Everyone knows where they were when England played Ireland at Croke Park. Revisionists like to paint it now as a trivial storm in a Croker-sized tea cup but that day held huge significance for modern Irish sporting culture. It was all about the anthem.
Everything in the lead-up was about the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at the site where Michael Hogan lost his life on Bloody Sunday, 1920. Former Irish international Conor O’Shea was a part of the Rugby Football Union set-up and in the days before the encounter, met with the English team to educate them about the significance of the game.
The consensus was that disrespecting the anthem would shame Ireland, showing that we were incapable of moving on. There was a tension in the air and, in a crowd of over 80,000 people, in still silence, one dissenting or even slightly pre-game drunken voice would echo, not just around the vast stadium, but around the watching world.
It never happened. Instead we got respect before as rousing a version of Amhrán na bhFiann as has ever been heard. The tears on John Hayes’s face became an abiding memory. In newspapers articles that followed, it was claimed that his emotional display wouldn’t translate to a football setting. Players would be mocked relentlessly because that was the dressing room culture.
But that’s not true. Witness the raw passion from the Brazil players before their games at the 2014 World Cup in their homeland. Revelations this week have brought Thierry Henry’s handball back into the spotlight, but Damien Duff’s tears that night were as real as the ‘Bull’ Hayes’s.
Thousands of Irish sports fans were in London’s Excel arena when Katie Taylor won Olympic gold in 2012. The atmosphere was raucous, akin to the old Lansdowne Road when the bucket seats would tremble. Great Britain’s Nicola Adams had also won gold and her medal ceremony took place just before Katie stood below the hoisted tricolour.
“A voice from behind said ‘Don’t boo the (English) anthem.’ In England’s capital city? During a gold medal presentation for an English athlete? Did we really have to be told? Why is it even a factor for Irish fans?
If we’re to believe common opinion, boxing and football share much of the same fanbase. Steve Staunton’s reign as Irish manager and a series of shambolic performances coincided with Bernard Dunne’s rise to global prominence. Ringside at one of his fights in 2007, the Irish rugby team received an ovation from the crowd having missed out on the Six Nations title on points. The Irish football players in attendance were roundly booed coming off the back of a horrific display against San Marino.”
A couple of months earlier, Dunne won the European Super bantamweight title in front of a Dublin crowd against Britain’s Esham Pickering. During the pre-match anthems, ‘God Save the Queen’ was enthusiastically jeered. Sure, he was English anyway. What does it matter?
Ahead of this weekend’s game with England, much is being made of the potential for disorder or offensive chanting from travelling fans. Known trouble-makers are being watched or having passports confiscated as both sides aim to demonstrate that lessons have been learned since the ‘Landsowne Riot’ of 1995.
The FA have been taking action against England football fans in recent months over the singing of ‘No surrender to the IRA’ at away games and have moved to sternly warn against it ahead of the match in Dublin. As one Irish friend remarked, and as much of the comments from ordinary English suporters reflect, why don’t the home fans join in? Has he a point? But whether that offends you or not is irrelevant. We should be looking at ourselves.
Ireland played Northern Ireland this week in a behind-closed doors game at the Aviva Stadium. Ask yourself why? Four years ago, the same venue was almost as empty when the sides met in the Nations Cup tournament. Northern fans didn’t travel in numbers in protest at pricing and having to be bussed in. It didn’t stop ‘Southern’ knuckle-draggers flying Vatican flags in the ground and booing the visitor’s anthem, you know, the same one as England’s.
People in shiny glass stadiums shouldn’t throw stones.
We’ve been dining out on the ‘Best fans in the world’ tag ever since Euro 2012. UEFA even gave us an award, not in a brown envelope, but in the the centre-circle at the Aviva Stadium. The same supporters who numbered in the tens of thousands in Poland got lost somewhere along the return journey from Poznan to Dublin. Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign was played out in front of half-empty stadiums and final whistles were greeted with boos raining down from the terraces.
We’ve had God Save the Queen at Croke Park, royal visits and returned favours from our president. The fact that those who might jeer the English anthem on Sunday might well be wearing Liverpool and Manchester United shirts beneath their Irish tracksuits only highlights our hypocrisy.
Soccer is taking a hammering right now and the latest revelations about the FAI and FIFA mean we’re not immune in this country. Some say the Irish fans were let down by the FAI’s decision to take ‘hush money’ over Thierry Henry’s handball. We had the sympathy of the football world back then. Booing the English anthem on Sunday will only lead to remarks of ‘the soccer crowd letting the side down again.’
Imagine if the first ‘foreign’ game at Croke Park was not Ireland and England in rugby, but football. Is it a given that Irish soccer fans would be incapable of acting as the rugby crowd did? Is it about social class? Or football’s lack of class in general? Isn’t it time the ‘best fans in the world’ lived up to their billing?
Main image: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com