Belfast. November. 1993. The dust momentarily settles over a war zone which saw a total of 27 deaths throughout October, making it the worst month for casualties in 17 years.
“I was sitting on the Republic of Ireland team coach when the fear hit me. Similarly, it was
completely silent and it was dark, about 7pm in the evening. The bus snaked past mean, red-bricked streets. Dank, claustrophobic housing. Tribal colours fluttering menacingly, illuminated by street light. Hostility.
“Under Jack Charlton’s management, the Irish team coach was not usually quiet; there’d be some come-all-ye folk ballad blaring and plenty of craic between the players. But on this occasion, uniquely, the reason for having the lights and sound off was security.”
An extract from Alan McLoughin’s book ‘A Different Shade of Green’, depicting the scene as Republic of Ireland made the short but ever so elaborate trip to face their closest rivals Northern Ireland.
This was not only a crucial fixture in the Republic’s 1994 World Cup qualification pursuit, but one played against a backdrop of the worst sectarian violence seen throughout Northern Ireland, spanning from when the Troubles began in 1968.
McLoughlin — a Manchester born Irishman — was beginning to make his mark in the midfield of Swindon Town when his international future came to a crossroads. He recalled the morning when he peered through a number of letters which had been delivered to his door.
“In came a rather official looking envelope with the three lions on it. I opened it up and it said I’d been selected for England ‘B’ to play against Republic of Ireland ‘B’ down at Turners Cross in Cork. I was taken aback by it. I phoned my mum and naturally she was delighted.”
Receiving a first international call-up is something every young, up and coming footballer dreams of achieving. However, when many budding talents stare up towards the ceiling at night playing out this moment in their heads, it is unlikely they consider the prospect of receiving call-ups for two separate international teams on the same day.
McLoughlin added: “So I later put the phone down and went through the rest of the pile and at the bottom was an ordinary looking envelope. It didn’t have any indication as to where it was from.
“I opened it up and it was from the FAI saying I’d been called up for the Irish ‘B’ team to play against England at Turners Cross also, and so I got back onto the phone with my mum.”
The decision over which national side he wished to represent seemed relatively straightforward, as he grew up in a totally Irish family, recalling times when his nan would tell him stories about Ireland and what it meant to be Irish.
“There was something about that moment when I spoke to my mum — about Ireland being the right place. I knew deep down it was the right option for me. The game came and we beat England.
“We fell behind and I scored to equalise before we ran out worthy winners in the end. It paved the way for the rest of my career.”
Unbeknown to Alan at the time, this decision would lead to what he defines as the most important goal of his career. On a night where fans from both sides of the border filled the streets of Belfast — some vocal and brash, some quieter and who may have felt that they were behind enemy lines in a much greater sense than that of a footballing rivalry.
The match took place in a Northern Ireland which saw the conflict of the Troubles at its highest. Three weeks before, two IRA men carrying a bomb entered a Belfast fish and chip shop on the Shankill Road.
The bomb detonated, killing them and nine other people. Loyalist paramilitaries responded through violence of their own just one week later as they opened fire in a pub in Derry, killing eight.
In his book, Alan stated: “I remembered the news bulletin, which claimed that one of the gunmen had shouted ‘trick or treat?’ as he opened fire. Tit for tat. 9-8? The grim tallies of the dead in both atrocities were close enough to seem like some sort of grotesque football score. Although I was playing my club football in England, the horror of the Troubles was only ever a newsreel away.”
Prior to the match taking place, there was speculation that it would be played in a venue outside of Northern Ireland. In the end, both sides were happy for the tie to go ahead as planned, although it was deemed safer for the Republic of Ireland team to fly back to Dublin from Belfast as opposed to the standard bus route due to security precautions.
“We all decided we were happy to play the game at Windsor Park and we were assured the security would be high. We had security before the game as Jack [Charlton] insisted we train on the pitch before and everything was done just as normal.
“The security forces weren’t even happy with us going for our traditional walk in the park before the game but Jack insisted. We all went as a group and I think that was the most important thing when dealing with the situation. Our mentality was to go there and get a good result.”
As Alan revisited the bus journey to the ground on the evening before the match, he told a tale
which truly conveys the intrinsic conflict and violent mentality which Northern Ireland was
enveloped in, but also the progression which the island has made since that time — a progression to peace.
“We came round the back of the stadium and there were some little football courts there. Kids from the ages of 15 and 16, even as young as 10 or 11-years-old came running up to their fence as they saw the coach coming in.
“The lights in the coach were turned off but the kids — seeing the armed guards — knew who we were. They started making gun signs with their hands and pointing towards the bus. It made you aware of where you were, what environment you were in and how troubled it was.
“Thankfully things have moved on from then. There was always something in the back of your mind hoping and praying that nothing silly would happen.”
The event proceeded without trouble and for that night at least, attention remained on what took place on the pitch. Jimmy Quinn — a personal friend of Alan’s — opened the scoring with an audacious volley to put Northern Ireland in front.
Simultaneously, Spain and Denmark — the other two sides making up the triad of nations competing for two qualification places with Republic of Ireland — faced each other in Seville. With the Spaniards leading by a solitary goal, Republic of Ireland needed a draw to secure a ticket to the United States World Cup.
A Denis Irwin free-kick was headed into Alan’s path. He controlled the ball with his chest and rifled a left-footed strike into the near bottom corner. The goal that sent his country to their second-ever World Cup.
“The game was difficult. The atmosphere was difficult. It was a bit of a surreal night. The Republic of Ireland fans — and I think there were quite a few in the stadium that night — they kept themselves pretty quiet which was the sensible thing to do and we were just happy to get the job done.
“It was the most important goal of my career. I call it a credit card buster for all the fans in Ireland because I’m sure there were a few credit cards that were maxed out that summer.”
It will nearly be 25 years to the very day when Republic of Ireland welcome Northern Ireland to Dublin in a friendly on November 15th. While this game will not hold anywhere near as much significance as the World Cup Qualifier back in 1993 did, it should be seen as a celebration in the significance of the progression to a peaceful time within the island.
A time which will once again be momentarily united through football.
Featured photograph/Alan McLoughlin