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Omagh bombing, a united cause and Griffin’s 30-yard strike: when Northern Ireland came to Dublin in 1999

In May 1999, a charity match was organised to raise funds for victims of the Omagh bombing. Former defender Danny Griffin recalls the game and his winning goal.

Mick McCarthy with mascots before the charity friendly and (right) aftermath of the Omagh bombing.
Mick McCarthy with mascots before the charity friendly and (right) aftermath of the Omagh bombing.
Image: Press Assocation

ON SATURDAY 15 August 1998, a dissident Republican car bomb exploded in the market town of Omagh, Co Tyrone, killing 29 innocent civilians, including a woman pregnant with twins and injuring 220 others.

It was one of the single deadliest atrocities in the history of the Troubles, coming four months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, with the tragedy causing outrage both locally and on the international front.

Amongst those who lost their lives included men, women and children of many different backgrounds: Catholics, Protestants, two Spanish students, six children, six teenagers and others on a day trip from Donegal.

The scale of the atrocity caused outrage worldwide, with Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Martin McGuinness, John Hume and Gerry Adams condemning the meaningless bloodshed. It was, however, another chapter in a long list of tragic incidents which plagued Ireland north and south of the border for three chaotic decades of conflict during the Troubles.

Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland 29/5/1999 Mascots Christopher Gallagher and Anthony Brady pictured before kick-off in May 1999. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

The public rallied in support of victims of the bombing in Tyrone, which took place 20 years ago this past August, as well as their friends and family — with the football community playing its small part in trying to raise funds for much-needed support by way of funeral costs and immediate medical expenses.

A month after the Omagh bombing, it was announced that a friendly would take place in Dublin between Ireland and Northern Ireland in aid of victims; a match which was reported at the time as an “unprecedented gesture by the two rival football associations.”

Tomorrow evening at the Aviva Stadium the sides will meet again, for the 11th time, with previous meetings across World Cup and European Championship qualifiers creating a long tapestry of tense, intriguing and historic meetings.

Each and every game between Ireland and Northern Ireland has its own history; the first ever pairing during a Euro 1980 qualifier at Lansdowne Road (a 0-0 stalemate), Gerry Armstrong’s winner in the reverse fixture in Belfast, Alan McLoughlin’s infamous strike in Windsor Park which brought Ireland to the USA in 1994.

But their meeting in Dublin on 29 May 1999 represented an altogether different occasion — one which stripped away the usual venom and animosity, instead an occasion which showed the power of sport to unite those opposed to one another, in order to come together for a cause greater than themselves, and a cause far more important than football.

Source: TheParkyni/YouTube

A late call-up, Danny Griffin was just 21-years-old when he quickly cancelled an end-of-season holiday at the tail-end of the 1998/99 Scottish Premiership season to link up with his international team-mates in Dublin. Scorer of the winning goal during the North’s win in Dublin, his name is inextricably linked with the fixture.

A 1-0 win during an end-of-season friendly in front of just 12,100 fans might not seem significant on paper. But the victory was Northern Ireland’s first against the Republic in 20 years — their only ever win in Dublin — with the nature of the occasion to raise funds for victims of Omagh adding more significance to an otherwise forgettable match in 1999.

We always knew that this match was going to be for a special cause, but it was just a shame that the two countries had to come together in such tragic circumstances,” Griffin, now a community development officer back with St Johnstone, explains.

“There was a good feeling with everyone who was going to the game and taking part in it, that it was for a great cause. But you couldn’t escape the feeling that this match was organised because of such a horrible tragedy where so many innocent people lost their lives.” 

Griffin grew up Catholic in north Belfast during the Troubles, but maintains that football was his sole obsession during his youth and that within football he was treated no differently because of his background.

Omagh Bomb Blast Scene RUC officers and firefighters inspect damage caused by the bomb explosion in Market Street in August 1998. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

An exceptionally talented, tough-tackling and enforcing midfielder through underage ranks, Griffin spent time at Manchester United’s school of excellence before joining St Andrews Boys Club located on the Shankill Road, where he was the only Catholic player on a predominantly Protestant side.

My youth was no different, it was literally just playing football in my eyes. Growing up in Belfast was: going to school, coming out of school, playing football — no matter where I was or what time it was,” Griffin says.

“At that time there was always that animosity between Catholics and Protestants but it made no difference to me who, or when or where I was playing football with, or against. I played for St Andrews Boys Club on the Shankhill Road and had a great experience there.

“I was never once made to feel threatened with regards to my religion. I was made welcome and, as I say, was just playing football with friends, because that’s what they were at the end of the day regardless of anyone’s background.”

International Soccer - Northern Ireland  v  Ukraine Danny Griffin made 29 appearances for Northern Ireland between 1996 and 2004. Source: Barry Coombs

His 30-yard strike during Northern Ireland’s 1-0 win in Dublin was his only goal for his country, with the result just the second time in history that the North had beaten the Republic, following their success during that 1979 Euros qualifier when Gerry Armstrong proved the difference.

The game aimed to raise £250,000 for the Omagh Bomb Disaster Fund, but just over 12,100 fans showed up for a game which had hoped to sell out the old 48,000-capacity Lansdowne Road. Celtic played Rangers in the Scottish Cup final at the same time on 29 May 1999, with the poor attendance reflected in a drab and “disjointed” affair on the field of play.

Both teams were plagued by injuries leading up to the charity friendly, with Mick McCarthey facing important Euro 2000 qualifiers against Yugoslavia and Macedonia just a week later.

Each country’s star names did feature on the night — Shay Given, Niall Quinn, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane up against Griffin, Neil Lennon, Aaron Hughes and Ian Dowie. However the poor turnout, the fact that the game came right at the end of a long league season in England and Scotland made for a lacklustre affair.

Aaron Hughes/Robbie Keane 29/5/1999 Robbie Keane and Aaron Hughes battle for possession during the charity friendly. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“With the Rangers-Celtic Scottish Cup final being shown live on television, a sparse crowd at Lansdowne Road was perhaps inevitable but still disappointing, especially for the guardians of the Omagh Bomb Disaster Fund who collected the proceeds from this friendly meeting,” wrote The Guardian’s match report of the Peace International.

“McCarthy must also have been sorely disappointed as well by an uninspired performance from his side in their final warm-up before the controversial game against Yugoslavia at the same venue next Saturday.

He already knows that injured skipper Roy Keane will miss that match, as well as the clash with Macedonia in Dublin four days later,” the report continued. “And Lee Carsley, the £3.25 million Blackburn midfielder he employed in Keane’s place, never remotely fitted the bill.

“The Republic had to rely on the old familiar long ball aimed at the head of giant Niall Quinn, their skipper for the day. Twice in the first half he managed to direct his headers on goal but never found the power to trouble Northern Ireland keeper Maik Taylor.”

Danny Griffin replaced the injured Neil Lennon with 11 minutes left on the clock and succeeded in looping a magnificent effort right over the head of Newcastle goalkeeper Given between the sticks.

Griffin & Eleftheri-Northern Ireland v Cyprus Danny Griffin (right) is now a community development officer with Scottish side St Johnstone. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

He admits now that it was more of a tackle than an intended shot on goal, but the 41-year-old, who would make 29 appearances for Northern Ireland during a successful career in Scottish football which took in spells with St Johnstone, Dundee and Aberdeen, maintains that he is still incredibly proud of the strike.

“He was one of the best goalkeepers in the world back then,” Griffin explains.

“At that time he really was one of the best, and you’re looking at it going: ‘God, I’ve just beaten Shay Given’. When I came on, Lawrie [McMenemy] asked me if I wanted to go left back or centre midfield. I told him midfield, because there was only something like 10 minutes left to go at that stage.

“As soon as I came on, the ball went into the corner and I just tried to read where it was going to go. Luckily enough when it spilled out on the edge of the box, I was there to try and make contact with the ball and thankfully it sailed over Given’s head and into the back of the net. 

“At that time I was just enjoying my football, to tell you the truth. I felt that it was always an honour to go and play for my country. Every time that I got the letter or the phone call saying that I’d received a call-up, I was always chuffed to bits knowing I was going to be pulling on the jersey and representing my country. It was always a dream I had that I would be a footballer.

Keith Rowland/ Kenny Cunningham and Mark Kennedy 29/5/1999 Kenny Cunningham in action against Northern Ireland's Keith Rowland at Lansdowne Road. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“So to go through all the underage sides and then represent Northern Ireland at senior level was a great achievement. At 21-years-old, having played against the likes of Germany and Italy, it was great, but knowing that you’re playing in the biggest game that your country can, against your local rivals was huge.

I mean, they were only just across the border and because of that the rivalry between the two countries will always be the same.

“Today the sides are starting to even each other out, Northern Ireland are moving up the rankings and the Republic of Ireland have forged some distance in recent years. So, at the time it was always just a great achievement to play for my country no matter where it was or who it was against.”

Griffin sent the travelling supporters into rapturous celebration when his strike hit the back of the net in the 84th minute. It was his side’s only ever win in Dublin and their first against the Republic since 1979.

Despite it being a friendly and with McCarthy’s Ireland facing important Euro qualifiers straight afterwards, it was still interpreted as a shock for the hosts to lose against a Northern Ireland side who had not qualified for a major tournament since 1986.

Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland 29/5/1999 Ireland manager Mick McCarthy poses with both mascots before kick-off. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

“With players like Neil Lennon and Aaron Hughes and Ian Dowie it wasn’t a bad team at all. But at that stage we did struggle to qualify and it came to a point where we hadn’t scored a goal in something like 1,522 minutes of football,” Griffin laughs ruefully.

“It was trying to get that monkey off are back for ages and it was always going to be hard qualifying for tournaments because we were in Pot 5 or Pot 6, ranked 116th in the world, so we were always going to get two of the big countries in our group to come up against — we played Germany and the Czech Republic.

I think now since Michael [O'Neill] has been in he has changed a lot. He’s got a young, enthusiastic squad coming through. They were at the last European Championships and were absolutely terrific, they went out and held their heads high doing what they did on the big stage, for the big occasions.”

Griffin is hailed a hero in Northern Ireland as the man who stuck the ball in the back of the net in Dublin, but he maintains that the context of the game and the reason for it happening in the first place should not be forgotten by the history books.

Northern Ireland fans Northern Ireland fans pictured during their side's 1-0 win in Dublin. Source: INPHO

A slow-paced and attritional friendly in front of a less-than half-full Landsdowne Road is not eye-catching, but the fact that both football associations came together for a cause greater than themselves months after the Good Friday Agreement is certainly worth remembering ahead of tomorrow’s clash at the Aviva, Griffin says.

“The sense of rivalry we had was just because you’re only across the border from one another — it’s a derby match. When it comes to our two countries playing each other, you’re only travelling an hour and 20 minutes down the road, or else they’re travelling up the road to Windsor Park.

So in my eyes it’s more of a derby match than a rivalry. It was great, because you’d always support Ireland when they were in the World Cup or at the European Championships. They are only down the road, why wouldn’t we support them? 

“It’s kind of hard to say how it made me feel, because at that time it wasn’t just the Omagh bombing, it was happening all the time, anywhere and everywhere,” he says of the atrocity in Tyrone that killed 29 people.

“I think I was at a point in my life where you grow up with these tragedies. But with Omagh, it was so awful because it was so many innocent, local people that died. Regular people just walking down the street. 

Soccer - Friendly - Ireland v Northern Ireland A 21-year-old Griffin surrounded by team-mates after scoring his first and only international goal during the friendly. Source: EMPICS Sport

“Unfortunately it was a daily reality, and that’s the way I looked at it at the time. I was only 20, 21 when it happened. I’d had almost a decade of watching the news and seeing this happen, people getting blown up, people getting shot… it just became a day-to-day thing.

It was like groundhog day, to tell you the truth,” Griffin sighs. “Which wasn’t nice to get to that stage. It’s all changed now and long may it continue.”

With both sides at low ebbs following frustrating and, at times, demoralising Uefa Nations League campaigns, the former defender predicts that tomorrow’s affair in Dublin could very well end in a tightly-fought draw.

His one goal for his country will be remembered by all those in Northern Ireland. Their side’s first win against the Republic in 20 years and a first ever victory in Dublin, added to by the late nature of the strike in the 84th minute and the fact that it was such a bizarre effort from all of 30 yards — the combination of factors made it a goal to remember in a fixture which has its own long and fascinating history north and south of the border.

“It was my first and only goal for my country and the occasion that it was, playing against your local rivals in Dublin, it was a great feeling for me,” Griffin reflects. “But at the end of the day it was more important because of why the game was being held and what we were doing there as footballers.

Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland 29/5/1999 The game the first ever non-competitive friendly between Ireland and Northern Ireland, arranged less than a year after the Good Friday Agreement. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

“We knew what the occasion was for. Players from both countries were there to put their talent on show for both sets of supporters to try and raise money for a good cause. From my point of view I was just happy to have scored my first goal for my country, it wouldn’t have mattered who it was against.

But knowing that it was such a big occasion for the two countries to come together under the circumstances for the victims of the Omagh bombing, it was like a fairytale story in one respect, but at the same time you were always thinking about the reasons why this game was taking place to begin with, and that was that a tragedy had taken place.

“There was definitely mixed emotions. For me it was amazing just to be involved in the squad, to get that phone call at 21-years-old, dropping everything to play and cancelling my holidays.

“To get that chance and take it… that goal will always be there for me, I’ll always be proud of the fact that I was the player that scored on that special occasion in memory of the victims of Omagh.”

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Aaron Gallagher

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