Twenty-five years on, how infamous Night in November showdown was a microcosm

When all sense, sanity and humanity go out the window, months like October and November 1993 occur.

For those young and fortunate enough to have been spared the horrors of that time, the staging of a football match between two neighbouring countries might seem inconsequential, a distraction even, when set against the backdrop of the terrible atrocities on the Shankill Road, at Greysteel and the litany of murderous attacks less well documented amid the 25-year anniversaries just marked.

In a bloody two weeks, a total of 23 people were indiscriminately slaughtered in a vicious circle of tit for tat.

How could football matter at a time like that, an outsider might wonder, let alone become a conduit for further division?

Didn’t football, like all sports here, help provide a semblance of normality in the most abnormal of times?

But in a pervasive, poisonous atmosphere, with tensions ratcheted up to 11 and base instincts bringing out the worst in even the normally moderate, Northern Ireland v the Republic in a high stakes Windsor Park World Cup qualifying fixture in the aftermath was a nightmare scenario for seriously overstretched security forces.

It was a headache they neither wanted nor needed but all parties concerned, from world governing body Fifa, the two associations sharing this isle, down to the fans on both sides were adamant it must be played (though not all were agreed on where).

The timing could not have been more ill-fated and where cool heads were needed, hot heads fanned the flames of controversy starting to engulf the fixture.

The Wednesday, November 17 game had been eagerly and positively anticipated by fans of both teams from the moment the draw for the 1994 USA World Cup was made.

But the last match in the qualifying series, with its potential to deliver a dream ticket to the US, was to prove an unforeseen scheduling nightmare.

As the death toll on the streets mounted and the temperature gauge of community relations plummeted as fast as fear and tensions sent the mercury rising, the game became a focal point for all the wrong reasons, a microcosm, it can now be seen, of the toxicity of the time.

In the days leading up to the Wednesday evening kick-off, tensions were ramped up and seized upon.

Would all involved, especially in an official capacity, act differently if they had it over again? Most likely, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Attitudes then were formed and seared in the context of the conflagration of the time when temperate words and deeds were drowned out by the sound and fury all around. Normally rational people lost all sense of reason, reverting to base instincts. The blood was up as a country collectively took leave of its senses.

Even the two managers, Billy Bingham and Jack Charlton, the most agreeable and outreaching of men, were later to regret uncharacteristic, incendiary outbursts, ignited by the heat of the moment.

Bingham was facing into his last match as Northern Ireland manager, having announced his retirement, and in the normal course of events, with his team out of the World Cup running, the game would have become a celebration of his glorious 13-year reign with two British Championships and qualification for two World Cups, Spain ’82 and Mexico ’86, to his eternal credit.

Charlton, for his part, found himself needing a win to make his second successive World Cup finals, though a draw would suffice, depending on the outcome of the Spain-Denmark game being played simultaneously in Seville.

He would never have expected his biggest football rivals to roll over and rubber stamp the Republic’s US visa.

But Charlton, his FAI officials and Republic fans were shocked when Bingham, renowned for his considered and measured choice of words, lashed out in his first pre-match press conference, describing players recruited by the Republic under the parentage rule as ‘mercenaries’ and vowing to wreck their World Cup hopes.

“They couldn’t find a way of making it with England or Scotland,” he said of players like Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. “I take a totally cynical view of the whole business. I am not prepared to skirt the issue, the same as I am happy to state it is our intention to stuff the Republic.”

Cynicism and anger abounded as all reason departed on the first plane out.

Any hope of a lid being kept on the pressure cooker disappeared when FAI officials made behind the scenes moves to have the game moved to Old Trafford, on the grounds of safety concerns for their players and fans. An understandable request on their part, given the murderous climate.

But Northern Ireland fans reacted furiously, believing the move to be a ploy to gain an advantage in pursuit of their World Cup dream.

And it wasn’t just the fans frothing, the mood being reflected in an astonishing back page editorial in the normally uncontroversial News Letter which abandoned all logical argument to declare: “We will tell you why they don’t want to come here. It is because they are yellow!”

In the event, Fifa accepted IFA and security force assurances that Windsor could safely host the game, albeit with 2,000 police, soldiers, stewards and barking attack dogs deployed, a 10,000 crowd limit and no tickets available to visiting fans. Some invariably found their way in but probably regretted their resourcefulness.

For the die had been cast by the words and deeds of the preceding month. No sporting event in this country, before or since, has taken place in such a febrile atmosphere of palpable hostility giving way to downright hatred.

The Republic team had flown up, rather than drive, for security reasons, and on their team bus on the short journey to the stadium, they were accompanied by armed guards, dressed in tracksuits.

Roy Keane recalls being asked in the tunnel by a stunned English-born team-mate what the undisguised tribalism was all about. “How long have you got?” Keane drily replied.

Paul McGrath, on his first visit back to Windsor last year, told of his shock, when the teams lined up, that Northern Ireland players he’d known and played alongside would not look him in the eye or shake hands.

As sectarian abuse rained down from the stands, McGrath and team-mate Terry Phelan suffered the added indignity of racial taunts.

But the fiercest torrent engulfed Alan Kernaghan, the Bangor-raised Protestant who had played for Northern Ireland schoolboys but whose path to the senior team was blocked because both his parents had been born in England and the IFA steadfastly refused to go down the Dublin road by extending the eligibility rules, as they have now.

The Republic had no such qualms and snapped up a quality player, leading him to be vociferously branded a traitor when he was nothing of the sort.

For all that, the player who would be the Republic’s goalscoring saviour on the night, Alan McLoughlin, later declared: “The safest place to be was on the pitch.”

Amid the rancour, a football match broke out and in the circumstances, it was understandably dire until Jimmy Quinn scored a stunning volley for Northern Ireland in the 71st minute, changing the whole qualification picture for the Republic, who now needed to score.

Once again, caught up in the fevered atmosphere, Bingham’s No.2, Jimmy Nicholl, now assistant to Michael O’Neill, reacted as he has never done in his football life, before or since, by shouting ‘Up yours’ (or words to that effect) in the face of Charlton’s No.2, Maurice Setters.

While that was happening, Charlton was turning to substitute striker Tony Cascarino to hopefully get him that goal. But Cascarino, for the only time in his career, had forgotten to put his kit on. When Cascarino unzipped his tracksuit top, all he saw was a plain cotton T-shirt. “Jack’s face turned purple,” Cascarino recalled. “I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”

But within minutes, Cascarino’s cardiac fears were eased as McLoughlin brought the Republic level. “I have always believed,” said Cascarino, “that had Alan McLoughlin not equalised, there’s a fair chance Jack would have chinned me.”

Instead, on the final whistle and with their qualification still not confirmed, Charlton made a beeline for Bingham.

“I spotted Billy talking among his players and moved in his direction to congratulate him on his retirement and compliment him on a good game,” he said in his autobiography. “At least that was my intention. Instead, in a moment I still find difficult to understand, I pointed a finger at him and blurted ‘Up yours too, Billy’.”

Charlton says he regretted the words instantly, not least because it hadn’t been Bingham who gestured at Setters in the first place, and apologised shortly after. A surreal night ended with Charlton presenting Bingham with an award to mark his retirement. “Some of the people who’d been abusing me all evening are stood there cheering. I think that said it all about a crazy, noisy night.”

The madness of Northern Ireland in the darkest hours that were to precede our new dawn followed the Republic to the USA the following summer as their famous New Jersey win over Italy was tragically overshadowed by the Loughinisland massacre of villagers gathered in their local bar to watch the game on TV.

It couldn’t go on as the tit for tat merchants eventually came to realise they were on a path to mutually assured destruction, their murderous campaigns as futile as the proverbial fist in a bucket of water. No matter how long and how furiously you stir it up, the moment you remove the source of agitation, the surface returns to flat calm.

And that is the very different backdrop of a new Northern Ireland we take into Thursday’s friendly, in every sense, with the Republic in Dublin, 25 years to the week from that infamous Night In November (the title of a successful stage play it inspired), with the two associations preparing to work in harmony on their European U21 finals bid and concerns over crowd behaviour barely registering in the pre-match planning.

The great pity is that so many lives were needlessly lost, getting us to this point where we ought to have been years ago.

Belfast Telegraph