Belfast Telegraph

How I broke the news of Loughinisland massacre to Irish World Cup squad

He was there when the Republic beat Italy in the 1994 World Cup, then Group Sports Editor Jim Gracey heard about a shooting back home

Forget the politics and ‘whataboutery’. The FAI's armband-wearing gesture at next month's Euros deserves to been seen for exactly what it is... a genuine, thoughtful act of remembrance of the Loughinisland dead.

Every victim should be remembered in their own way but there is a particular affinity here, a unique set of circumstances with the all the planets uncannily aligned.

The same two teams facing one another on the same date as that dreadful June night in 1994.

The playing personnel have changed but clearly there are long and considerate memories at FAI HQ.

It is to their credit in these fickle times for football that they remember June 18, 1994 more for tragedy than triumph.

The response of Republic football officialdom now mirrors the mood in the camp then, thousands of miles and 18 years from the breaking news.

By sheer chance, I was the unsuspecting, indirect conduit to the Republic team minutes after they left the Giants Stadium pitch, utterly elated by their incredible win over Italy and to a tumultuous send-off from 50,000 fans who had turned the arena into a sea of green.

Telephoning my then Sunday Life deputy editor Jim Flanagan from a euphoric media centre, I automatically said: “You'll be wanting a front page piece on this!”

“Sadly not,” he replied. “We're just getting word of a terrible atrocity in County Down.

“A football result isn't going to matter much now,” he said.

I listened as he outlined the death toll, repeating the conversation, as we talked, to Mark Lawrenson, the Match of the Day pundit, then working for BBC radio.

As a former Republic international and then still very much part of the set-up, he relayed the news to nearby FAI officials and then on to a raucous dressing room, stunning the team into silence.

A remarkable thing then occurred. We clambered, subdued, onto our media and team buses, which had been loaded with crates of beer and champagne for the journey to Newark, New Jersey airport and a planned mile-high party all the way back to the team base in Orlando, Florida.

As we waited in the departure lounge, an impromptu team meeting was called and immediately it was announced it would be a dry plane.

No singing, no celebrating, no bubbly or beer, as a mark of respect to the dead.

It was a sombre and sobering journey.

I awoke next morning to see the Irish flag at half-mast outside the team's Altamonte Springs Hilton hotel and Jack Charlton on the lawn giving interviews to TV news crews when he ought to have been taking plaudits from sports commentators.

Here was one group of footballers and football people with their sensitivities and priorities right and so it remains within the FAI. Were they to allow the anniversary and occasion to pass next month without ceremony, few outside Loughinisland would have been any the wiser.

By choosing to publicly remember, and showing that they still do, makes the generosity of thought, displayed on that plane in 1994, even more estimable for the passing of time.

Belfast Telegraph

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