Early November 1993 and newspapers on both sides of the border are filled with fear. The two Irelands are set to come head to head in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Belfast’s Windsor Park, with the Republic needing a positive result to qualify for USA ’94.
The fear was warranted. October 1993 had seen the worst month of violence in the Troubles for 17 years, with 27 deaths that included the multiple fatalities in atrocities such as the Shankill Road bombing carried out by the Provisional IRA when two PIRA members entered Frizzell’s Fish and Chip shop on the Shankhill Road carrying a bomb, which detonated prematurely. Ten people were killed: one of the PIRA bombers, an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) member and eight Protestant civilians, two of whom were children.
A week later in Derry it was the town of Greysteel’s turn to enter the roll call of Northern towns decimated by sectarian massacres.
Shouting ‘trick or treat’ as they entered the Rising Sun Pub a UDA death squad opened fire on those inside killing eight, two of whom were Protestants, and wounding 18 others.
In the week leading up to the World Cup play-off, the Irish Times printed a map of Belfast for the few southerners who would ignore official warnings and make the expedition, the paper colour-coding Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
Nestled deep within Protestant South Belfast was Windsor Park, home of the Northern Ireland international side and Linfield FC, a totem of working class Loyalist Belfast.
A late Alan McLoughlin equaliser sent Jack Charlton and the Republic to their second World Cup campaign, while the North’s manager Billy Bingham stepped aside after 13 years in charge. ‘Big Jack’ would later recoil when asked of his memory of that night in South Belfast, describing the atmosphere as ‘nasty and unhealthy’.
More nastiness was to come. While watching the Republic take on Italy at the following summer’s World Cup finals, six men were gunned down in a bar at Loughlinsisland by Loyalist paramilitaries. Football and death were dancing together down the sectarian drainpipe.
While hate spewed from the terraces and bullets flew in bars, in an unusual twist, the Northern Irish League was experiencing an influx of players from south of the border. By January 1993, 20 players from the south were plying their trade in the north. Crusaders had four, including one Roddy Collins, while Ards, under the stewardship of the legendary former Linfield manager Roy Coyle, also had a strong southern contingent.
But the most significant transfers were those made at Windsor Park. Long been seen as a bastion of Ulster Loyalism, Linfield had already snapped up a Senegalese Catholic, Tony Coley, in 1988. Roy Keane would years later feel the wrath of Roy Coyle when he claimed in his autobiography that the signing had cost the him his job – a false and bizarre claim by either Roy or his ghost-writer Eamon Dunphy.
It was Trevor Anderson, Coyle’s successor, who brought a Catholic from closer to home into the Linfield fold. In 1992, Anderson signed Chris Cullen, a Catholic from Downpatrick. A wall had been smashed. In December of that year, with Crusaders and their men of the south top of the table, Anderson signed Linfield’s first southerner since 1945 when Dessie Gorman moved across the border from Shelbourne.
His arrival at the time was likened to the then recent Mo Johnston move from Glasgow Celtic to Graeme Souness’ Rangers. For Gorman, who hadn’t been getting much game-time with Shelbourne, it was all about football. Quoted at the time, he said: “The religious thing doesn’t interest me in the slightest – my move to Belfast will be to purely score goals.”
By the season’s end, Anderson had added two more players from the League of Ireland to his side in the form of Englishman Garry Haylock and Dubliner Martin Bayly. He also added the league trophy to the Windsor Park cabinet after an absence of four years – the Haylock and Gorman partnership being the decisive factor as the Blues edged Crusaders out on goal difference.
With the apparent unwritten rule of not signing players from the south now confined to history, Anderson added Finglas man Pat Fenlon to his side in January 1994. The £25,000 arrival from Bohemians would prove to be a key player with Linfield going on to secure back-to-back league titles as well as claiming the cup for the first time in 12 years.
As well as scoring the winner in the Big Two derby against Glentoran that secured the Blues’ title, ‘Nutsy’ – or ‘Wee Billy’ as he is known at Windsor Park – also netted the second goal in the 2-0 cup final win against Bangor a week later and celebrated, according to Anderson, by playing Celtic songs on the Linfield open-top bus tour of the Shankhill.
While the signings were clearly pushing Linfield back to the top, some viewed them as cynical coming as they did after the American Irish National Caucus (INC) had called for a boycott of Coca-Cola after hearing the multi-national was a sponsor at Windsor Park. A Loyalist delegation to the INC leader Fr Seán McManus would later point to the signings of Fenlon, Gorman, Haylock, Bayly and Cullen from Downpatrick when arguing for the boycott to be lifted.
While changes were under way, the past hadn’t been wiped away overnight. Linfield’s ‘away’ games to the mainly nationalist Cliftonville would continue to be played at Windsor Park into the late 1990s.
And when then Derry City manager Felix Healy was asked in 1995 after his side had won the FAI Cup if he would take up the Belfast Newsletter’s offer of a trophy for a one-off game against IFA cup winners Linfield, Healy replied: “It’s a lovely idea but where would we play – the Falklands?”
Fenlon’s Linfield career ended with a move back down south, this time to Shamrock Rovers, in the process becoming one of the first Irish players to avail of the Bosman ruling.
When asked about his time at Linfield, Fenlon recalled his two years at the club as being his ‘most enjoyable as a player”.
His move back to Belfast, this time as General Manager of Linfield, is a good opportunity to reflect on how far the island has moved away from the dark days of the Troubles and a reminder to never slip back into the abyss.