Few will forget Ireland’s ill-fated 1995 clash with England at Lansdowne
Amongst the pandemonium, flying debris and truncheon wielding-gardaí who attempted to combat the troublemakers, stood a father and son.
The fear on James Eager’s face, the seven-year-old stood on the Lansdowne Road turf with his father, Seamus, shielding him from chairs, planks of wood and metal bars which cascaded from the upper echelons of the West Stand, became the iconic image of that infamous February night in 1995.
With Ireland leading 1-0, thanks to Dave Kelly’s 21st- minute goal, missiles began to fly down from the top tier of the old stand.
Referee Dick Jol directed the players off the field with just shy of a half hour on the clock.
Seamus Eager, his priority the safety of his son, thought the best route to escape the battle above them was by making a beeline for the pitch.
Though hundreds of fans eventually made their way onto the turf, the Eagers were amongst the first. Later that evening, the picture of James, petrified look drawn upon his face, his dad’s arm around his shoulder, was beamed across the nation on TV.
It’s 18 years on but those memories — and the media attention which ensued — remain fresh in Seamus’s mind.
For James, however, not so much. Now 26, that night was a separate, closed, chapter of his life. He moved into music and a job as a sound engineer after school beckoned — that’s his existence now, and understandably, he doesn’t want to talk about February 15, 1995 anymore.
Seamus, on the other hand, can still recall every tiny detail. His wife was at Riverdance the same evening and it wasn’t until he arrived home and flicked on the TV that he realised the image households across the country took to bed was of a man from Greystones and his son watching the horror unfold.
“The level of violence was something we’d never experienced,” Seamus says.
“We were underneath the West Stand, and when stuff started coming down on top of us, I thought the safest place to be was to get out onto the pitch. There was a gate in front of us and I thought we wouldn’t get hit out there. We didn’t know so many would spill out there but at that moment it was the safest place to be. Once we moved out, the shot was taken and I never thought anymore of it.”
Until he got home, that is.
“I was just concerned about looking for a way out and to get home safely. We got back into the car, drove down the N11. Then a friend of mine phoned to say we were all over the news.”
James became known as ‘the boy from Wicklow on the telly’. It was an unusual claim to fame, but a litany of media appearances soon followed.
“The following morning was quiet and I thought ‘thank God, we’ve got away with it’ but from midday onwards, there was no peace for four or five weeks.”
In hindsight, he admits that if it was to happen all again — the media attention, not the riot — he would probably turn down a lot of the offers. Still, the many gifts sent their way weren’t turned down.
“There was a period where we had constant invites. John Aldridge brought us to Tranmere, Dave Kelly brought us over to Wolves and gave James an Irish jersey, Alan Kelly sent us his gloves and jersey from that night and, why it came I still don’t know, a big box of kit arrived from Everton including a Duncan Ferguson jersey.”
The pick of the bunch however, came courtesy of Sky.
“We went to Old Trafford and James got to meet all the United players in the dressing room. They were playing QPR in a cup match and we did a piece in the Sky studio beforehand. We met Schmeichel, Andrei Kanchelskis, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, the lot.”
Smaller gifts were appreciated in equal manner, too: “Letters were arriving for ‘James, the boy from the telly, Co Wicklow’, on the envelope. One kid sent us a five pound note saying he hopes it pays for the next match.
“There was some lovely stuff, but if I was to do it again, I probably wouldn’t have gone in for it as much. It got to a point where I started to say no because we wanted some normality.”
After the dust settled, organisational flaws before the game became clear. The inquiry which followed, led by former Chief Justice Thomas Finlay, established gardaí turned down the offer of assistance for British police ‘spotters’ beforehand to identify known troublemakers.
In the run-up to the game, there was a menacing atmosphere in Dublin. Pubs were taken over, union flags hung from bars, leading many to say alcohol had a big role in the disturbance. During the anthems, both sets of fans jeered each other with English fans eventually blamed for the violence, an extreme right-wing group called Combat 18, giving nazi salutes during their own anthem.
But on the night itself, Seamus maintains the gardaí acted as well as one could have expected.
“I thought they did a great job. If there was one error made, it was not identifying those who were coming over. If there was an advanced warning, it might have been avoided but we never had trouble before at a game.”
Though not impossible, it is near inconceivable that something similar will occur when the two meet in north London for the first time since that night next Wednesday.
Almost two decades have elapsed, and in that time crowd control, particularly in the UK, has undergone a complete overhaul. With banning orders in place, CCTV covering every section of Wembley and police tactics immeasurably better than they were during the dark old days, trouble is a rarity.
Although he will only be watching from home, after recently undergoing surgery, Seamus doesn’t hold many fears for the travelling fans.
“Times have changed,” he adds. “And although there is maybe still an undercurrent there, things are much better now and the police have every angle covered.” Follow Alan on Twitter