Worst sporting moment: White knuckle ride on a hate-filled night at Windsor

Gerry Thornley has yet to experience a more hateful atmosphere than Windsor Park in 1993

Jack Charlton and assistant Maurice Setters walk out into the cauldron of Windsor park to play against Northern Ireland in 1993. Photograph: Pacemaker

Jack Charlton and assistant Maurice Setters walk out into the cauldron of Windsor park to play against Northern Ireland in 1993. Photograph: Pacemaker

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Ask any reporter and they’ll tell you being inside a glassed-in press box is no way to watch a sporting event. Echoey, removed and unnatural. But on that febrile November night in 1993 at Windsor Park when Alan McLoughlin’s priceless equaliser earned the Republic of Ireland a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland and qualification for USA ‘94, it never felt so essential, or welcome.

No away supporters were permitted to attend, understandably so. Hence, when McLoughlin scored, as when an injured Kevin Moran was escorted by RUC personnel into the press box before kick-off, it was the one place where those situated in the row of seats in front of us could turn and vent their feelings.

It was never going to be a pleasant occasion but at the same time, cosseted from the Troubles in Dublin, the hate-fuelled atmosphere which transpired on the night was still a shock.

Earlier in the qualifying campaign, in February 1993 and in more cordial times between the two managers, Billy Bingham had allowed Jack Charlton to accompany the Northern Ireland squad on their 2-1 win away to group minnows Albania. Afterwards, Charlton quipped about how nice it would be if the two Irish teams needed a point from their final group fixture to qualify.

Going into the penultimate round of matches, Northern Ireland were out of contention whereas the unbeaten Republic of Ireland led a tough 12-game qualifying group on 17 points, with Denmark on 16 and Spain on 15.

A win at home against Spain would have secured qualification. Charlton opted for a 4-5-1 formation in the absence of an injured John Aldridge, playing Niall Quinn as a lone striker. The Republic were cut apart by the Spanish on the counter-attack, leaking three goals in the first 27 minutes. John Sheridan was introduced off the bench and scored a 72nd minute consolation goal which, in the event, would prove as vital as McLoughlin’s. Denmark’s 1-0 win at home to Northern Ireland had eliminated Bingham’s team and put the Danes on top of the group

Come the final night of qualifying, Spain (on 17 points) hosted Denmark (18) simultaneously in Seville, with the Republic (17) needing a win in Windsor to ensure their place in the World Cup finals, while a draw would suffice if there was a winner in the other game.

“Up yours, too, Billy.” - Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham and Jack Charlton exchange words at the final whistle. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
“Up yours, too, Billy.” - Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham and Jack Charlton exchange words at the final whistle. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

But those were horrific, murderous times in Northern Ireland and the preceding October had been the bloodiest month of the conflict since the mid-1970s. An IRA bomb had killed nine Protestants in Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankhill Road and a retaliatory mass shooting a week later had killed eight people, mostly Catholic, at a Halloween party in Greysteel, Co Derry.

Although there had been no killings in the two weeks before the match, there had been speculation that the game might be moved from Belfast or postponed. ‘It’s off!’ suggested one newspaper headline.

In those days, it wasn’t unusual for the press corps to travel with the team, but for this game it was a security prerequisite, and a distinct comfort.

The squad, management, FAI officials, sponsors and media flew from Dublin airport the day before the match to Belfast International Airport where we they were taken to, and surrounded by, a huge security cordon at the upmarket Dunadry Hotel close to Lough Neagh. That night, some of us had a few beers to settle the nerves and generate a little gallows humour, if memory serves.

On the day of the game the FAI and press corps were transferred by coach a couple of hours before kick-off to a pre-match reception hosted by Guinness in an industrial estate. Our Northern Irish counterparts, such as Malcolm Brodie and Jackie Fullerton, were always hospitable and friendly. Finger food and drinks were served, although almost nobody among the travelling media partook in the latter in what was a decidedly subdued mood. This was the calm.

Other factors contrived to further stoke up the 10,300 capacity home crowd (the terraces were closed as Fifa decreed that all qualifiers had to be all-seater). The preceding March, at Lansdowne Road, the Republic had cruised to a 3-0 win courtesy of goals by Andy Townsend, Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton in the space of 10 first-half minutes, prompting the home crowd to chant: ‘There’s only one team in Ireland’.

The Northern Ireland fans took exception to that, as did Billy Bingham. Having guided the North to the World Cup finals in Spain in 1982 and Mexico in 1986 (when the team was widely supported by fans south of the border), his legendary 13-year reign was coming to an end on that same November night.

Bingham had the conch in the build-up to that game and he labelled the Republic’s England-born players “mercenaries”. Only four of Charlton’s starting XI were born in Ireland; whereas all but one of Bingham’s side were born in Northern Ireland.

Far from retracting his remarks, he underlined them.

Alan McLoughlin’s goal to make it 1-1. Photograph: Joe St Leger
Alan McLoughlin’s goal to make it 1-1. Photograph: Joe St Leger

“They couldn’t find a way of making it with England or Scotland, ” said Bingham of the Republic’s UK-born players. “I take a totally cynical view of the whole business. I’m not prepared to skirt the issue, the same as I’m happy to state it is our intention to stuff the Republic.”

As he walked along the side of the pitch, Bingham whipped the adoring home crowd into a frenzy by motioning them to be even louder.

Charlton came in for plenty of abuse, as did the Republic players, but the vitriol aimed at the Republic’s centre-half Alan Kernaghan whenever the ball came near him was another notch up. In the same way I’ve never experienced a more hateful atmosphere, I’ve never known a player to hear abuse like that.

I felt for him, not least as I ghosted his columns in The Irish Times. Bright and articulate, he was one of the good guys. He was also strong, physically and mentally, and he needed to be that night more than any other.

Born in Yorkshire, Kernaghan moved with his English-born parents to Co Down at the age of six. He went to Windsor Park as a kid with his dad to support Northern Ireland, and played for the Northern Ireland schoolboys.

But the IFA did not recognise the ‘granny rule’ at senior level, insisting a player or one of his parents had to have been born there, despite his entreaties to the IFA. Whereupon the FAI stepped in when he was 25 and, to his surprise, inquired as to his willingness to play for the Republic of Ireland.

“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.”

Almost any player would have done the same. Two months beforehand Kernaghan had completed a big move from Middlesbrough to Manchester City for what would now be €2.5 million, and he would later manage Glentoran, Bingham’s first club. His father and brother were in the crowd that night.

In raw and blustery conditions, the Republic couldn’t string three passes together in the first-half. Just past the hour, word came through that Fernando Hierro had put Spain a goal up against the Danes, despite the Spaniards having keeper Andoni Zubizarreta sent off after 10 minutes.

But then Jimmy Quinn scored his wonder goal, a leaping, Paolo de Canio-type volley on the run from a lay-off by Kevin Wilson which looped inexorably over Packie Bonner. It was so out of keeping with the game and the night. Windsor went wild and the Republic’s hopes looked forlorn. They hadn’t hinted at a goal.

Three minutes later Nigel Worthington was penalised by his left corner flag for what was possibly a fair shoulder on Eddie McGoldrick. Denis Irwin swung over the free-kick, Gerry Taggart headed it out to the edge of the area where Alan McLoughlin controlled the ball with his chest and steered a sweet left-footed half-volley into the bottom corner. Quinn had invited McLoughlin over to his house for dinner on many occasions when the latter joined him at Swindon three years earlier.

Jack Charlton goads the hostile Windsor park Crowd after the match. Photograph: Pacemaker
Jack Charlton goads the hostile Windsor Park crowd after the match. Photograph: Pacemaker

He didn’t seem sure whether to celebrate or not. Certainly no-one in the ground besides the Irish players and management did. Even at the full-time whistle there were a few minutes’ wait before it was confirmed that Spain had beaten Denmark to top the group. Ireland and Denmark finished on the same points (18) and goal difference (+14), but Charlton’s men progressed by dint of scoring four more goals.

Charlton approached Bingham and, to his regret, said: “Up yours, too, Billy.” On a wild night, he subsequently interrupted Bingham’s press conference to apologise.

There was no dilly-dallying about filing copy. Not so much because of deadlines as the need to avail of the security passage out of Windsor Park, which was through a long winding, darkened, route inside a meshed fence with hardly a word being said. Three buses then took the squad, FAI and media/sponsors to the airport and our flight back to a rapturous Dublin Airport.

Almost a year later to the day, the fixture was repeated at the same venue as the sides had been drawn in the same qualifying group for Euro ‘96. But by then there had been two ceasefires, Bingham had retired and the mood was nothing like the same. There were even away fans openly celebrating goals by John Aldridge, Roy Keane, Sheridan and Townsend which secured a routine 4-0 win.

That night I was in the overflow in the last row in front of the press box. Thinking I’d risk opening the laptop at half-time to start some work, I’d barely typed a word when a home fan walked past me and told me to put the laptop away or else. Well, suffice to say it wouldn’t have been usable ever again. I did what I was told.

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