Rolling Down Memory Lane – Ep. 2

IRELAND v. ENGLAND FEB. 15th 1995

Lansdowne Road

When I was younger, farming was really the only thing that consumed my thoughts. Hardly surprising in one way with dad and his brothers drystock farming on a small scale and my brother working with a local farmer for a good few years. Thus, from a very young age I was surrounded by livestock and tractors and machinery and fell in love with it all. With the result that, every year, all that was desired from the big man in the red suit at the end of December were model tractors and machinery.

Wasn’t it almost fitting, then, that when sport really entered my life for the first time it began a crossover between the two things that have become the greatest saving in my life. What many might find surprising is the fact yours truly had been to a soccer match, several of them actually, before a trip was ever made to a GAA field.

Reason being that my sister was friends with a girl whose dad was heavily involved in Dunboyne AFC at the time and the wheelchair would generally be pushed along if they were going to look at a match. Back then, the club’s ‘home’ was on land owned by the family of former Taoiseach John Bruton.

Some great memories are retained of some unforgettable nights in that field. Including my brother-in-law putting a penalty over the bar on the first occasion he played in the local derby against Clonee United. The original and best version of the latter named club, that is.

West of Ireland cattle

Anyway, as good as Bruton’s field was – where often only a length of rope separated players, spectators and possibly some lovely looking West of Ireland bred cattle, once winter and bad weather hit, you’d have a better chance of holding the America’s Cup boat race in it than playing football in it.

Which meant, of course, that alternative lodgings had to be found until the following Spring. And it just so happened that arguably the driest field anywhere in the parish happened to be across the road from our house, up what will forever be known to us as ‘Barry’s Lane. Even though the said ground was renowned for its dryness, the Parish Priest’s bullocks – yes, you did read that correctly – were never out-wintered. So the field up the lane was available for sporting use.

Something that curious could hardly be straight forward, could it? Course not. For the players, it meant togging out in the Community Centre, cross one closed up grazing field, go out through a gap in the hedge onto the lane and duck under another fence out onto the pitch. In the case of a certain spectator, entry was even more adventurous.

When I was light enough, the friend’s dad used to carry me on his shoulders up the lane and hoist me over the fence. As the years went on, that obviously wasn’t an option. So, instead of lifting me over the fence, Modus Operandi was to pull me under the fence by the legs! No, I didn’t mind, before the snowflakes roll up.

For a few years after the brother-in-law signed with the club, myself and dad sort of double jobbed. That is to say we followed both GAA and soccer equally. Often resulting in attendance at two or maybe three games on a Sunday. Having got ‘in’ with the soccer crew, eventually the talk must have come around about bringing me to a Republic Of Ireland match in Lansdowne Road.

That in itself would’ve been exciting enough in itself. However, what transpired was more than any Irish football fan of any age could have dreamed of. Not only was there a package organised with tickets for what I think were three World Cup warm up games plus all of the home Qualifying games for Euro ’96 which were due to kick off the following autumn.

More than that, somebody my sister worked with got hold of Jack Charlton’s address and the instruction – it wasn’t a request or a suggestion – was for me to write (type) a letter to the big man.

The stipulation was that therein I was to tell him all about myself and my disability and how much I loved sport etc. Naturally, the story of the hay making stopping for the Genoa penalty shoot-out in 1990 was included. Utter awe and amazement would be the only way to describe the feeling when a return letter from the big Geordie arrived a week or so later.

In Awe: Meeting ‘Big Jack’ in the Lansdowne Road dressing room – March 1994

What I didn’t realise was that the correspondence in question would turn out to be the first of a series of letters that came across from Thyneside. That in itself would have been something to treasure but (as a friend of mine says it’s what comes after the ‘But’ that counts) with one of the letters came a second document.

Said attachment was printed on official FAI headed paper. With the sort of invitation that would be akin to asking a kid of a certain age would they like to go to Lapland. From what can be recalled, kick off for the friendly in question against Russia was at 3pm, though the instruction on the ‘extra’ letter was to be in the Dublin 4 venue two hours before kick off.

March 23rd, 1994 was a vicious, wintry day. Snow fluttered in the air as myself and Kieran, my brother-in-law, met Harry Ellis, stalwart of the wheelchair section in Lansdowne Road. For you see, given what was in the attachment, it wouldn’t have mattered if the backside had fallen out of the sky, there was no way I was foregoing Jack’s invitation to meet himself and the players before the game.

Meeting Ronnie Whelan, John Aldridge and Jason McAteer

Meeting the players at any time would’ve been a dream come true for a fan of any age. However, regret at the absence of Roy Keane on the day has abated with the passage of time as the sentimental value of the occasion has greatly appreciated as the years have gone on. Not only for the obvious reason of meeting the boss and his troops. Particularly due to the fact it was the fixture in which Gary Kelly, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer made their debuts in green.

As well as being regarded as pin-up boys on a par with Boyzone by certain sections of the population, on a more serious and important note, the triumvirate represented the new wave of stars who were anointed to carry the torch once those who had paved the way through their magnificence in Euro ’88 and Italia ’90.

Olympic hero Michael Carruth pictured with his father Austin

And still, that wasn’t all the excitement for the day. No, I don’t mean the trip to McDonald’s which was to become part of our soccer match day routine. On the way back around to the wheelchair viewing area, Olympic boxing gold medalist Michael Carruth was being escorted to his rserved seat in the stand. Thus the opportunity was availed of to add his autograph to what’s a fairly extensive collection at this stage. Why the thought never occurred to take the camera back out has never been determined!

Afterglow Of Euphoria

Perhaps naturally, memories of the USA ’94 tournament are considerably more vivid than its immediate predecessor. Mass finishing early on the Saturday night of the opening joust with the Italians to allow people be home in time for the 9pm kick off. Ray Houghton lobbing the sort of goal over opposing goalie Gianluca Pagliuca that we’ve all dreamed of when using using two sweeping brushes as goalposts in the garden.

Ray Houghton wheels away in celebration after his unforgettable goal at Giant’s Stadium New York

Thereafter, Paul McGrath delivered what must rank as the greatest ever defensive display by an Irish player. In fact, it may have been as good a display as any footballer in green has produced in any position. Remember, there were only 11 minutes played when the Glasgow-born midfield wizard produced his wonder strike.

The Black Pearl of Inchicore – Paul McGrath

The man who earned the acronym ‘The Black Pearl of Inchcore’ from possibly the only who would have got away with dubbing him thus – Ireland’s greatest man of letters, Con Houlihan – appeared to engage in what resembled one man trench warfare in order to keep the highly vaunted opponents at bay.

After that, unfortunately, as we know, the campaign Stateside went very much awry. Who could forget John Aldridge and Jack Charlton going berserk on the sideline with a baseball-cap clad American that was as sparing with water (on a scorcher of a day while they were playing Mexico) as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson are with cop-on. Before their journey came to a rather ignominious end against the Dutch. Sadly it wasn’t the last time that would happen.

Hell hath no fury like thirsty Irishmen!

Even so, there was still an afterglow of euphoria that only Irish followers could generate by the time the next campaign came around. Being honest, little or nothing from that ultimately fruitless expedition – halted by two Patrick Kluivert goals for Holland at Anfield – apart from the final game of the group stages against Austria.

The home side had to win the encounter to gain entry automatically to the tournament which was being held across the water the following summer. It was the one and only time when a soccer match was picked in preference to its GAA counterpart. Meath were playing Longford in a Leinster SFC quarter final in Pearse Park and, being fairly sure that the lads would get the job done in the midlands, D4 was the venue of choice that particular day.

All of the above, mind you, was mentioned solely for the purpose of putting in context what the real motivation behind what you are reading was. Mention was made earlier about the match against the Italians in the Big Apple. At the time, there was a lot of Serie A football available to view here, via either RTE or Channel 4. Hence, there existed a fair bit of knowledge of those in the blue corner on June 18th.

Obviously though, there would be a far greater familiarity with most of the English players due to the proximity and availability of Premiership action. Now, a number of players therefrom, like Alan Shearer and Tony Adams among others, had previously been observed in action at Kevin Moran’s Testimonial game where a Republic Of Ireland XI took on a National Lottery selection.

The lure of Ireland playing the full English team – and actually getting to be in situ for same – was a different dish altogether. Honestly, there’s no recollection in this seat of Euro ’88. Aside, that is, from the video of Ray Houghton putting the ball in the English net! Back then, there would have been far more trepidation about a game against Northern Ireland than the Three Lions. Especially given the hostility which prevailed around the time of the clash with Billy Bingham’s team in November 1993.

RESPECTFUL ANXIETY

Much of that pertained to The Troubles which were still ongoing at that time. Yes there was tension in the air around the ground beforehand. What appeared, initially at least, to be respectful anxiety, which, concerning any meeting of two great rivals is almost to be expected.

. A minority of Irish fans did jeer when God Save The Queen was being played. Which was inflammatory and unnecessary in itself. Though that turned out to be only chicken feed compared to the thuggish behavior of a minority of English ‘fans’ ruined and ultimately halted what had the potential to be one of the greatest Irish sporting occasions of all time.

Trouble erupts in the stand as a section of the English crowd give the Nazi salute

Years later, rugby followers from both countries would demonstrate how such an occasion should be handled. The manner in which a certain other highly emotive and divisive issue – the meeting of the same two nations at Croke Park – was indeed one of the most noteworthy sporting moments ever played out in this country.

To witness giants of men, in every since of that word, such as John Hayes and Jerry Flannery visibly moved to tears was to understand that they not only took on board the significance of what was taking place. More than that, observing the manner in which the playing of the neighbouring anthem was respected – especially given the intricacy with which the nation in question and the venue are bound – was the final franking of what was a seminal moment in Irish history.

David Kelly on the way to scoring his goal on February 15th, 1995.

Without getting into the politics of the situation too much, the mere fact that Combat 18 – whose alignment is with the British National Party – were behind the disturbances tells you all you need to know about the calibre of people who were behind the trouble. For me, in hindsight, perhaps the greatest pity was the fact that a great goal by David Kelly, then of Wolves (pictured above) and of the best Irish performances of that era tends to be almost forgotten as the discourse gets hijacked by what transpired off the pitch.

YOUTHFUL NAIVETY

Looking back on it, only youthful naivety probably stopped the full impact of the whole episode from dawning on me. In fact, on the night, stupidly, there was a certain amount of excitement about the whole thing. That, coupled with utter disappointment when referee Dick Jol drew stumps on the night’s work.

Jack Charlton is escorted from the pitch after confronting rioters

Perhaps the greatest pity out of the whole thing was that – to my mind at least – those 26 minutes were as good as an Irish team had played in a long time at that time and, and a victory over England at that stage might have been just the shot in the required as Euro ’96 approached.

Alas, Jol’s decision to rule out an English ‘equaliser’ in the 26th minute prompted the oft referred to English fan (a minority thereof of course) penchant for hooliganism to raise it’s ugly head once again. Meaning that, regrettably, what happened on the field will forever be overshadowed by what occurred off it.

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