Belfast Telegraph

Two days after 1979 carnage, someone thought it a good idea to send 3,000 Linfield supporters to Dundalk

Our Sporting Lives and Times

War zone: A Garda is helped away after being injured in the riots at Oriel Park in 1979
War zone: A Garda is helped away after being injured in the riots at Oriel Park in 1979

By Jim Gracey

If we'd known, 40 years ago this weekend, that the dead heads and agenda-led of 2019 would have been arguing the toss over flags and emblems for the benefit of radio chat show ratings four decades hence, we'd most likely have despaired.

Now, looking back on those blood and tear stained times, it is actually a blessed relief that the present day issues vexing some sections of our society are trivial in comparison to what our generation lived through (and many died) in circumstances we grotesquely considered normal.

It is a tribute to the fortitude of the Troubles population at large that day to day life did indeed go on amid the litany of murder and mayhem.

It is also shuddering to realise that bloody August Bank Holiday Monday of 1979 wasn't even the worst. Twenty two died… Lord Mountbatten and two schoolboy helpers on his fishing boat off the Sligo coast, 18 soldiers in a double blast at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint, all at the hands of the Provos, and, largely forgotten, a curious English visitor, drawn to the water's edge on the southern side of Carlingford Lough by the first blast and shot dead by a panicking trooper who mistook him for one of the bombers.

Shocking. Yet even more perished in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974 and at Omagh in 1998, the death tolls 33, 29 and three unborn babies,

And still, in the midst of the madness unleashed on that sunny Bank Holiday afternoon, with community tensions stretched like piano wire and emotions off the scale, someone in the upper echelons of European football, and likewise the security services on both sides of the border, thought it a good idea to send Linfield to Dundalk two days later for a European Cup tie.

Petrol and flames.

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Headline at the time
Headline at the time

Context is everything for those born in the ensuing decades.

Today, a Dundalk-Linfield game would not raise an eyebrow, let alone the state of high alert that accompanied the fixture in 1979.

Back then, Linfield was an exclusively Protestant team and club. The first Catholic players of the modern era did not arrive until the 90s.

Today, the club is fully inclusive and embraced by an appreciative support that in 1979 was drawn mostly from staunch loyalist areas. Dundalk at that time would have been a safe haven for on the run republicans and their sympathisers. A combustible mix at the worst of times.

The events of that Bank Holiday Monday made the violence that erupted inside and outside Oriel Park an absolute certainty - the blood was up and still it was allowed to go ahead.

It was a baptism of fire, two months into my Tele career. Knowing what was going to happen, we journeyed like moths to a flame, our boss Malcolm Brodie in the driving seat of his Honda Accord automatic, colleagues Bill Ireland, Gordon Hanna and myself his passengers.

Headline at the time
Headline at the time

Three great newspaper men and sports writers, sadly no longer with us, and me, too young and foolish to be apprehensive and for whom it seemed like a great adventure.

The reports they filed that night were never going to be about football.

When order was finally restored as the Blue hordes left a shattered town, the 'score' was:

  •  52 Garda hurt
  •  50 civilians injured including three Linfield fans and a girl who remained hospitalised the next day
  •  25 arrests made, mostly Linfield supporters who appeared in court the next day and were fined

And while the match itself yielded a £10,500 'gate', the Dundalk club revealed that the cost of staging the match, and paying for the damage would wipe out their profit.

Linfield paid a high price, too, and not just reputational. Uefa chiefs quickly decided the club should carry the can for their supporters' actions and ordered the return leg to be played in Harlem, Holland.

Amid it all, a football match broke out, a credit to every player on the pitch and, fittingly, it ended in a 1-1 draw, Dundalk progressing with a 2-0 win in Harlem where Linfield's goalscorer at Oriel Park, Warren Feeney, missed a penalty.

It was by far the worst riot I have witnessed in a football ground in 40 years chronicling the game here, and there have been many…

  • The pitch battle at the end of the 1983 Linfield-Glentoran Irish Cup final at Windsor
  • The 1985 Big Two 'pig and chicken' final where burning rafters rained down from inside the roof of the unreserved stand at The Oval
  • Linfield v Donegal Celtic in 1990
  • Cliftonville v Celtic in the week of the internment anniversary in 1984 where fans fought running battles with police who fired plastic bullets inside the ground while a service revolver was snatched and later used to murder an off duty UDR soldier.

And so it went on through the 80s and 90s, football disorder almost routine as a microcosm of a violent and divided society.

What made Dundalk-Linfield worse was that a blind man on a galloping horse could have seen it coming as 3,000 Linfield fans in a fleet of 60 buses descended on the border town where the local hoods were waiting, ready to defend their title.

Headline at the time
Headline at the time

Garda, some not even in riot gear, were hopelessly unprepared, and outnumbered. Undisciplined stewards, bizarrely clad in white coats, resembling cricket umpires, attempted to drive back the rampaging Linfield hordes using wooden cudgels but were over-run.

Worse still, the section housing the away fans was strewn with rubble that ought to have been cleared, negating the police searches at the turnstiles.

And in a futile attempt at segregation, a thin line of barbed wire was all that separated the goading Dundalk fans and police line from the snarling Linfield mob who chewed it up and spat it out as they launched their attacks.

The normally bustling Dundalk we arrived in that afternoon was a ghost town with pubs and shops hastily pulling down their shutters as word reached them of a pub wrecked by a busload of Linfield supporters just across the border at Ravensdale.

There wasn't a Blueman in sight but an advance party had clearly arrived as a Union Jack fluttered from the Maid of Erin statue in Market Square. It was the calm before the storm.

An estimated 150 to 200 of the 3000-plus Linfield supporters were involved in the violence, but, fuelled by drink and anger, they generated the sound and fury of 10 times their number with regular fans later asserting that many had never been to a Linfield match before.

Unbelievably, at the outset, Gardai clodded stones back at them!

The police baton-charged again and again but were driven back under the unreserved stand before calling in reinforcements.

But the trouble continued, despite appeals over the PA system by Dundalk and Linfield officials and by Bluemen not involved in the violence who tried to remonstrate with the mob.

An uneasy peace settled, particularly after Warren Feeney scored the opening Linfield goal - though immediately after it, full back Terry Hayes was felled by a stone thrown from the Dundalk end. But more trouble was to develop.

A Tricolour was set alight at the Linfield end and, in response, the Dundalk crowd ripped up and burned a Union Jack.

Coming up to half-time, the violence worsened with more stone-throwing and more baton charges. However, at this stage the Gardai appeared to be settling for a policy of trying to reason with the fans, make no arrests and allow Linfield supporters not involved to keep things under control.

That soon broke down, however and all hell was let loose during half-time with vicious fighting, and Linfield fans up on the roof of the stand trying to remove the Tricolour flying at full mast.

Gardai, many with blood streaming down their faces, were helped out of the ground and some stewards were also among the casualties.

So, too, were a number of Linfield fans who had been arrested. We saw one dragged by police through the half time tea room with blood gushing from a head wound.

Dundalk officials made appeals for order over the loudspeaker. "You are doing your club no good. Please stop firing missiles," they pleaded, to no avail.

Later, when the teams took the field again, some of the Linfield players, led by their player-manager Roy Coyle, walked straight to the Linfield section involved in the violence and pleaded for order. Legendary captain Peter Rafferty and Feeney, scorer of Linfield's goal, also appealed.

Rafferty said afterwards: "There was one boy, and the smell of drink from his breath nearly made me drunk. Quite honestly, I've never seen any of those people at Windsor before."

They settled, but not for long. One fan climbed up onto the roof of the ground, and again tried to pull down the Tricolour. He was tackled by a steward, who retreated after pelting the youth with stones.

And that was more or less the prelude for a big Gardai baton charge. About 300 of them rushed forwards, stepped over the barbed wire, which had been practically pulled asunder, and drove the Linfield fans back.

More stones rained down on them, but they pushed on, driving the rioters back into the vast section of Linfield fans not involved, and who had earlier howled their disapproval of it all.

At one stage stewards rushed across the pitch while the game was continuing, but renowned referee Pat Partridge hardly noticed it.

Meanwhile, behind the Linfield goal, the supporters were being driven back, further and further into one corner.

The casualty and arrest list by this time had increased significantly. Order of Malta members had set up an impromptu First Aid room under the main stand before the ambulances arrived.

Then the trouble spilled outside into Carrick Road. Three houses and a supermarket and filling station were attacked and had windows smashed as the Linfield fans made their way back to the buses taking them home, parked up by the Harp Brewery.

They, too, were attacked, with more windows broken. Several had been smashed on the way to Dundalk as well, injuring several Linfield supporters,

Meanwhile, in the Dundalk boardroom after the game, Linfield secretary Derek Brookes condemned the violence and, in particular, the trouble makers clad in blue. Their conduct, he said, had disgraced the club.

"Unfortunately," said Mr Brookes, "they ignored our appeals for order, and Roy Coyle did his best as well. Fortunately, the hooligans were greatly outnumbered by genuine fans, and the game itself was played in a magnificent spirit. There was hardly a serious foul."

Dundalk chairman Oliver Quinn said he was "sad and disappointed".

Referee Partridge said he wanted to make no comment, and neither would the Uefa observer at the match, Leo Callaghan from Wales.

"It's all here in my notes," he said. "But I don't want to say anything. I'll be making my report."

That report resulted in Linfield being held almost entirely accountable, being forced to pay Dundalk's costs to travel to the Netherlands as well as an additional £5,000 for damage sustained to Oriel Park. Dundalk were fined £870 for providing insufficient security at the match.

In an ironic postscript, Dundalk went on to defeat Maltese minnows Hibernian in the next round before drawing Celtic.

The events of that night 40 years ago in Dundalk showed Belfast was not ready then for a match like that had it been Linfield who progressed.

The fact that Dundalk and Celtic have played without incident at Windsor in recent years shows how far most of us have come in the long, drawn out decades of peace and confidence building since.

And that has to be the biggest blessed relief of all.

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