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'What the hell is happening?' - How the potential for violence at Lansdowne Road was ignored

'What the hell is happening?' - How the potential for violence at Lansdowne Road was ignored

David Maher / SPORTSFILE

With simmering tensions in previous meetings and incidents in the days leading up to the match, authorities could have done more to prevent a riot between Ireland and England

COMMENT
By Ronan Murphy

England and the Republic of Ireland face each other at Wembley on Wednesday night for the first time in 18 years. The last time the two sides met, on February 15, 1995, it lasted just 27 minutes. Crowd trouble erupted at Lansdowne Road not long after David Kelly had put Ireland in front.

There were plenty of prior signals that there was a possibility of violence at the game. The Anglo-Irish political landscape in the early 1990s was marked by a series of IRA bomb attacks in England, which, needless to say, provoked severe resentment among ordinary English people. However, despite the potential for conflict, players and many of those involved in security for the game did not anticipate the events that followed.

Les Ferdinand was one of the most in-form strikers in England at the time, scoring 24 Premier League goals for Queens Park Rangers in 1994-95. He told Goal that the England team did not have any idea of what was about to unfold. "Absolutely not, we prepared as we would always prepare for any game," Ferdinand said. "We knew what the rivalry would be like, and we were expecting a tense and an enjoyable game."

With Matt Le Tissier chosen to partner Alan Shearer up front by manager Terry Venables, Ferdinand was warming up along the sidelines when Kelly's goal went in. "We went for a stretch, and as we ran down, we saw all these people ripping up seats. At first, we thought it was just a couple of supporters having a tear up.

"We went up the other end of the pitch, but the trouble continued. There were seats being thrown down, and next thing the referee has stopped the match, and ushered us into the changing rooms. We still didn't realise what was going on. The referee told us he was going to call off the game. We were all shocked because we thought the trouble had died down.

"When we were told it was called off and the reasons why, we were concerned, what are the chances of us getting out of here alright. The security was well-organised and got us out quickly. It was only later on the coach did we realise what had happened, then it was a case of will we get out of Ireland okay, and would there be any more trouble."


Violence | Members of the Gardai restrain an England fan at Lansdowne Road

Similarly, the fans who went to the game in February 1995 expected an entertaining encounter on the pitch with none of the off-field drama and many younger supporters were left confused by the rioting in the stadium. Irish fan John McDermott was nine years old when his father took him to see the Boys in Green take on England. "I was very excited before the game," McDermott admitted. "We were sat in the upper East Stand, and so we were far away from the scenes. I probably didn't understand what was really happening at the time, but I of course saw the match being halted, people streaming onto the pitch and police and stewards moving on in to the West stand.

"I was definitely confused. I really didn't understand what was happening. I knew very little, if anything about hooliganism. I don't think I was too scared during the trouble, but I remember my dad wanting to get me away from the ground quickly. A sad evening for football."

Despite being a friendly, the match was an eagerly anticipated one, especially for Jack Charlton, who would face his homeland for the fifth time since taking over as Republic of Ireland manager. In his column in the match programme, Charlton said he expected a good contest on the pitch. "Friendly matches of this calibre are a rarity nowadays as most countries have their football programme very heavily committed with competitive matches," Charlton wrote. "It will be very much like a derby match as all the players know each other from playing on a weekly basis either against each other or with each other at club level in England."

Both the FAI and the Gardai should have better foreseen crowd trouble at the match, having witnessed disturbances at the previous clash between the two sides in November 1990. Gardai made over 100 arrests that night. A total of 23 supporters appeared in court for violent conduct charges after the game with five Irishmen being handed jail time for their offences. During the match, several Irish supporters had been ejected from Lansdowne Road, with FAI Chief Security Officer Joe Delaney clear where the blame lay when speaking after the game. "The Irish supporters were more aggressive and that disappointed me greatly. I saw a side of them which I hope I will never see again."

The outbreak of violence following that match in Dublin, as well as the return leg in London where there was a clash between Irish and English fans on Kilburn High Road, should have been ample warning for the FAI to heighten security ahead of the 1995 fixture. However, the FAI and the Gardai naively believed that segregating home and away fans was not necessary. "Security personnel will be on duty," FAI general secretary Sean Connolly declared the month before the game, "but there will be no structured segregation of fans in the accepted sense - we don't believe that the situation warrants it."

Furthermore, the night before the match, two English fans were arrested on suspicion of stabbing a man with a broken bottle at McGrath's pub on O'Connell Street, while four more travelling supporters were arrested following outbreaks of violence along the Dublin quays and on Parnell Street. During the day leading up to the game, Gardai had an extra 500 officers on duty in the city, and were happy with the preparations ahead of the 18:15 kickoff.

Nevertheless, despite warnings from the British National Criminal Service that a number of known offenders were travelling to the match, Gardai failed to take action. In addition, fans were not searched for concealed weapons at the entrances to the stadium, resulting in some missiles and projectiles being brought in.

A congregation of English fans quickly provoked the home fans on the night by accompanying their chants of "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the Queen" with fascist salutes. Despite the impression many of the reports gave, the Irish fans were far from blameless. A large contingent of home supporters booed the English national anthem.

The 27 minutes of football were entertaining despite the tense backdrop. John Sheridan's perfect pass on 23 minutes played in Kelly, whose shot stung David Seaman's hands on the way into the net. Le Tissier looked lively in his second start for the Three Lions, and went close with a free-kick, but the match ended abruptly with less than half an hour gone.

Kelly's goal was met with immediate reaction from the hooligans in the west stand, but a disallowed England goal just minutes later escalated the violence. Gardai were slow to react as the English fans tore up seating to throw down on the Irish fans in the lower tier, along with other projectiles, some which had been smuggled into the ground. Referee Dick Jol had no other choice than to abandon the match. As Jack Charlton was escorted from the pitch baying "Go home!", the 1966 World Cup winner was met with cries of "Judas" from the travelling support.


The finish | David Kelly's strike soars past England goalkeeper David Seaman

Fan Mark Roche was close to where the violence broke out, occupying a position in the West Stand. "There was a fantastic buzz around that day and the whole town was hopping, little did we know what was coming though," Roche told Goal. "When I got inside the atmosphere was electric and the songs were flowing from both sides.

"When the match kicked off it was just incessant chanting by the English. The same chants over again; "No Surrender" etc. The match itself passed most people by. After what could have been five or 10 minutes you could see trouble erupting in West Upper. It was hard to make out what was going on. Scuffles. Stewards woefully underpowered getting belted, and little or no Garda intervention.

"It was kicking off everywhere in that corner, people were covered in blood, bits of old wooden seats were littered across the pitch, Gardai were doing their best now and you could see a few of them trying to contain the Upper Tier. We were woefully unequipped for anything like this and it really showed, however keeping some of our own lads away from the English fans may have been the only real spot of luck as some of our lads were going berserk, the roughest of the roughest ones."

Gardai and stewarts coralled those responsible in the West Stand, while many Irish fans left via the pitch. However, a small few overzealous Irish fans used this opportunity to attack their English counterparts, while members of the riot squad were heavy handed in their policing of the hooligans.

As well as the 30 or so fans who had to go to hospital after the game, the violence led to one fatality. An Irish fan in his 60s was complaining of chest pains as he was leaving the stadium, and died of heart failure in the ambulance on the way to St Vincent's Hospital.

Ireland defender Alan Kernaghan admits that he was primarily concerned for the fate of his team-mates Denis Irwin and Eddie McGoldrick as they were closest to the violence. "I was fearful for Eddie and Dennis, because they were right in the firing range," Kernaghan said. "It was very dangerous when you saw the stuff being thrown around. It was frightening as well, especially when you have all your family in the stands."

Immediate reaction cast some doubts over England's ability to host the 1996 European Championships, but with security ramped up for the tournament and an official enquiry finding that the Gardai did not adequately prepare or co-ordinate the Lansdowne Road clash, football 'came home' the following year. The violence at the match really shone light on how unprepared the Irish contingent were, especially given the fact that the game took place less than a year after the IRA had launched a series of mortar attacks on Heathrow Airport.

Tensions were high between England and Ireland, and the political backdrop only added to the incendiary atmosphere at the game. Members of the neo-Nazi group Combat 18 had travelled over from England, and were caught up in the hooliganism at the match, even using it as a means to spread their message by claiming full responsibility for the rioting in the days following the game.

It all could have been prevented had better security measures been in place or if the authorities had paid sufficient attention to the warnings. However, inadequate preparation as well as a general naivety about the chance of violence saw the match end after just 27 minutes. At the time, most people were confused as to what was happening. "I think the general consensus was 'what the hell is happening?'", Roche admitted.

Eighteen years on, hopefully lessons have been learned and Wednesday's game at Wembley goes off peacefully.

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