‘There was poison in the air’: 25 years on from that night in Windsor Park
Alan McLoughlin’s goal secured a World Cup spot for Ireland on a tense night in Belfast
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Tommy Wright is beaten by Alan McLoughlin’s shot during the World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park on Wednesday, November 17th 1993. Photograph: Joe St Leger
Jack Charlton was confident, upbeat. It was October 1993 and the Republic of Ireland team he had moulded into a truculent force hosted Spain in a World Cup qualifier at Lansdowne Road.
Charlton thought the Irish would win. Victory would secure qualification for USA 94 and a second consecutive appearance at a World Cup. He had a skip in his step. As he was to say: “The atmosphere in the ground that day was something else.
“More than three years on the excitement and the sense of national pride which made Italia 90 so special for us still lingered. Now it seemed the whole country wanted to be with us on the day we would book our place for the finals in America.”
Charlton’s next line was: “So much for expectation.”
His confidence, based on a 0-0 draw with Spain in Seville the previous November, was misguided. In Dublin, the Spanish were 3-0 ahead before the half-hour. In the second half they put on a young midfielder called Pep Guardiola.
It was an Irish substitute who made a difference, though. In the 72nd minute, John Sheridan, on for Kevin Moran, made it 3-1. It turned out to be more than a consolation goal.
Not that it felt that way to Charlton. He was disturbed by the defeat, because he knew there was only one qualifier left and because it was in Belfast against Northern Ireland. It was the following month – November 17th – and, in Charlton’s description, it was the “doomsday” scenario.
His wariness – sporting, political and, perhaps, personal – was justified.
Two days after the Spain game, Paddy McMahon, a 23-year-old Catholic, was shot dead in north Belfast by the UDA. It was the first of 26 deaths in 18 days in the North’s Troubles, including the IRA bomb at Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road and the UFF ‘trick or treat’ massacre at the Rising Sun pub at Greysteel.
There was a two-week respite without killing before the match at Windsor Park but, as Ireland held its breath, the atmosphere in Belfast was as grim as the 1970s.
The fixture would have been tense anyway, because of the mathematics. The Republic thought they would need to win to make it through to America, though a draw might be good enough depending on the Spain-Denmark result in Seville. Goal difference could be a factor.
Northern Ireland’s qualification chance had gone. But they could stop the Republic. On top of that, after 17 years in the job in two spells, Billy Bingham, the Northern Ireland manager, was leaving.
“I remember we were all feeling sorry for ourselves,” says Niall Quinn of the loss to Spain in October. “They absolutely battered us.
“But we got one goal, John Sheridan late on, and when I was walking off the pitch that night at Windsor Park, I remember thinking that it was that goal as much as Alan McLoughlin’s which got us above Denmark in the group.”
The Spain result was the fresh context for Charlton and the Republic of Ireland. For Bingham and Northern Ireland, the game motivating them was their 3-0 defeat in Dublin in March.
Andy Townsend, Quinn and Steve Staunton scored in the space of 10 first-half minutes and Bingham took exception to a chant from the crowd: ‘There’s only one team in Ireland’. He also felt Charlton had “rubbished” his players.
Jim Magilton played in central midfield for Northern Ireland in both Irish games that year. “I wouldn’t categorise it as hostile,” he says of Dublin in March, “but the crowd seemed more stoked up than usual. That came across.
“Then there was that chant: ‘Only one team in Ireland’.
“I regarded it more as banter and because the home side were so on top. I was more focused on them as a team – the Republic had some top-class players and they were so much better than us on the day. We weren’t competitive and Billy took it personally. I’ve never seen him as animated, he was always very calm before and after games.”
Bingham was 62 and had been an important figure in Irish football since his debut for Glentoran in the Irish League in 1948. He played at the 1958 World Cup and guided Northern Ireland to Spain in 1982 and Mexico in 1986. He knew the game inside out.
He also knew Charlton. The two men had played against each other in the 1950s and 60s and had managed Everton and Middlesbrough at the same time in the 70s.
When, in February 1993, six weeks before the two Irish teams met in Dublin, Northern Ireland played a qualifier in Albania. Charlton asked to go with them so he could scout Albania as a team and Tirana as a place. Bingham agreed. Magilton recalls Charlton’s luggage consisted of “a box of cornflakes”.
After a 2-1 Northern Ireland win, one newspaper report said: “Charlton celebrated with Bingham’s braves”.
It also quoted Charlton saying convivially: “I would hope that in the last game at Windsor Park we need a point and they need a point to go on to the finals. That would be some scenario.”
The Charlton quote that held most attention, though, was: “I’m not exactly in a flap about Northern Ireland.”
Parade of funerals
By November and that last group match at Windsor Park, Charlton’s scenario had altered and “a flap” was not the appropriate term for the general concern about the game some thought could not go ahead.
So distressing was the violence and the desolating parade of funerals that the FAI sought guarantees over player safety. They voiced their anxiety to Fifa who, with just over a fortnight to go, told the FAI general secretary Seán Connolly that a change of venue was “imminent”.
This was not new to the IFA – security issues meant Northern Ireland had been unable to stage games at Windsor from late 1971 to 1975. They played in places such as Hull and Sheffield. In 1973 Martin O’Neill scored his first Northern Ireland goal in a ‘home’ game against Portugal in Coventry.
The IFA did not wish to return to that. It it is an indication of the seriousness of the conflict that the idea was considered.
Fifa backtracked, however, assured by the IFA, then said the match had to go ahead at 8pm – not noon as had been suggested – to coincide with Spain-Denmark.
There was to be no away support, however. And no Amhrán na bhFiann. This was a fixture to fulfil, nothing more.
Of course, there was more.
“Had we beaten Spain, it might have been a bit different, a bit easier to handle in sporting terms,” Niall Quinn says. “But we didn’t and so we had to go up to Belfast and do something.
“It was so volatile. The period beforehand was as low as it gets, wasn’t it? Fifa were wavering about whether the game could go ahead in Belfast, both Associations and security forces were having discussions. I think it was uncertain until quite close to the game.”
Advised to fly to Belfast from Dublin, rather than travel by road from their base in Monaghan, the Republic squad arrived the day before. They trained, waited, then set off.
“On the bus to the game, I remember seeing a group of young kids with sticks pretending they were rifles and they were pointing them at us,” Quinn says. “They’d shoot, kneel down and another row would shoot. I thought: ‘Jesus, this is crazy stuff’.
“There were no Republic fans allowed up and given the way things were, that was the right call.”
Magilton, from west Belfast, understood his home town: “I was very, very aware of the horrific events going on, we were all very conscious of that.
“And clearly there was a different feel to this match, that was evident in the city beforehand. It was hostile and I’ve never known such noise, it was constant, lasted the whole match.”
Also on Magilton’s mind, though, was Dublin in March.
“Again – I must stress this – I’m there as a 24-year-old professional footballer desperate to get established, desperate to play in big games like this. You’re up against Roy Keane, Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton in midfield. So I’m thinking about that more than anything else going on around me.”
What was going on around the players was a shocking cacophony of sectarian abuse, vitriol which stunned onlookers. Sometimes it was racist, directed at Terry Phelan and Paul McGrath.
Fintan O’Toole sat silently in the crowd for The Irish Times. He told of the racism and sectarianism and of the anti-English stick Charlton received. He referenced a Hot Press interview with the UDA in which the Loyalist paramilitaries had criticised Charlton’s presence.
“In Northern Ireland,” the UDA spokesman said, “we have a national team. In the South you have an international team with an Englishman leading them. In Ulster we wouldn’t want a foreigner to run our national team.”
The diaspora question had entered Irish football via the ‘granny’ rule. Bingham had called the Republic’s England-born players “mercenaries” in the build-up. Only four of Charlton’s starting XI were born in Ireland; 10 of Bingham’s were local. It was about authenticity, identity.
Bingham would not retract this, adding to the tension. When kick-off arrived, his gestures to the crowd whipped up Windsor Park into a fever.
Charlton heard it all. But not as loudly as Alan Kernaghan.
Born in Yorkshire, Kernaghan moved to Co Down aged six. His parents were English but his father’s parents were from Northern Ireland. So Kernaghan had an Irish granny.
But the IFA did not recognise this rule at senior level. Therefore, while he played underage football for Northern Ireland, Kernaghan could not win a senior cap.
He approached the IFA, “but it was just a ‘no’,” as he explained years later. “Out of the blue I was approached by the Republic, and professional football is such a short career that I took the opportunity to play international football. Let’s face it – you want to play for somebody that actually wants you.
“It was a strange situation to be in. I tried for so long to get playing for Northern Ireland but it never came off. Then all of a sudden I was playing for the Republic of Ireland.”
As “turncoat” tirades rained down on Kernaghan, there was no time to reply that it was a bit more complicated than it might look.
It was a bad night for nuance.
The same applied to Bingham and Charlton’s previous amicable relationship and, for example, to Magilton and Steve Staunton marrying two sisters from Liverpool, becoming relatives. In 2015 Kernaghan became manager of Glentoran, Bingham’s first club.
And then there were the two goalscorers, Alan McLoughlin and Jimmy Quinn.
McLoughlin was a Mancunian from Maine Road, who went to school with Noel Gallagher from Oasis and who joined Manchester United as a teenager. His parents, Nora and Pat, came from Limerick and Mayo.
Released by United, McLoughlin joined Swindon Town. One day he opened a letter from the English FA saying he had been called up to play a ‘B’ international in Cork against the Republic of Ireland. He opened the next letter which said that he had been called up by the FAI to play in the same game.
McLoughlin made his choice, went to Italia 90 and was winning his 15th cap in Belfast when he was sent on as a replacement for Houghton. It was 0-0, there were 20 minutes left.
Then Jimmy Quinn scored from 20 yards past Packie Bonner and the ground erupted. At this, Jimmy Nicholl, Bingham’s assistant, shouted “up yours”, or words to that effect, at Charlton’s dugout.
Jimmy Quinn did not know this. He was off celebrating and would say he was delighted for Bingham in his last match.
How many of the crowd using sectarian language towards the Republic’s players knew Quinn’s background is uncertain. He was a north Belfast Catholic whose father William was an Ulsterbus driver. The family was “not religious at all” and they lived on the Rathcoole estate when it was mixed. Quinn had three brothers who joined the British Army. Around 1971 when strife worsened, the family fled, ended up in Wiltshire. “Felt like refugees”, Quinn said when we spoke last year. He did not approve of the granny rule.
What McLoughlin felt when Quinn scored was not straightforward. When McLoughlin first went to Swindon, feeling isolated and a bit glum following his release by United, an elder colleague went out of his way to help him settle in. He brought him into his home for meals and company.
“I’ll never forget what Jimmy did,” McLoughlin said of Jimmy Quinn.
Trailing 1-0, there would be no USA 94 for the Republic of Ireland. Then, three minutes after Quinn’s goal, McLoughlin chested down Gerry Taggart’s clearance, sent a volley dipping into the bottom corner and O’Toole wrote:
“There is complete silence, an aural vacuum in which your merest whimper will give you away. There are necks craned, eyes scanning the rows of seats to see if a Fenian will pop up. Because there is no sound, because you cannot blink or twitch, never mind dance and roar, you have the eerie feeling that it has not happened at all.”
But it had happened. At that point, as white-shirted Republic players half-grasped each other in the vacuum, the home support began to sing: “There’s only one team in Ireland.”
It was not a tribute, it was an act of defiance. It was better than some of the bile which had flowed, the “trick or treat” stuff that scarred the night sky.
“When the match starts, it becomes about football, you’re a player,” Niall Quinn says. “Even so, there was a moment when the crowd started singing ‘trick or treat’ and no matter how professional you are, you hear it. That was eerie, awful, something I’ll never forget.”
On the way
Spain were winning when the final whistle blew. Charlton’s players had done enough. There were minutes of tension when it was realised that Denmark could yet equalise to change everything, but it was a different sort of tension.
Then came confirmation that Spain had beaten Denmark. Goal difference mattered, McLoughlin’s goal mattered, Sheridan’s goal mattered. USA 94 was on the way.
As the old, wooden stadium emptied, Charlton looked for Bingham to shake hands, wish him well on his retirement. “At least, that was my intention,” Charlton said in his autobiography. “Instead, in a moment I still find difficult to understand, I pointed a finger at him and blurted out: ‘Up yours, too, Billy.’”
The exchange was caught by photographers. It was used on the cover of Cormac Moore’s book The Irish Soccer Split.
Charlton regretted it immediately. He said there and then: “I’m afraid it was that kind of night, we were all swallowed up by the tension.”
As the teams returned to their dressingrooms, Bingham gave his farewell press conference. Charlton, determined to make amends, barged in to apologise – Bingham accepting – and was then astounded to be asked to present his rival with an award to honour his Irish career.
“Some of the people who had been abusing me all evening are stood there cheering,” Charlton said. “I think that said it all about a crazy, noisy night.”
It did not say it all. As Charlton spoke to Bingham, the Northern Ireland captain Alan McDonald was making his way into the visitors’ dressingroom. This could have been ominous, McDonald was as hard as a brick.
“Alan was 100 miles an hour, loud, committed, real, but cute,” Niall Quinn says of the man marking him. “He would come through you, apologise to the ref, do it again. But he came into our dressingroom after and congratulated us. He made a short speech in which he said football had won and it will always win.
“In the circumstances, the poison in the air . . .
“So I remember the low – trick or treat. And when I think about the night I can’t separate it from Greysteel and the people in the pub. I can’t. It has stayed with me.
“I was proud to play in the game, I was. I was glad it went on and wasn’t called off or moved to England. Then Alan’s goal, that was the best bit of the night, our fans singing: ‘Who the fuck is Alan?’
“That was the low and the high. But the most important bit, that was Alan McDonald in our changing room.”
Enormity of the situation
The team flew back to Dublin airport to a heroes’ welcome, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds among them. That was the enormity of the situation. Quinn went back to England, tore his cruciate ligament three days later and missed USA 94.
“They qualified on merit, over 12 games, not one,” Magilton says. “So you shook hands and said: ‘Well done. Congratulations on going to a World Cup.’”
Not all were so magnanimous. This was a night of success and sorrow for Irish football. The sport had been lashed by the acid of sectarianism and the naked, hate-filled divisions on display had at least two repercussions.
In qualifying for USA 94, the Republic of Ireland players had ensured not just a second consecutive World Cup finals for themselves, they had maintained a 12-year Irish presence at the greatest tournament.
Bingham had started that with Northern Ireland in 1982 and continued it in 1986.
It says much about the soccer talent on the island that Irish teams scored in four consecutive World Cups – Spain, Mexico, Italy and the USA. Looking back, it was a golden era.
It says much about 20th century Irish life – the border in our consciousness – that no-one said so.
Much louder, and much worse, was to come.
On 18th June 1994, Irish football fans gathered to watch the first Republic game of USA 94, what the stress of qualification, including Windsor Park, had all been about. It was a Saturday night, Italy were the opposition in New York and in the Heights bar in the village of Loughinisland, Co Down, there must have been a buzz. Then two UVF gunmen burst in, sprayed bullets around and killed six men. Barney Green was one of those who died. He was 87, described by friends as “really jolly”.