Northern Ireland vs Republic of Ireland, November 1993: The most politically charged game in living memory?

It’s hard to get excited about international weekends. Even with the advent of the UEFA Nations League, which has breathed some welcome life into between-tournament international football, it’s still something of an afterthought, an unwelcome pause from the important business of club football. The evening of 17 November 1993, a quarter of a century ago this Saturday, did not feel like that.

In Bologna, Graham Taylor was about to learn just how impossible his job was, becoming the first manager in a generation to fail to take England to the World Cup. In Cardiff, Paul Bodin was set to make his name synonymous with near failure, his penalty striking the bar and causing Wales to miss out on USA 94. In Paris, David Ginola would give the ball away rather than taking it to the corner against Bulgaria, creating a rift with Gerard Houllier that stands to this day. In Seville, Spain overcame Denmark – then European champions – despite losing their goalkeeper after 10 minutes. And in Belfast, perhaps the most politically charged game of the 1990s was about to begin.

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will meet in Dublin on Thursday, and the game will likely pass without incident, a meeting of two not-very-good national sides playing out a meaningless friendly. Suffice to say, the pair’s clash 25 years ago was much more important. On the field, the Republic were just a point away from qualification for their second successive World Cup, giving the game all the magnitude it could ever need. Off the field, however, things were charged well beyond the average World Cup qualifier.

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By 1993, the Troubles had been raging for 25 years and seemed likely to continue for the next 25. The first ceasefire would be called in early 1994, but when the teams met in Belfast the conflict was still at its height. Just two months pior, two British Army helicopters had been shot out of the sky, while the IRA was in near total control of areas of Armagh, close to the border with the Republic. In Belfast, where the game was to take place, a bomb in a Shankill Road fish and chip shop in late October had killed nine Protestants; a week later, a retaliatory mass shooting had killed eight civilians, mostly Catholic, at a Halloween party in Greysteel, County Derry. October 1993 was the bloodiest month of the conflict since the mid-1970s.

The location of the match was also controversial. Northern Ireland, then as now, played their home games at Windsor Park, in the heart of Loyalist South Belfast. This was a total no-go area for Catholics, the pavements painted red, white and blue, with murals of the various paramilitary groups on gable ends around the stadium. Windsor Park is home to Linfield, who signed their first Catholic player in living memory just the year before.

Jack Charlton, the Republic’s manager, petitioned to have the game relocated to England or Italy rather than take his charges into the bastion of protestant Orangeism that was South Belfast in 1993. His request was refused. Instead, the Republic team were forced to fly into Belfast and then, accompanied by undercover Special Branch agents with guns, snake their way to the game through housing estates, the lights turned off on the bus in order to avoid detection.

It hadn’t always been thus. Gerry Armstrong, a Catholic from Nationalist West Belfast, later recalled that his 1982 World Cup Northern Ireland team had enjoyed the support of many Catholics and had received hundreds of telegrams of support from south of the border. But as the conflict deepened and the Republic gained in strength on the field, the backing of the North’s Catholic community, and that of the huge Irish diaspora, had definitively shifted.

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Charlton’s opposite number, Billy Bingham, was hardly accommodating either. As if another subtext was necessary, Bingham brought up the row over player eligibility that rumbles on to this day. Of the 13 players who featured for the Republic of Ireland in 1993, eight had been born in the UK to Irish families – actually seven, as it would later transpire that Tony Cascarino’s mother was adopted and not Irish at all.

“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.”

Bingham had already announced that this would be his last game after 15 years in charge at Windsor Park and, as the teams came out, he whipped the home crowd into a frenzy. 

“To this day I’ve never seen a police presence like it,” said Ryan McKane, one of the few intrepid Republic of Ireland supporters to sneak his way into the ground that night. “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’.”

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The pitch was ringed with police dogs and the home fans sang “trick or treat”, a reference to the last words heard by the Halloween revellers in Greysteel before they were shot in cold blood by Loyalist paramilitaries. Kids pointed sticks like guns at the Irish bus as it approached the ground. In the tunnel Andy Townsend turned to Roy Keane and asked: “Roy, what’s all this about?”

God Save The Queen was played by a brass band and the atmosphere was febrile. The first half was poor, but the noise level never wavered, strains of the Billy Boys – “We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood, surrender or you’ll die” – echoing through the air. As the second half started, news filtered through from Seville that Spain had taken the lead against Denmark and, as it stood, the Republic were going to the World Cup.

Just 10 minutes later, Jimmy Quinn – then of third-tier Reading and, ironically, a Catholic from west Belfast – scored a wonder volley to put Northern Ireland in front and turn the tables. Seconds after the ball hit the net, Jimmy Nicholl, Bingham’s assistant, gave the “up yours” to the Republic’s bench. Charlton needed to react and summoned his impact sub, Cascarino, only to find that his star man had left his jersey in the dressing room. As big Jack was still berating the striker, Alan McLoughlin, one of the foreign-born Irish in the squad, belted a volley past Tommy Wright to level the scores. A silence fell on Windsor Park, the few Republic supporters in the ground sensibly choosing to keep their joy to themselves.

Just 12 minutes remained and the focus gradually returned to Seville, where 10-man Spain were holding Denmark at bay. When the final whistle blew in Belfast the Republic’s players celebrated, despite being unsure whether their efforts were enough. Niall Quinn stood waiting to be interviewed on the pitch, asking the reporters frantically if Spain had held on. When he was told they had, the joy was untold. The Republic had qualified on goals scored, the tightest of margins. 

Months later, before the Republic would kick a ball in America, the first ceasefire was signed in Belfast. It wouldn’t mean the end of the violence – six civilians were killed in Loughinisland as they watched Ireland play Italy at the World Cup – but the tide had begun to turn.

The night of 17 November 1993 seems a million miles away, an abstract piece of history rather than a lived experience of just 25 years ago. Football history remembers Graham Taylor’s downfall, Gerard Houllier’s rage and Paul Bodin’s despair, but Irish history remembers Alan McLoughlin, Jimmy Quinn and that night at Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland vs Republic of Ireland, November 1993: The most politically charged game in living memory?
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