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A rivalry of the ages

Even though history has taught us that the bigger nations often overpower their weaker opposition, it has never been that straightforward between England and the Republic of Ireland, who meet again at Wembley on Wednesday night.

A passionate derby that stretches back to 1946, Ireland have always firmly believed that they can stand up and go blow for blow with their old enemy. And that is why their meetings on the international stage have tended to be fiery and memorable affairs.

However, the last time that they squared up, it was a night when hooligans stopped what was promising to be an entertaining friendly at Lansdowne Road. And even as the horde of thugs tore up the old stadium in Dublin, the home fans bellowed out 'You'll Never Beat The Irish'.

That was back on February 15, 1995 when a neo-Nazi group called Combat 18 took offensive chanting to a new extreme when they began to rip up seating in the upper tier of an old stand and launch them as missiles down on the Irish fans, who had filled seats originally allocated for travelling supporters but returned by the English FA.

The trouble escalated after David Kelly had put Ireland in front on 21 minutes with a neat finish and it took just five minutes more for referee Dick Jol to call the game off. By that stage, 20 Irish fans had been injured and the Gardai, who had ignored intelligence briefings warning of possible violence, started to remove the hooligans and made approximately 40 arrests.

For the Irish players who featured in that match, the most disappointing aspect, apart from the trouble and injuries occurred, was that they were denied a chance to get one over England. It was the 14th meeting between the two teams and Jack Charlton's side felt that it was a night primed for them to record a famous victory.

It hardly mattered that Terry Venables' England boasted a line-up full of Premier League stars in Seaman, Barton, Pallister, Adams, Le Saux, Anderton, Ince, Platt, Le Tissier, Beardsley, and Shearer, because this was Ireland versus England, where form, history and world rankings count for little. And they had started the game brightly, with Kelly's goal proof of their early dominance.

"We went one-nil up and England were very average on the night. For the amount of talent that they had on the pitch, we cut them open quite often and they just didn't gel for whatever reason," said Alan Kernaghan, who started at centre-back for Ireland.

"By the time we scored, we felt that it was what we deserved. We wanted to kick on from there and felt that England were on the ropes. There was a lot of hype going into the match about how we would do against them, but I thought that we were the better team."

If one looks close enough, they may feel that Ireland's confidence is largely misplaced as they have only beaten their rivals twice. Yet, there have been six draws between the teams and Ray Houghton's goal that secured a 1-0 win at the Euro 88 finals in Stuttgart is still sung by the supporters as if it were a World Cup-winning strike - that's how much it means to beat England.

Yet, there has long been a contradictive relationship between Irish fans and English football - loving their clubs, yet hating their national team. When they first fall in love with the beautiful game, Irish kids often select an English club as their team, but would never dare dream of pulling on that famous white jersey of the national side.

In many ways, it is inevitable that the influence of the English game - particularly the rise of the Premier League - would rub off on its close neighbours, but there is certainly no love lost when it comes to international football. And that is why Wednesday's friendly at Wembley is so important to the Irish supporters.

It will be the first of four big games over a hectic summer period for Giovanni Trapattoni's, including a World Cup qualifier at home to Faroe Islands, but most fans would probably take a win over their old rivals on their own turf over three qualifying points for the 2014 World Cup.

"The fans will be dying to get one over England," said defender Paul McShane, who like many of the Irish players have recovered quicker than normal from injuries and battled with their clubs to be available for this fixture.

It is 18 long years since Ireland could test themselves against England, but it arrives this week and anyone who is unfamiliar with the rivalry will surely witness an international match that ditches the term 'friendly' and reignites some old passions.

And it may just be another opportunity for the Irish supporters to bellow out that favourite tune of 'You'll Never Beat The Irish' as they pack into the new Wembley for a match that hopefully will be remembered for all of the right reasons this time.


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