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'I remember coming out for the warm-up and the chants were 'Kill the Fenian bastards''

Joe Waters was part of the Republic of Ireland side that faced Northern Ireland at Windsor Park at the height of The Troubles in 1979.

The teams played out a scoreless draw at Lansdowne Road in September 1978.
The teams played out a scoreless draw at Lansdowne Road in September 1978.
Image: Peter Robinson

HE’S BEEN IN the United States for a very long time but Joe Waters certainly hasn’t lost his Limerick lilt. 

It’s been over 30 years since he swapped Grimsby Town for the Tacoma Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League and settled in the picturesque Pacific northwest. 

By that stage, he’d already made his final appearance for the Republic of Ireland: a traumatic trip to Windsor Park in 1979.  

Ahead of the European Championships in 1980, John Giles’ side were drawn in a competitive and highly-charged qualification group alongside England and, for the first time, Northern Ireland. The presence of Denmark and familiar foes Bulgaria made the chances of reaching the tournament all the more unlikely.

The Irish began with three successive draws: a solid away point in Copenhagen, a missed opportunity against the North at Lansdowne Road and a 1-1 result at home to England. With only one team progressing and Ron Greenwood’s side particularly goal-happy, qualification seemed out of reach for the Irish even by the half-way point.

By the time they made the journey to Belfast in November, there was nothing left to play for except bragging rights.

The North had suffered a thumping 5-1 home defeat to England the previous month but were intent on finishing strongly. A victory over Giles’ team would move them into second place in the group and mean Ireland would need a win at Wembley in their final fixture to conclude the campaign as runners-up.

Waters, who had been signed by Leicester as a teenager before properly blossoming at Grimsby, had made a memorable debut in a friendly against Turkey in Ankara in 1976, coming on and scoring the equaliser in a 3-3 draw. He’d been a part of various Irish squads but always seemed on the periphery. Finally, three years after his first competitive appearance, he picked up an unexpected second cap. 

“We had a terrific group of players at the time,” he says.

“I’d been in and out of the squad a little bit but, at that point, I was kind of out. I wasn’t expecting to be a part of it but there had been some injuries and I was called up late. I remember being at an event with the Grimsby boys when I got the phone-call. When I went back to the training ground to pick up my car I had no petrol left. Back in those days, the petrol stations closed at 6pm so I had no way of getting to Manchester Airport for my flight. Luckily, George Kerr, the Grimsby boss at the time, had a full tank so I managed to get a tube from a buddy who ran a pub and we were able to siphon enough petrol from George’s car to mine and get me to Manchester. So I make it to the airport for the flight but we we’re fogged in! The plan was that the lads were picking me up from Dublin Airport and we were going by bus to Belfast but my flight was switched to Birmingham so I was delayed. When I arrived in Dublin, I ended up having to get the train to Belfast.” 

It was the height of The Troubles and it had been another harrowing year.

In August, two IRA bombs killed 18 British soldiers at Warrenpoint in Co. Down. The same day, Lord Mountbatten – Queen Elizabeth’s cousin – and three others were killed by an IRA bomb in Sligo. The tension wasn’t helped by the election of Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister.     

Waters admits that even entering Belfast was an experience. 

“Once I got there, it was intimidating in itself,” he says. 

“It was the first time I was seeing British soldiers armed with guns. I got in a taxi with a few other people and the driver starts asking where I’m from. He asked if I was in town for the game and I said ‘No, I’m not’, in case he didn’t take too kindly to it. I told him I was in town for business and that I wasn’t into football.” 

I remember coming out for the warm-up and the chants – from my recollection anyway – were ‘Kill the Fenian bastards’. I was named as a substitute but got on because Gerry Daly got hit with a brick or a bottle that was thrown by a fan. It hit him in the head and split him open. On the way back on the bus we had Special Branch guys with guns guiding us back to the border and then they got off and we sailed on through to Dublin.”    

Waters is quick to point out that the atmosphere certainly wasn’t unexpected and that the players had experienced plenty of hostility before. But, for various reasons, Windsor Park was still unsettling.  

“It was definitely a tough time but there were worse things going on up there and you were aware of that too,” he says. 

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Soccer - European Championship Qualifier - England v Ireland - Wembley Stadium Giles' Irish side would suffer a 2-0 defeat in their final qualifier against England at Wembley. Kevin Keegan is pictured here scoring his second goal of the game. Source: PA

“But we’d been in pretty intimidating places before. On my first trip to South America, we were in Montevideo in Uruguay and heading to training in the morning and there were guys trying to overturn our bus on the way to the stadium. In Turkey, we were battered with glass bottles after we equalised. In Chile there was still a curfew in place. It wasn’t like we hadn’t seen stuff like it before but it didn’t make it any less intimidating. But it’s amazing how guys can put that to the side. Once the game gets going, you can’t hear anything because you’re too involved in it. Sometimes I joke with people who ask me what it was like at Windsor Park. I tell them it was the quickest warm-up any team ever went through because none of us stopped moving.  

But there was no talk between the players. There was no bad blood or anything like that. There was nobody taking any prisoners but there was no sectarian stuff. There was the chanting at the beginning from the fans but other than that it was a game of football and both teams wanted to win. There were a lot of boys on that Irish team who didn’t take any prisoners. You didn’t achieve what they achieved without them being able to take it and dish it out at the same time. But in the dressing room there was no mention of the atmosphere. Everything was about the game, what we were going to do, the approach, the tactics.” 

Ultimately, thanks to Gerry Armstrong’s header early in the second-half, it was the hosts who claimed a famous victory. The following February, a brace from Kevin Keegan condemned Giles’ team to a 2-0 Wembley defeat and the entire Euro campaign ended with a whimper.  

Giles himself was gone shortly after and history hasn’t been kind to that pre-Charlton period of Irish football. But Waters feels the players involved during that era are largely under-appreciated and that despite failing to reach a major tournament there was plenty of quality. 

41Z0esdwCcL A clipping from GOAL magazine's feature on a young Joe Waters, then of Leicester City.

“When you look at the likes of John, Liam Brady, Mick Martin, Steve Heighway – they are some of the best players that ever played for Ireland in the modern era,” he says. 

It was such a great time to be involved and I totally loved it. Now, I understood the reality of it. I was playing for a Third Division team when the likes of Mick and Gerry Daly were at Man United, Liam was at Arsenal, John had been with Leeds and then West Brom. You’d look at them and think, ‘I’d go into any hostile environment with these guys’. I could’ve come along at a different time and got a few more caps but it was a wonderful era to be a part of. We came so close a couple of times and I think that group set the ball in motion a little bit. People wanted to play for the Republic again. All of these guys I mentioned would’ve shown up with a broken leg to do so. That was the kind of group we had.” 

Waters, who’s still coaching at underage level in Tacoma having carved out a legendary playing career in the city, had a front-row seat to the talent within the Irish setup at the time.

And he’s still thankful for that opportunity.   

“I get a little bit irritated sometimes when they talk about the golden era and how it came about with Jack,” he says. 

“But it didn’t. We started winning games with John. Liam Tuohy had been the manager and did a great job and he was a great presence with the players. He was a part of it too, at the start. And then John took it to the next level.”

Liam Brady Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We were just a step away each time and the day we beat Russia in Dublin when Don Givens scored a hat-trick and Liam made his debut and Steve was absolutely brilliant on the wing, that was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from an Irish team and I’ve watched a lot of internationals since then. To be a part of that in Dalymount was absolutely unbelievable. I don’t think that team gets the credit it deserves and I don’t know why, I really don’t. 

These guys – John, Liam, Mick and all the rest – were the guys who made other players come out and want to be a part of it. And we all wanted to play for the country. It felt like we were starting something really positive. And when I look back, that was the beginning of it. Just such a great time and I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything.”   

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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