When Irish football mourned the death of the people’s princess

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With 36 minutes remaining and Ireland trailing 2-1, Roy Keane headed home a Mark Kennedy corner and began the fight-back. Eleven minutes later, the same player got on the end of a David Connolly pass to snatch the lead and suddenly the prospect of an embarrassing defeat by Iceland started to recede. Kennedy added another before the finish.The synopsis is necessary to refresh the memory because the football may have been the least remarkable aspect of the afternoon Ireland defeated Iceland in Reykjavik back in 1997. To understand exactly why, a little bit of context may help.
On the morning of that match, many of the Irish squad prepared for the fray by gathering in the lobby of their hotel to watch the funeral of Princess Diana being shown live on television. Then, they made their way to Iceland’s tiny national stadium for a World Cup qualifier. Before kick-off, as requested by the FAI, a minute’s silence was observed in memory of the dead English aristocrat and with black armbands prominent on every Irish jersey, they went to work. After Keane’s individual heroics proved the difference between the two teams, nothing much was said about the requiem for the former princess consort to the heir apparent of the British crown (her official title).
“The players were all in total agreement,” said McCarthy, explaining the display of respect at the time. “Most of them earn their living in the UK. Some of us were born in England. But this isn’t just something to do with England. The whole world has been touched by the tragic accident and the Irish are just as upset as anyone else. What we are doing isn’t much, but the team felt it was a fitting gesture of respect on a very moving day for humanity to mark a tragedy that has affected everyone with any human instincts.”
More than fifteen years later, a few months after Irish players wore black armbands against Italy on June 18 to commemorate those killed in the Loughinisland massacre, the Princess Diana game is worth revisiting. To the best of our knowledge, the woman had never been to Ireland, much less contributed anything at all to the country’s welfare. What did she do to deserve the ultimate accolade from the national team then?
Even in the context of the entire world over-reacting to her untimely death, did it really require the FAI to consider postponing a crucial game on the road to France ’98? Apparently so. Bonkers as it may seem at this remove, there was legitimate talk of actually putting the fixture back until the day after her funeral or cancelling it altogether.
“Because we’re the away team that option is out of our hands,” said FAI chief executive Bernard O’Byrne. “But we’re very happy that the Icelandic FA have agreed to pay the Princess respect.”
Eight months before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, almost a decade prior to the brouhaha attending the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at Croke Park, an Irish team afforded a member of the extended British royal family the ultimate honour. To those of a nationalist bent it may well be one of the most embarrassing and rarely-mentioned episodes in the history of Irish sport. To the pluralists, it might be possibly construed as evidence of our progressive nature in the last years of the twentieth century. Either way, everybody can surely agree it was a bizarre interlude.
Four of the Icelandic team were earning their corn in England yet they saw no need to wear armbands for some distant celebrity whom they probably also read a lot about in newspapers. What was the difference between them and their Irish counterparts? Was Roy Keane more moved by Diana’s work on landmines than Bolton’s Gudni Bergsson? Did Shay Given feel particularly obliged to commemorate her AIDS campaigning in a manner that didn’t occur to Crystal Palace’s Herman Hreidarsson? Beyond the obvious influence of tabloid hysteria on their thinking, why else did they feel the need to commemorate somebody with no tangible connection to their lives or to the country in which seven of the starting Irish XI learned the game?
It’s worth pointing out too that the list of great Irish people recently deceased who weren’t ever honoured by the team or the association at the next available international is long indeed. Jack Lynch died a couple of weeks before a play-off against Turkey in 1999. There were no black armbands for a former taoiseach who, amongst other things, advocated the opening of GAA stadia to other sports, decades before it became fashionable. Did he not do more for Ireland than Dodi Fayed’s lover? An even better argument was posted by a letter-writer to the Irish Times a couple days after the game back in 1997, one of the few protest voices we could uncover in the archives.
“In June 1994, six men were murdered in a pub in Loughinisland, Co Down, while watching the Republic of Ireland soccer team play a World Cup match against Italy,” wrote Dubliner Tim O’Halloran. “The Football Association of Ireland decided not to mark the event at the team’s next match. This same organisation has now chosen to mark the death of a foreign aristocrat with a display of black armbands… The men murdered by the UVF were real people, supporting their team. They were deserving of a show of respect and because of the circumstances and reason for their deaths, it should have been on a football field and by their team.”
Those men got their show of respect. A lot later perhaps than they should have.
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