Friday, February 1, 2013

Very nearly our own Hillsborough

Don't you just love the bovver gear on the guy fifth
 from the right on the roof.

I visited Dalymount Park in September to watch the Blues Under 19’s defeat the hosts by three goals to two in the U-19 Elite Division of the League of Ireland. I’ hadn’t been there for a few years, certainly not since the Bo-is got into financial troubles having tried unsuccessfully to cash in on the Celtic Tiger property boom.

While their failed attempts to sell their main asset lamentably did them irreparable damage as a club, it did however guarantee the continuing survival of one the true bastions of Irish soccer, the Phibsboro edifice that is Dalymount Park.

Anyone remotely involved with Irish soccer has been touched by the ugliness and the beauty of “Dalyer”. Home to the FAI Cup Finals until 1990 and Ireland internationals until 1977 (with exceptions of Italy and Russia in 1972, and Switzerland in 1975 – all at Lansdowne), and nestled among the terraced streets in Phibsboro it has a place in Irish sporting folklore which will never diminish.

I have several memories of the ground, some of which we all share. In chronological order:
  • The FAI Cup Final of 1972 with my father engaging in a heated argument with another spectator who wouldn’t give the ball back
  • Watching in sheer amazement as Ireland beat Russia 3-0 in 1973 with Givens bagging the hat-trick. Accompanied at that match, on a Wednesday afternoon in fifth year, by Brusselsblue and Chelski I believe.
  • The successive semi-finals of 1978 and 1979 against Rovers, a 2-1 defeat avenged a year later with a victory by the same scoreline. In the latter game, Syd Wallace hanging from the railings having scored the winner with two minutes to go.
  • Allow me the brevity, but Art McCooey’s paper hat at the 1978 final has got to go down as one of Dalymount’s memorable moments.
  • Breaking down the gates before the Waterford St Pats game in 1980, our last cup-winning year.
  • Winning 2-1 against nomadic Rovers in the 2005 relegation play-off to stay up while consigning them to the First Division for the first time ever.
Superb memories indeed.

I return to the description of Dalymount nestled in the narrow terraced streets of Phibsboro. Remembering the crush at various games, and the shale incline behind the terraces at the Shed End, it is remarkable that there was not a major disaster of the type that occurred at Hillsboro or Heysel.

The Irish Independent recalls a night when apparently the stadium came closest to achieving notoriety for all the wrong reasons.

Tuesday February 5, 1985, Ireland v Italy Friendly.

Ireland has been at the wrong end of recent results, crowds for their games had dwindled and consequently an attendance of 20,000 was anticipated and planned for. Perhaps they underestimated the attraction of the Italian team.

They were World Cup holders, the aristocrats of the world game, and had only played the Republic four times prior to this fixture -- in Turin and Dublin in 1926 and '27 respectively, and in 1970 (Florence) and '71 (Dublin) in European Championship fixtures. January was a harsh month of arctic weather, causing a number of postponements in Ireland and England in many sports. In Dublin, the Ireland v England rugby game fixed for Lansdowne Road on January 19 was called off early on the morning of the match. The sporting public’s appetite for a major fixture was strong.

At 6.00pm Phibsboro and its environs were full of the usual traffic – the teams arrived twenty minutes later, their coaches flanked by Garda motorcycle outriders. Eoin Hand, the Irish manager reflects: "We got in a bit later than usual because we were in our gear. The crowds were fairly big but at the time we got in it didn't look anything unusual."

By 6.45pm the Gardai realised that instead of the 20,000 expected, there was a much greater surge in numbers around the ground. People were getting anxious. It took time to pay cash at the turnstiles. All entrances to the ground were -- and are -- by narrow lanes and on the Connaught Street side there was further confusion. Some turnstiles had been bricked up because Bohs -- and the FAI -- had not been faced with anything like capacity crowds for a long time.

At 7.00pm pressure at the turnstiles was mounting. Crowds were pushing those in front, the narrow entrances were too tight for the huge throngs that were now turning up. Gardai had 115 men on duty, 50 of them inside the ground. The FAI had 80 stewards and 10 supervisors.

At 7.15pm and with as estimated 10,000 people still to get in, a decision was made to put back the kick-off to 7.45, a delay of 15 minutes. Inside the ground there were rumours there was pandemonium outside, and almost simultaneously a wave of movement ensued and a mass of people began emerging onto the pitch. What had actually happened was that the Gardai had ordered the gates be opened to relieve the pressure and fans flooded into the ground. Those on the pitch had been let through by the Gardai at a point where the security fence was opened up to cater for pitch-side TV cameras. The mistakes made at Hillsboro did not occur at Dalymount.

By 7.40pm people were banked along the sidelines. The Tallaght Band, waiting to play the National Anthem, was surrounded by folk wandering around them. The red carpet laid out for President Hillery was trodden underfoot. Players warmed up on the pitch, not believing their eyes. Hand went to his bench, as did Bearzot to find fans sitting there. "Can I sit down, please?" said Hand as he ushered in his backroom men and subs. The Italians and Irish players were bemused but went with the flow. That said, Frank Stapleton's abiding memory of the game is: "How there wasn't a disaster that night is beyond me."

The fans settled down, although around 800 of the estimated 40,000 attendance stayed by the touchlines for the duration. The referee finally got the game going just after 7.45pm.  This classic photo of the stand at the Shed End gives an indication of how thronged conditions must have been.

And so thankfully, Dalymount Park did not become renowned for disaster, in the way that Hillsboro, Ibrox and Heysel have. Some strong decision making by the Gardai, the co-operation of the public and a bit of luck prevented Feb 5th, 1985 become famous for all the wrong reasons.

Ireland lost the match 2-1 Altobelli and Rossi scoring for the Italians with Gary Waddock replying for the Irish. The game also marked Ooh, ah Paul McGrath’s debut for Ireland a substitute after ten minutes for the injured Mark Lawrenson.

Ireland: Bonner (Celtic ); Hughton (Spurs), Lawrenson (Liverpool), McCarthy (Man City), Beglin (Liverpool); Waddock (QPR), Sheedy (Everton), Brady (Inter Milan), Galvin (Spurs); Stapleton (Man Utd), Byrne (QPR).

Italy: Tancredi; Bagni, Vierchowod, Scirea, Bergomi, Cabrini; Conti, Tardelli, Di Gennaro, Rossi, Altobelli.