Windsor Park 1993: worst night of sectarian thuggery that never was

As a play based on sectarianism at a Northern Ireland match is once again staged in Belfast, MARK RAINEY revisits the story

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 8:45 am
Updated Thursday, 25th November 2021, 11:06 am
Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton (wearing cap) on the Windsor Park pitch following his team's 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland in November 1993. Photo: Pacemaker Belfast

It was the worst night of sectarian thuggery in the history of Northern Ireland football... that didn’t actually happen.

The now ‘infamous’ 1993 World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and the Republic certainly took place at Windsor Park on Wednesday, November 17 but, uniquely, seemed to attract more pundits and political commentators than sports writers.

They were all there for the drama that was a make-or-break match for the Republic in terms of qualifying for the 1994 finals, and the pride at stake for Billy Bingham’s team on his final game in charge.

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I was there and don’t recall much tension but there was a large police presence, just weeks after the IRA bomb on the Shankill Road that claimed nine lives, and the loyalist gun attack in Greysteel that claimed eight more.

A pre-match spat between Bingham and opposite number Jack Charlton carried on after kick-off and there were heated exchanges between the two dug-outs throughout the game.

Much to Big Jack’s disgust, the Green and White Army got behind the home side from the first whistle and it began to look like the noisy neighbours were going to upset the Republic’s World Cup party.

Then late in the second half the Northern Ireland fans went wild, after Jimmy Quinn’s wonderful opener. This was somehow perceived as hatred towards the Republic.

Charlton’s mood improved three minutes later when a strike from Alan McLoughlin in the 76th minute cancelled out the Quinn goal.

The boisterous, but overwhelmingly good-natured, crowd were silenced and then there were jubilant scenes on the pitch as the point was enough to secure the Republic passage to the finals in the US.

The sports and news journalists frantically scribbled their glowing reports of a sporting occasion described as “a triumph for sport on this island”.

The following morning the Irish News gave half of its front page to a celebratory article saying it was “party time” across Ireland.

The only negative comments in the Irish News, News Letter and Belfast Telegraph focussed on the bad feelings between the two managers and Charlton saying: “They (Northern Ireland) battled too hard tonight. They will get no favours from us... ever”.

The same Irish News report concluded: “In Belfast, the police praised the behaviour of fans at the game. Sports Minister Michael Ancram said the fans’ sporting behaviour had been an example to the rest of the footballing world.”

In the Belfast Telegraph, Irish President Mary Robinson is quoted as saying the game had “been a triumph for sport on this island”. The same report stated: “There was no hint of trouble at the match, with the RUC reporting just a handful of arrests.”

It later emerged that a small number of individuals, in the South Stand close to the players’ tunnel, shouted sectarian abuse at some of the Republic’s players and were arrested by the RUC and removed from the stadium. The game then passed without adverse incident.

Perhaps these ugly outbursts fuelled the imaginations of political pundits and would-be ‘war correspondents’.

The story of that night began to take a twist when Fine Gael TD Austin Deasy told the Dail that the Northern Ireland manager had behaved in a way that amounted to “incitement to hatred,” however, there were still no allegations of bad behaviour involving supporters.

The News Letter’s Morning View on Friday was a robust defence of Billy Bingham (but still no mention of sectarian behaviour claims). Also on Friday, the Irish News reported that the “controversy over the sideline behaviour of the two managers rumbles on,” and added: “At a post-match press conference, Charlton apologised for as yet unreported remarks to Billy Bingham at the end of the game.”

That was the story. It was three days after the match when an Irish News columnist recalled a very different Windsor Park from the one described by other journalists, the police and the Irish president.

James Kelly accused the Northern Ireland “soccer thugs” of “dredging up bile and poison” and he quoted a Dublin journalist as saying the team was “swept forward in a loyalist rage”.

Unfortunately Mr Kelly relied on innuendo to portray the exact nature of what was being alleged, saying: “What was Billy Bingham thinking about signalling in that odd fashion to the howling fans – and we know what they were howling.”

The following Wednesday, in an Irish News column, Brian Feeney linked Bingham’s pre-match comments to the Nazis’ belief in racial supremacy. In a jibe at the NI manager’s rejection of the grandparent rule on national team selection, Feeney said: “Billy Bingham shares an impoverished logic with the herrenvolk in Windsor Park that, if you’re born in stable you must be a horse. It seems to be Irish you must be white and born on the island.”

And so it began. Over time, the disgraceful sectarian yells of a few embarrassing individuals morphed into the chants of the 10,000-strong crowd.

Fast forward to 2016 and Joe Brolly, writing in the Irish Independent, said: “When Jimmy Quinn’s exquisite volley put the home team one up, the stand rocked to chants of ‘Greysteel Eight, Ireland Nil’ and ‘Trick or Treat’. The experience prompted playwright Marie Jones to pen A Night in November, a shocking and accurate portrayal of sectarian hatred at the time.”

Only last week, an Irish News article previewing the current production of the play, at The MAC in Belfast, said the Republic’s equalising goal that night “silenced the home crowd’s roaring renditions of The Billy Boys just three minutes later”.

If you watch the full BBC live coverage of the game, available on Youtube, you can judge for yourself if these claims are an accurate account of what happened (spoiler alert, they aren’t).

Claims of widespread sectarianism levelled against the Northern Ireland fans have been repeated, and embellished, over a number of years.

In 2017, one life-long Northern Ireland decided enough was enough and challenged a mainstream media outlet to stand over its account of grossly sectarian songs, including The Billy Boys, being sung at Windsor Park.

Ian McKinney made a formal complaint to the press complaints body IPSO, which prompted a full retraction of the claim and an apology from Belfast Live.

The website’s content editor said the article ‘Bigotry is shaming the beautiful game’ was “based on the columnist’s wrongful assumption”.

Mr McKinney said: “That article just incensed me. It was just the same old nonsense. I’m sure he genuinely believed what he was writing, but it was just wrong.”

He said those who repeat the claims about sectarianism at Windsor Park are “perpetuating a myth that Northern Ireland is not for Catholics that is categorically not true”.

Commenting on ‘A Night in November’ he added: “That play is the main reason people now think that is what happened that night [when Northern Ireland played the Republic].

“It has become the accepted history, and people will regurgitate those claims ... but it’s not what happened”

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