outside his experience.
Search for images of the night and there he is with his hand around the neck of a very meek looking English thug.
“I told them to go home,” he said.
He came to us in the small Lansdowne rugby pavilion, a quaint old building in the North-West corner of the ground where post-match press conferences usually took place and he could barely talk, barely get the words out to match his fury.
For weeks before the game, the threat of violence was implicit and for a city that had lived through serious rioting over two decades linked to the conflict North of the border. But Dublin was still ill-prepared for the scale of the English fans’ commitment to causing havoc.
Several of the hooligan participants have spoken of the night since and Ger Keville’s piece with Annis Abraham on independent.ie probably comes closer to the truth than another commentary.
Essentially, the club ‘Firms’, hard-core hooligans who travelled across England looking for a fight, were here to have a go at each other if possible. There was no political intent and that ultra-right-wing Combat 18’s involvement was peripheral.
In fact, Abraham stresses that the code of the casual required that no violence be done to anyone wearing colours and, as a committed football casual, he was embarrassed by the night and did not get involved.
We know these things now but on the night, all anyone could see were hundreds of small calling cards scattered around the stadium and the approaches to it, telling us that racist Englishmen were here to confront the IRA.
Looking back brings little other than regret. Most of all, this was a chance to administer a caning to England which would have been celebrated down the years.
David Kelly’s goal, the trigger for the evening’s explosive events, came after a period of sustained pressure, which
England were unable to cope with.
Those of us in the press box straining to see one of the few television monitors available for the replay were just a short distance away from the mayhem and
realised quickly that a potential disaster was looming to our right.
We were herded out of the old concrete stand but a few tried to move towards the violence to witness it first-hand. A stream of Irish fans clutching wounds and each other made that impossible and by then gardai were beginning to make their presence felt on the Lower Deck, which forced more English fans up the steps towards us.
It never quite reached panic but there were moments in the narrow stairwells when a retreat almost became a stampede.
It was a huge story then but with 20 years in between, it has blurred around the edges and the fallout over who was responsible for allowing 3,000 English fans to be given a vantage point above home fans is hardly worth recalling.
It never happened again, was never likely to and won’t happen on Sunday. The English fans who travel will be closely monitored and while there has been much made of the small rump that insists on singing a song about the IRA, the vast majority will be normal football fans and most will have been to Dublin before for a few pints.
Ireland’s involvement in the English FA’s 150-year birthday celebrations at Wembley did much to heal the wound and this will close it completely – as it should.
English footballers had no responsibility for that awful night. An Englishman was our manager and England’s clubs have helped develop and sustain our best footballers.
There is always the possibility that a few crazies might start singing the wrong song but that could just as easily come from the Irish side. Ireland’s travelling support has a hard-core republican element and no one can deny the close association between the IRA and some Celtic supporters.
But it’s time to move on now. Old
memories and old battles are best left behind where they can do no harm.