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'With black humour, we started speculating about who would be assassinated first'

The Republic travelled to face Northern Ireland in an infamous World Cup qualifier in November, 1993.

The Irish team line up for The National Anthem prior to their 1993
The Irish team line up for The National Anthem prior to their 1993
Image: INPHO

One night in November, 1993…

I WAS SITTING on the Republic of Ireland team coach as it wound its way through Belfast when the fear hit me. Similarly, it was completely silent and it was dark, about 7pm in the evening. The bus snaked past mean, red-bricked streets. Dank, claustrophobic housing. Tribal colours fluttering menacingly, illuminated by streetlight. Hostility. Under Jack Charlton’s management, the Irish team coach was not usually quiet; there’d be some come-all-ye folk ballad blaring and plenty of craic between the players. But on this occasion, uniquely, the reason for having the lights and sound off was security.

We were travelling to play Northern Ireland in our final qualifying match in the World Cup campaign, a make-or-break game which would decide whether or not we would be travelling to America the following summer to compete in the World Cup finals. We knew that we had to win to ensure qualification. If Spain beat European champions Denmark in Seville, a draw would be enough for us to get through. Northern Ireland had failed to qualify. One thing was certain, though: they could still stop us from going through if they managed to beat us the following evening.

With such high stakes, not to mention the hand of Irish history, the atmosphere was sure to be charged. But there was an extra edge. The match was taking place after a spate of Troubles killings. Three weeks previously, two IRA men had entered a fish and chip shop on Belfast’s Shankill Road, intending to leave a bomb for a group of loyalist paramilitaries meeting upstairs. It exploded prematurely, blowing the bomber and nine other people in the chip shop to smithereens. Loyalist paramilitaries responded a week later, carrying out a wanton shooting at a pub in County Derry, killing eight. I remembered the news bulletin, which claimed that one of the gunmen had shouted ‘trick or treat?’ as he opened fire. Although I was playing my club football in England, the horror of the Troubles was only ever a newsreel away.

Tit for tat. 9-8? The grim tallies of the dead in both atrocities were close enough to seem like some sort of grotesque football score. The footballing authorities, understandably, were starting to become unnerved. There was talk of postponing the match, or playing it elsewhere — in Wembley or even in Rome. Then it was decided that the match would go ahead, as scheduled, at Windsor Park, Belfast. For security reasons we were instructed to fly the short distance back from Belfast to Dublin, which did little for everyone’s nerves and wound Jack Charlton up no end.

Alan McLoughlin 17/11/1993 Source: INPHO

(Alan McLoughlin celebrates his role in helping Ireland qualify for the 1994 World Cup)

When the players were consulted we were all very brazen 12 about actually playing the match; everyone had the attitude of ‘let’s just do it’, and yet at the back of all our minds was creeping worry. Would athletes be targeted? Ha, ha! No way. Surely not. Shrug off the fear, lads, and move on.

However, in the days before the game someone mentioned the 1972 Olympics, when members of the Israeli Olympic team had been gunned down by the Palestinian group Black September. There was that momentary, stomach-tightening fear again. So, as the coach passed through the tight Belfast streets, past the red, white and blue kerb-stones and triumphal murals of King Billy on his horse, minds were racing with anxiety. Sitting in darkness, everyone was silent. I looked up and down the coach to the two special branch men, disguised in Football Association of Ireland tracksuits to blend in with us players. Even they seemed to be stroking their guns nervously.

As the coach drew up outside Windsor Park stadium, the escort of armoured cars started to pull away. I looked out of the window, first to the police helicopter still whirring noisily overhead and then to a set of five-a-side pitches illuminated by floodlights. I thought it was odd that they were empty; there should have been kids enjoying a kick-about. And then I saw the kids. Dozens of them, of all ages, from about 10 to 18.

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They had spotted the coach and were converging on it. Undeterred by the police dogs bordering the stadium, this young mob crowded around the coach, making the gun sign with their hands. Every single one of them. With two fingers outstretched and their thumbs cocked, dozens of fingers rapped menacingly on the coach windows. “Fenian bastards!” Their lips pouted into a ‘bang’ as if they were pulling the trigger and blowing us away.

The fear that night in Belfast was more manageable because I was part of a band of brothers. Sure, the dark, silent final moments of that coach ride into the city were unnerving. But we dealt with the fear, as lads do, by cracking jokes. The hotel where we were staying before the game was out in the countryside, surrounded by a big golf course. Everywhere you looked, across the stunning grounds, there were Alsatians and policemen. Armoured cars patrolled up and down the drive and, of course, we had our armed plain clothes men in tracksuits masquerading as players. First we joked about whether Jack Charlton would, in his blustering and occasionally blundering way, accidentally put one of the special branch fellas in the starting line-up.

Andy Townsend Source: INPHO

(Captain Andy Townsend leads the Irish team out)

Then, with black humour, we started speculating about who would be assassinated first. We all agreed that it would be the boss, Big Jack, and pretended to be relieved at this fact. Why Jack? Well, he was an easy target: a mountain of a man with ruddy cheeks, flat cap, a booming Geordie accent, and a purposeful stride. More importantly, though, he had a distinctively long neck. So long, in fact, that the players nicknamed him ‘Swanny’. Don’t worry, we joked, if anyone’s going to take a bullet it’ll be old swan neck.

What’s more, the security concerns weren’t going to put Jack off his pre-match ritual of leading the squad on a midday stroll. On the day of the game, Jack and his assistant Maurice Setters were advised by the cops that walking the entire Republic of Ireland squad, all uniformed in tracksuits, around the leafy surrounds of the hotel was not a very good idea. But Jack would have none of it. So off we all set, behind Jack, accompanied by several policemen with semi-automatic weapons and an armoured car that trundled across the golf course tearing up the beautifully landscaped fairways with its dirty great tyre 14 tracks. I can only imagine the groundsman’s face when he saw the state of the 18th later that day.

Pre-match, at the hotel, there was another very funny moment. Jack Charlton was notorious for forgetting people’s names. Before our final group game in the 1990 World Cup against the Netherlands, Jack had beseeched our captain Mick McCarthy to ‘stay tight on Van Cleef’. Mick had to tell Jack that Lee Van Cleef was a dead Hollywood film star and not a Dutch striker. By those standards, Jack’s name for me was fairly accurate: Alan McDonald. The problem was we were now playing Northern Ireland, who happened to be fielding a certain centre-half named … Alan McDonald.

During the team talk I struggled to suppress my laughter as Jack told our team to watch out for Northern Ireland’s centre-half ‘Alan McLoughlin’ when they got a corner. As he continued to warn the team about the aerial threat of the opposition’s Alan McLoughlin I could see Jack getting more and more annoyed with the smirk plastered across my face. ‘And what the bloody hell is so funny?’ he eventually asked. That was pure Jack.

The above text is an extract from A Different Shade of Green: The Alan McLoughlin Story by Bryce Evans and Alan McLoughlin. For more info, click here.

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Alan McLoughlin

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