OPINION: The folklore that followed that ‘night in November’ at Windsor Park

News Letter reporter Mark Rainey recalls that the most remarkable thing about the famous ‘night in November’ match at Windsor Park is the tsunami of misinformation and folklore that followed.

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 9:15 am
Updated Thursday, 25th November 2021, 11:13 am
Alan McLoughlin (centre), with manager Jack Charlton (wearing cap), after his goal earned a 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland and World Cup qualification in 1993. Photo: Pacemaker Belfast

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Yes, there was a degree of tension at a time of increased terrorist violence, but the mood was one of mischievous optimism that having been thumped 3-0 in the reverse fixture in Dublin, Northern Ireland could restore some pride by spoiling the Republic’s World Cup party.

However, as soon as the final whistle blew on the 1-1 draw, the talk turned to the football bonanza we were now going to enjoy, thanks to an RTE pledge to broadcast every game from the World Cup finals – not just the Republic’s matches – if they qualified.

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Over the next two days the media reports in Northern Ireland celebrated the Republic’s hard-earned success. There was also a sense of relief that the potentially problematic fixture passed off without incident.

I was surprised the morning after the match when a work colleague informed me his nephew was one of a handful of youths who had been arrested for shouting abuse at the Republic’s players.

This would explain why a number of Jack Charlton’s team later recalled experiencing vile sectarianism.

Unacceptable behaviour by a small number attending football matches is an on-going problem. Only last month, Cliftonville FC issued an apology over pro-IRA chants from a small number of fans during a game against Linfield at Windsor Park.

I can’t imagine that 28 years later anyone will be able to give a detailed account of the incident, but the shameful actions of a few at Windsor Park that night have been relentlessly used to tarnish the 10,000 others who helped create a memorable sporting spectacle – praised by Irish president Mary Robinson and so many others.

Here was a chance for the Northern Ireland fans to disgrace themselves in the eyes of the world and they didn’t take it. For some in our society that was too much to bear.

After a few days of musing, up stepped a number of newspaper columnists – seemingly feeding off each other’s third-hand accounts – with one citing “the dogs in the street” as knowing how sectarian the fans’ behaviour had been.

In the academic study ‘Unionism in modern Ireland: new perspectives on politics and culture,’ the authors observe: “Following the Belfast match, the reaction in some quarters seemed to border on the hysterical.”

The baseless allegations were eventually reported so widely they have been adopted as entirely factual.

No one much cares now to go back and trace a timeline for the birth and development of the myth. Too many people are not only comfortable with it, they keep it in their back pocket to be produced every time an international fixture comes around.

Pundits will continue to denigrate the Northern Ireland fans who, decades ago, largely purged supporters of any sectarian element and created a fan base world-renowned for its good conduct.

And as for the “incitement to hatred” claims levelled at Billy Bingham – for encouraging the crowd to get behind his team – compare his sideline antics to the naked aggression of Liverpool and Arsenal managers Jurgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta at Anfield last Saturday.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Log on to YouTube and check out the BBC’s full live coverage of the 1993 encounter for yourself.

Or maybe take a trip to the newspaper library in Belfast and read the contemporaneous reports in the daily papers. The ones written when minds were still clear and there was relief that sporting rivalry did not tip into something more sinister.

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