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May 27, 2013

Has the English Disease been cured?

"I just hope everyone behaves themselves," England legend Gary Lineker said as I interviewed him at a Dublin hotel just a few yards away from what was to become a crime scene less than 24 hours later.

We all knew Ireland's clash with the old enemy in February 1995 was laced with undertones. The headlines in the Dublin newspapers on the day of the game warned of trouble ahead, and the foolish decision to proceed with the playing of God Save the Queen, an anthem the visiting thugs saw as a rallying cry for their rampant nationalism, did not take long to backfire.

At a time when football was being repeatedly tarnished by its imbecilic minority, this once-in-a-lifetime chance to 'invade' Irish soil was not be missed by the English troublemakers, who used the beautiful game as a vehicle to vent their anger.

In an era when the Premier League has taken the game into a different social and economic stratosphere, it is hard to recall the days when football fans were viewed as the second-class citizens who ranked below vermin on the social ladder, yet England fans helped to cement that reputation with their persistent offending.

In the 1980s and early '90s, following the Three Lions abroad was as much about causing trouble as watching football: find the squad in whichever capital city you travel to, hurl garden furniture from bars, and battle with police and their water cannons.

It was pastime a few thousand Englishmen simply adored two or three times a year, with the presence of TV camera crews promoting their cause and turning them into minor celebrities in their tragic little world.

February 15, 1995, in Dublin was viewed as their chance to make a point at a delicate stage in the Northern Ireland peace process. As they sang 'no surrender to the IRA' on their march up to Lansdowne Road, it was clear that they meant business, with the Nazi salutes that greeted the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann, Ireland's national anthem, confirming this was a mob intent on attention-seeking on a grand scale.

David Kelly's opening goal for Ireland merely served to heighten their impatient urge to disgrace their nation, and as the seats rained down from the upper tier of the stand I was sitting in on the night, it was clear that their final attack was underway.

They duly got the game abandoned before fighting their way through the streets as they were escorted out of the stadium by local police who had been hopelessly underprepared, and just as naïve, in their approach to controlling such a high-profile occasion.

My Irish heritage mattered little on a night when I feared my English accent would be a major handicap as I gathered with colleagues to try to make sense of the shameful events we had witnessed. There was an air of shock lingering, but it was sadly all so predictable.

Unfortunately, my miserable experience did not end there, as the mindless idiots who dragged the sport and their country through the dirt were in triumphant mood the following day when I joined a clutch of them on their way back to their beloved motherland.

Sitting on a low-budget airline is rarely a pleasurable experience but, being surrounded by the yobs who affiliated themselves to a hooligan cult that went by the codename of Combat 18, it quickly became evident that the 'achievements' of their trip were a source of great pride.

Passing newspapers around the plane and proudly spotting images of themselves and their comrades after carrying out the successful mission to enemy territory, the lack of moral fibre was striking.

The tragedy was that these enemies of our game were allowed to disappear into the night sky, doubtless encouraged by the events of their great night in Dublin to wreak havoc on another foreign land sooner rather than later.

Some 18 years may have passed since that dark February night was etched into the annuls of English football infamy and, thankfully, most of the fools who used to attach themselves to this curiously jingoistic national team have called a ceasefire. Maybe they grew out of it. Maybe they ran out of money. Who cares?

England and hooliganism no longer go hand in hand, it seems, yet many fear this scourge may merely be in hibernation, as incidents of fan violence have been on the rise around club matches in recent years.

While rugby followers of the two nations have shown they can gather together at Croke Park, the most symbolic of Irish sporting venues, in positive spirit, there would still be questions over whether football fans could follow suit if Ireland and England played at the new Aviva Stadium.

Football has never been a war, but England's most unpleasant exports made it their duty to turn it into one on that fateful night at Lansdowne Road. The shame is enduring.

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