You may have seen the black and white photo. Ireland lining up a free kick in front of a five-man Italian wall. Fans standing on the roof of jampacked stand. It has become an iconic image and a symbol of passionate Ireland football fans. But what of the story behind the picture?
On Tuesday 5th February 1985, Ireland staged a friendly against the reigning World Champions Italy at Dalymount Park.
The Italians (managed by Enzo Bearzot) had automatically qualified for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, so they played friendlies to prepare for the tournament. These games had an extra edge as the Italians had failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championships. So, they had a point to prove to their soccer mad public.
Interest in the game was huge. The FAI were hoping for a bumper attendance and the bonus of Italian TV money for a big pay day. They calculated and anticipated that a crowd of around 20,000 would attend the match. This was partially based on their previous two friendlies (against Poland and Mexico) attracting crowds of 8,000 and 5,100, respectively. Although the Poles and Mexicans were decent draws for fans, the Italians were a renowned team full of household names and superstars, with the added prestige of being World Champions. So, the attendance was obviously going to be larger.
Only a small number of paper tickets went on sale as fans were invited to come to the game and pay at the gate. However, just prior to the match it became apparent that the crowd descending on Dalymount Park was way beyond the projected 20,000. A surge in numbers around the ground created a swell of pressure in the narrow lanes leading to the stadium, and a lot of worried fans. Worry then led to panic. To manage the vast numbers outside, Gardai ordered that the gates should be opened to relieve the congestion. This resulted in a steady throng of supporters moving into the stadium.
Supporters were banked up along the side-lines, pouring through a protective barrier around the arena. Amid this pandemonium, as Ireland Manager Eoin Hand made his way to the pitch, he had to politely ask supporters to move from the bench so that his backroom team and substitutes could take a seat.
The Irish and Italian players were both bemused and concerned by the spectacle unfolding around them. Liam Brady (then playing for Inter Milan) used his diplomatic skills and proficiency in the Italian language to try to pacify the concerns of the visitors. Incredibly an estimated 40,000 people officially attended the game. That number is genuinely hard to believe when you attend a game in Dalymount these days. Yet remarkably this was not the biggest ever crowd at the venue (the record attendance was 48,000 for a game against England in 1957).
After a short delay, the game got going at 7.45pm. An estimated eight hundred fans sat on the side-lines, with supporters also on the roof of the stand and clinging on to the floodlight pylons. Despite the chaos, the atmosphere was electric.
After only five minutes of the match Mark Lawrenson upended Inter Milan striker Alessandro Altobelli to concede a penalty, which was duly dispatched by Italian superstar Paolo Rossi. Lawrenson dislocated his shoulder in the tackle, and he was replaced by a certain Paul McGrath, making his debut for Ireland.
Italy went further ahead when Altobelli scored after 18 minutes. Ireland managed to pull a goal back in the 52nd minute, Queens Park Rangers’ Gary Waddock collected a pass from Frank Stapleton and he hammered a left footed shot past Italian goalkeeper Franco Tancredi. Ireland gave as good as they got in the game, but it eventually finished 2-1 to Italy.
Bearzot was particularly complimentary in his post-match comments, praising Ireland’s character, commitment, and fight.
The game marked the beginning of the end of the national team at the renowned old stadium in Phibsborough. It would soon be deemed unfit for games of this magnitude. Times moved on and so did international football (eventually moving to Lansdowne Road).
Luckily, a catastrophe was avoided on the evening by a combination of luck, quick thinking by the Gardai and officials and the goodwill of Ireland fans. It was a memorable night for those in attendance, for many reasons.