Owen Polley: Windsor Park 1993 football match between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland was case study in nationalist myth making

In November 1993, Northern Ireland played a World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in Belfast.

Saturday, 27th November 2021, 7:33 am
Updated Saturday, 27th November 2021, 8:49 am
The Northern Ireland team at Windsor Park for the November 1993 match against the Republic of Ireland. The southern team was trying to reach the world cup finals while the Ulstermen wanted to give their manager, Billy Bingham, a fitting send off

The southern team was trying to reach the finals of the tournament in the United States, while the Ulstermen wanted to give their legendary manager, Billy Bingham, a fitting send off as he retired from international football.

I was there and the atmosphere was competitive, on and off the pitch. When Northern Ireland’s striker, Jimmy Quinn, sent a volley arcing past Pat Bonner’s outstretched glove in the second half, Windsor Park erupted with joy.

The theme song that night, ‘There’s only one team in Ireland,’ had already been firmly established.

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Jack Charlton at the end of the 1993 game when his Republic of Ireland Republic team celebrated its entry to the world cup

You could hear scraps of it in the streets before the match, as the trickles and tributaries of Northern Ireland fans gathered into a steady torrent coursing toward Windsor Park.

The chant had been heard first in Dublin, when the Republic’s fans taunted northerners during a 3-0 win. That mockery hurt, because Northern Ireland was traditionally the dominant force in Irish football, qualifying for international tournaments while the south struggled.

Now that Northern Ireland had taken the lead against Jack Charlton’s side the song was redeployed.

The stands at Windsor Park shook with noise, as the Green and White Army reminded their rivals that theirs was the original Irish football team; veterans of three World Cups and reigning Home Nations champions.

Billy Bingham, the Northern Ireland manager, was retiring from international football

Unfortunately, minutes later, the Republic equalised and secured their place in the US. I still maintain that goal came from a free-kick that should not have been given. Nigel Worthington shoulder-charged Eddie McGoldrick perfectly fairly, but the referee decided otherwise.

These are the decisive moments that haunt fans, but they are part of the game and the Republic was deservedly destined for New York.

The saddest thing was that Bingham did not get the winning end that his career deserved. However, his team had restored a lot of pride with its battling performance.

Of course, Northern Ireland was a troubled place in November 1993. The build up to the match was overshadowed by horrific terrorist attacks like the Shankill bombing and the Greysteel massacre.

Northern Ireland fans at the November 1993 game at Windsor Park. The build up to the match was overshadowed by horrific terrorist massacres yet the atmosphere was not unusually hostile or sinister

Despite this deeply unpromising context, the atmosphere was not unusually hostile or sinister. I was only a teenager, but I had already seen more vitriol at club games and I would do so many more times in the years to come.

That’s why I was delighted to read Mark Rainey’s two page spread, in Wednesday’sNews Letter (‘Worst night of sectarian thuggery that never was.’ November 24, see link below), about the myth that Windsor Park was a cockpit of hatred that night.

He explained in detail how the falsehood got started. The Republic’s manager, Jack Charlton, believed that Northern Ireland should have gone easy on his team. Famously, after the final whistle, he said, “They (Northern Ireland) battled too hard... They will get no favours from us... ever.”

This typically graceless comment set in train a series of inventions, distortions and exaggerations that were repeated as if they were gospel by generations of players, fans and commentators.

As Mark noted rightly, none of these accusations were levelled at the home fans in the immediate aftermath of the match.

Many of the modern preconceptions about Northern Ireland fans’ conduct seem to have arisen from the Marie Jones’ play, A Night in November.

Soon these details were cited by pundits who were nowhere near Windsor Park, but who nevertheless portrayed it as a bastion of bigotry.

The contrast between what I saw that evening and the hysteria that followed made a strong impression on me, even as a schoolboy.

It showed me vividly that if a myth was repeated often enough in Northern Ireland it became accepted as fact, not just by its nationalist inventors, but by neutrals and well-meaning unionists too.

Even Northern Ireland’s advocates now tell a story about how fans transforming their behaviour after this supposed “night of hate”.

This narrative highlights the way the atmosphere at Windsor Park changed over many decades, becoming more inclusive and family friendly, but it repeats a caricature that was never fair or real.

Football fans have rarely behaved perfectly. They are passionate, get carried away and sometimes act aggressively and badly. No doubt, some Republic fans found the atmosphere at Windsor Park in 1993 unpleasant or uncomfortable. They were not, it must be said, supposed to be in the stadium in the first place.

The myth of the “night in November” has been perpetuated for so long that it is now unlikely ever to be dispelled. Thank goodness that a journalist has the courage to challenge it and explain its origins. It will mean a lot to very many people.

The over-arching lesson is that we should be quicker to counter new lies as we see them becoming established in this society.

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