Billy’s boys still cast long shadow

Ryan McKane was only 10 at the time but can still remember his parents having an angry discussion over what should happen next.

He’d only ever been to one soccer match — a friendly when Tottenham Hotspur came over to play Derry City in the Brandywell — but this was a step up his mother wasn’t so sure about. Word was already out about what awaited the Republic of Ireland and their fans when they pitched up at Windsor Park but, in the end, a compromise was reached. He could go with his father, but couldn’t wear his green jersey with Aldridge written across the back and under no circumstances could he celebrate any away goals.

For John O’Connor, such advice had already made its way across a cold and choppy sea. Studying in Glasgow’s Caledonian University, he discovered late there was nowhere he could tune in so instead he headed for the port of Stranraer, but made sure his clothes were as dour as the daytime sky. No green, no white, no trouble. He didn’t even have a ticket when he landed but got what he thought was lucky thanks to some Republic fans he bumped into in the Crown Bar on Great Victoria Street.

By that stage, Jim Murray had parked up quite a distance away due to security. He was sure he’d seen it all, having even stood behind the Dalymount Park goal where John Atyeo headed home a Tom Finney cross to halt the Republic’s crawl to the 1958 World Cup. But on 17 November 1993, it became clear this was different. A 51-year-old insurance broker in Dublin, he’d gotten a ticket through a colleague and when he finally reached his seat he was delighted to find he was in the second row. Only then did he realise that the colleague’s father was a director at Linfield FC and while there were a few brief hellos with those around, an edgy and angry silence followed.

Three generations of fans, three perspectives, one abiding memory of hatred.

O’Connor made his way from the pub tightly clutching his ticket, but any positivity didn’t last. “The RUC were pretending to pull the triggers on their guns that they had trained on Republic supporters,” he recalls. “I had never been up close to guns before or since and it scared the life out of me. At the match itself, Kevin Moran was sitting not too far away and was getting dogs abuse.”

Given his age, McKane’s memories are a little hazier, but just as dark. “To this day I’ve never seen a police presence like it. The crowds walking down the Lisburn Road singing the Billy Boys and sectarian songs were extremely intimidating but nothing prepared me for the atmosphere when we got inside. I was looking around, thinking these people are on something. Every time Ireland touched the ball there were roars of ‘Fenian bastards’.” But there were far worse roars to come.

After Northern Ireland scored, O’Connor says that’s when the chants began about ‘Greysteel — trick or treat’ followed by laughter. It was a reference to the massacre that took place at the Rising Sun Bar less than three weeks before when UFF members walked in on a Halloween party and shot dead eight civilians. “I’ve been to loads of sporting events around Europe and never felt such hatred,” O’Connor adds. “The Old Firm games were a picnic compared to it.”

Alan McLoughlin’s strike didn’t even help, indeed, if anything, his equaliser made it worse. When Jimmy Quinn netted, Murray stood to applaud to avoid drawing attention. “Then we scored and there was a deathly silence,” he says. “I distinctly remember sitting on my hands and resisting the urge to jump up. When the final whistle blew, I just left without a word.”

As for O’Connor, he had booked into a small hotel close to Queen’s University and reckons, upon his return, they realised how upset he was as they were over the top with niceties. “One thing I found strange though — and I didn’t ask until I was leaving — was that the doors closed really fast and hard behind me when I came in. I thought it was dangerous until I was told that a Sinn Féin member was shot there not long before and it was a security precaution. Glad I didn’t know until I was leaving as my nerves wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I have never watched the match again and probably never will. I didn’t go to an international for years afterwards.”

It was little wonder that Sports Illustrated had sent reporter Alexander Wolff, his introduction reading, “Pilots on approach to the Belfast Airport sometimes tell passengers to reset their watches to the local time: 1690.”

From those few words it was obvious what he was looking for and he sadly got it in abundance. Across the previous months, 17 had been killed but this was the worst indication that peace was a pipe dream. After all, in some of the bloodiest days of carnage, people in the south took pride in the North’s achievements around the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.

You ask Gerry Armstrong about it and he first takes you on a trip back to those tournaments. Growing up in west Belfast, representing Antrim in Gaelic games and going on to a World Cup with “his country”, was an awkward concoction. But while the environment around all those fleeting memories of matches was even more toxic than in 1993, the matches themselves had never been toxic. Instead Armstrong recalls how at least half of the good luck telegrams that arrived at the team’s Sidi Soler Hotel in Valencia in 1982 came from south of the border. “They were all up on display, 400 telegrams on the wall in reception during that World Cup. We were a united team that united the people. We did something the politicians couldn’t do and bridged the divide.”

But for Armstrong, that night when the Republic came to Windsor Park for that decisive qualifier was when it truly changed and the goodwill was washed away by bile. He wasn’t at the game, but as he watched Billy Bingham on television gesturing towards the crowd and whipping up the hatred like a storm, he got thinking of another Northern Ireland manager that was ill and would die just a month later. Back in the 1970s, Armstrong had been part of a united Ireland team but with two managers to choose from, Danny Blanchflower stepped back, insisting John Giles could take the role.

“A high point maybe,” notes Armstrong of the gesture. “But to contrast that, 1993 was a low point. . There were a lot of Catholics that followed us throughout the ’70s and the ’80s, brilliant supporters, but their mindset changed as a result of that night in Windsor. They never returned.”

Twenty years on, and you’ve arrived at the offices of the Irish Football Association with a book’s worth of ugly stories and with the dirty smudge of history that can never be wiped away. You wonder how much has changed because the governing body is still tarnished by it all, seen as an organisation that represents a very specific sector of the community.

The building itself is where Thomas Andrews, designer of the Titanic, lived and the spectacular staircase that leads to the chief executive’s office is a replica of that which graced the sunken ship. There, Patrick Nelson stretches out his hand and is anxious to tell you that his mother is from Cabra and his father is from Kilkeel. But after that, there’s either a reluctance or a void, depending on how severe you wish to be.

He’s been in this role since 2009 so you ask what he’s done to integrate nationalists. “Well Windsor Park is being overhauled so I think the look and feel of the stadium will help. It’s going to be a welcoming, up to date, family-orientated stadium. We can make it open and welcoming.”

What about the anthem, you add, mentioning God Save the Queen as the elephant in the room? “I don’t know. I don’t know. We are here to do what we can, as well as we can, and we’re proud of what we’re trying to get done.”

Has the anthem been considered, you continue? “I think we are aware of those feelings at this point but that’s about as far as it would go.”

So you haven’t considered doing something about it? “No.”

Altering the tempo, you ask about players defecting to the south, name checking James McClean.

“I think that was his choice and we respect his choice. Our job is to make all of our squads as welcoming and open as they can be.”

Does the anthem not come into making it more welcoming, you say, returning to the same point from a different avenue? “I don’t know,” he replies. “You’d have to ask some of the players that.”

You leave Nelson’s office feeling a little confused by it all. His avoidance of such a massive issue doesn’t fill you with confidence as rhetoric is easier than action and he can’t even muster that. So looking for more insight into the thinking, the work and the plans of the IFA, you meet Michael Boyd, who leads their community relations team. He’s engaging and intelligent and clearly belongs to a new generation of Northern Irish people looking to pave their own path.

“It’s not an easy job but it’s very rewarding and when you see grassroots projects like Limestone United, where we work in conjunction with the police and community groups and are bringing together lads who would have traditionally been fighting each other on an interface. We’re able to develop workshops off that, create positives for young people. It might be a small amount of people but it’s still very rewarding. Granted, in this sort of work you develop a thick skin and realise there are ups and downs.

“But there’s a growing Northern Irish identity. That doesn’t mean that sectarianism isn’t a problem but kids today are starting to see themselves as Northern Irish, not British or Irish. When I first started working here a lot of people in high positions that should have known better were telling me that Northern Irish fans are a bunch of animals. My experience is they’ve been absolutely amazing; it’s just about listening to them. As for people who say we’ll never get into nationalist areas? It’s the same old negativity. That spurs me on and I want to get in there and create change.”

He continues talking about all the low-level initiatives he and his team are working on, and while it’s impressive, some counterpoints cross your mind. As much as bottom-up change is welcome, it will always be crushed by the top-down perception while it’s allowed to exist. And while there are many alterations taking place, until pillars such as the anthem are scrapped, it’s like changing the carpets while the leak in the roof remains untouched.

“It’s an interesting question,” Boyd says of the anthem. “We are currently working on a fan strategy and talking to supporters’ groups about the barriers to people getting involved. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of that. But it’s a tough one, I personally think anthems need to be respected but to be seen to be supporting it could be an issue within your community. But the players all respect the anthem and that’s a healthy starting point.”

With that, you feel obliged to mention how Northern Ireland are the last ones clinging to a sharp sliver of history long after Wales and Scotland left the past behind.

“We are trying to find out is the anthem important to the fans and part of their identity,” Boyd retorts. “The fact we are on the front foot and we are out consulting, that’s healthy. And it could come back that Northern Ireland fans who have been involved in our consultations see God Save the Queen as incredibly important.”

Boyd points to the move away from sectarian songs being a fan-driven initiative and you get the sense of a power-to-the-people style movement within the IFA. When he started in the role, between 2000 and 2002, there were just 12 supporters’ clubs so he invited them into this building for the first time. Since then, their relationship has improved to the extent that the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs [AONISC] has over 50 member groups, have a big say in the future direction and have played an integral part in a review of all issues, of which a draft report will be released in the summer.

But again there’s a caveat. Power to what people exactly? By asking the supporters’ clubs about issues, in the hope making Northern Irish soccer more inclusive, the IFA are receiving feedback from the people nationalists feel alienated them in the first place.

And to get a sense of the type of feedback the IFA are getting, the next stop is Gary McAllister, chairman of [AONISC]. You ask about what happened 20 years ago and his opening words make you realise the size of the chasm that exists.

“Yeah, March 1993, a bad day for us in Dublin, we were quite comprehensively beaten and there were chants from their fans about only one team in Ireland. That was hurtful and humiliating. So it was bitter here when they came up for the return game. The backdrop was two of the worst atrocities during that period. You had the bomb on the Shankill and the massacre in Derry. But we’ve worked very hard as fans and like to think that nights like that would never happen again. We have to accept things that happened weren’t acceptable but we are doing our best to improve.”

From what you see and hear, they are certainly doing something but that doesn’t mean there’s not a way to go. McAllister doesn’t know how many of the supporters’ clubs his group represent are nationalist and admits the anthem has never been raised as an issue. So you tell him about the criticism the national team receive from outside.

“Perception is one thing, reality is another,” he stresses. “A lot of it comes from people that don’t go to Northern Ireland games yet they still say we are challenged in our attitude to sectarianism at international matches. But we have to be honest and say there is a percentage that will never support us for reasons political or otherwise.

“And honestly, the FAI haven’t helped. There’s an arrogance about them. They can’t claim to have great relations with us given the players that have been taking. As for those players, I think they need to be honest. Don’t go away after four years of underage saying your heart was never in it because all you are doing is wasting time and resources and denying a player that’d be proud to play for us.”

There are more supporters’ groups in Northern Ireland than just those represented by the AONISC. And there are more supporters’ groups than those that follow Northern Ireland. Paul Loughran is head of the West Belfast Republic of Ireland Supporters’ Club, one of several in the province that give their allegiance to the south. And he has a story to reinforce just why he and others stay clear of a team much closer to home. Back in 2011, he got talking to a bus driver who was chartered to take some Northern fans to a Nations Cup game in Dublin. The driver returned muttering ‘Never again’. A Catholic, he had to listen to sectarian chants all the way up and down the M1. Loughran claims it’s the same abroad and says anyone who has seen Northern Ireland fans in action cannot escape their true colours.

“We go down to all the Republic games, there’s a Protestant guy that comes down with us and we avoid sectarianism,” he notes. “But there seems to be no control of Northern Ireland fans. I don’t know one Northern Ireland fan from a Catholic background. There are no Catholic supporters’ clubs for the North. Okay, you can’t tarnish all fans and I know a lot of very good Northern Ireland fans but there’s a hard core that’s very hard to penetrate and that means it’s very biased and bitter.”

The solution in his eyes would be an all-Ireland team but that’s one issue he and IFA chief executive Nelson agree on. They both say it’ll never happen yet Loughran can’t get his head around it.

When he was growing up, the great Protestant sports were hockey and rugby but both are now represented by 32-county teams. “I suppose it’s politically motivated,” he concludes. “George Best said he’d love to see an all-Ireland team. Keith Gillespie said the other day his regret was never playing for a united Ireland. But the IFA are stuck in their ways. There are a lot of political connotations in everything they do.”

With everybody on this journey, you have to first realise where they come from to understand their viewpoint as so many opinions in Belfast are still manipulated by background. So for something a little more neutral, perhaps Gerry Armstrong is best having straddled both sides. He says he never had a problem standing for the anthem as it just meant standing shoulder to shoulder with team-mates in his mind. He even went looking for a solution, approaching his friend, Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody, who offered to come up with a new song not so long back. In fact just last year Armstrong spent his time working as elite player mentor with the IFA, talking to young Catholics in the hope of dissuading them from switching sides.

“A lot of the families of the players that switched, they’d be big republicans but people have to be bigger than that. They have to play a part in helping us to develop as a nation. For instance, I spoke to McClean three or four times and wanted him to come play for the right reasons. A lovely lad, smashing, and he said, ‘I want to play for the Republic, well actually my family want me to play for them’. And I said, ‘Well, it’s what you want’. He said he felt under pressure all the time but everyone is under pressure and you still have to make the right decisions. He should have stayed. We have a lot of kids that went down to play for the Republic when they were 16 and 17, and they came back a year later saying they didn’t feel comfortable or wanted or part of it.

“So it’s important kids like that are a part of the new Northern Ireland. A lot of the kids coming through are Catholic, particularly in Derry where the talent is unreal. The Irish FA have invested — and I know this for a fact — hundreds of thousands developing them. That’s why I was particularly angry with McClean. I totally understood his decision, but then he started mouthing, slagging off the IFA. They paid for his development and he should know better than to cut off the hand that feeds you. I felt hurt by that, hurt for the IFA and the fans. I was left thinking it was a wee bit of ignorance on his part and maybe that’s the problem, maybe there is a lack of understanding. I just hope we can move beyond that.”

Armstrong tells a couple of tales to illustrate the lack of certainty that’s still there. When he was playing in the 1980s, not once did a friend or family member ever criticise his decision to play for Northern Ireland. “And we were Republican, GAA people.” Years later, as assistant manager to Bryan Hamilton, he had the honour of awarding Neil Lennon his first cap. Having gone and watched him at Crewe, Hamilton asked was he ready and Armstrong said he was more than ready.

“Then when he became captain, the death threats happened, I was so disappointed. You get idiots who spoil it for a lot of the true fans. I remember speaking to Neil and he was so upset but that’s probably two or three fools in a house somewhere. But here’s one that’s more in tune with the majority. I’ll always remember David Jeffries telling me about this wee camogie team with nowhere to play and he phoned up and said come and use Windsor Park and they did. He said to me ‘Well why not?’ And he was right, why not? Things have definitely moved forward. Right now I see a lot of lights at the end of the tunnel.”

His positivity is infectious. As is the work ethic of Boyd, who still believes in his dream. But for some the shadow cast 20 years ago still hangs over them today. While for others, the shadow cast by the IFA will hang over them forever.

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