Owen Polley: The 1993 Windsor Park football match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a case study in the making of nationalist myths


The Northern Ireland team at Windsor Park for the November 1993 game against the Republic of Ireland. The southern team were trying to reach the World Cup final while the Ulstermen wanted to give their manager, Billy Bingham, a good start

The southern team were trying to reach the tournament final in the United States, while the Ulstermens wanted to give their legendary manager, Billy Bingham, a strong start as he retired from international football.

I was there and the atmosphere was competitive, on and off the pitch. When Northern Ireland striker Jimmy Quinn sent an arcuate volley past Pat Bonner’s outstretched glove in the second half, Windsor Park burst into joy.

That night’s theme song, “There is only one team in Ireland,” had already been firmly established.

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Jack Charlton at the end of the 1993 match when his Republic of Ireland team celebrated their entry into the World Cup

You could hear bits and pieces of it in the streets before the game, as the nets and tributaries of fans from Northern Ireland gathered in a constant torrent heading towards Windsor Park.

The chant was first heard in Dublin, when Republic supporters mocked the northerners in a 3-0 victory. This mockery hurt, as Northern Ireland has traditionally been the dominant force in Irish football, qualifying for international tournaments as the south struggled.

Now that Northern Ireland had taken the lead against Jack Charlton, the song was redeployed.

The stands at Windsor Park shook with noise, as the Green and White Army reminded rivals that this was the original Irish football team; veterans of three World Cups and reigning Nations champions at home.

Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham to retire from international football

Unfortunately, a few minutes later, the Republic equalized and secured its place in the United States. I still maintain that the goal came from a free kick that shouldn’t have been given. Nigel Worthington charged Eddie McGoldrick in a perfectly fair manner, but the referee decided otherwise.

These are defining moments that haunt fans, but they are part of the game and the Republic was meant for New York.

The saddest thing was that Bingham didn’t get the winning end his career deserved. However, his team had restored a lot of pride with his combat performance.

Of course, Northern Ireland was a troubled place in November 1993. The preparation for the match was overshadowed by horrific terrorist attacks like the Shankill bombing and the Greysteel massacre.

Northern Ireland fans at the November 1993 match at Windsor Park. The preparation for the match was overshadowed by horrific terrorist massacres, but the atmosphere was not unusually hostile or grim.

Despite this deeply unpromising background, the atmosphere was not unusually hostile or grim. I was only a teenager, but I had seen more vitriol in club games before and would do so so many times in the years to come.

That’s why I was thrilled to read Mark Rainey’s two-page report in Wednesday’s newsletter. (“Worst sectarian thug night that has ever been.” November 24, see link below), on the myth that Windsor Park was a cockpit of hate that night.

He explained in detail how the lie started. Republic manager Jack Charlton believed Northern Ireland should have been gentle with their team. Famously, after the final whistle he said: “They (Northern Ireland) fought too hard… They won’t get any favors from us… ever.”

This typically merciless commentary set in motion a series of inventions, distortions and exaggerations that have been repeated as if it were a gospel by generations of gamers, fans and commentators.

As Mark rightly noted, none of these accusations were made against home fans immediately after the game.

Many of the modern preconceptions about the conduct of fans in Northern Ireland seem to have come from the Marie Jones play, One night in November.

Soon those details were cited by experts who were nowhere near Windsor Park, but who nonetheless described it as a stronghold of bigotry.

The contrast between what I saw that night and the hysteria that followed left a mark on me, even when I was a schoolboy.

It made it clear to me that while a myth was repeated often enough in Northern Ireland, it was accepted as a fact, not only by its nationalist inventors, but also by neutrals and well-meaning trade unionists.

Even Northern Ireland defenders are now telling a story of how fans transformed their behavior after that supposed ‘night of hate’.

This tale highlights how the atmosphere in Windsor Park has changed over many decades, becoming more inclusive and family-friendly, but it repeats a caricature that has never been fair or real.

Football fans have rarely behaved perfectly. They are passionate, get carried away and sometimes act aggressively and badly. Without a doubt, some Republic fans found the atmosphere in Windsor Park in 1993 unpleasant or uncomfortable. They weren’t, it must be said, supposed to be in the stadium in the first place.

The “November night” myth has been perpetuated for so long that it is now unlikely to ever be dispelled. Fortunately, a journalist has the courage to challenge him and explain his origins. It will mean a lot to a lot of people.

The overarching lesson is that we should be faster at countering new lies as we see them take hold in this society.

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