Johnston: 'It's a positive draw'

LINFIELD. It was inevitable, wasn't it?

LINFIELD. It was inevitable, wasn't it?

When Monday's 2011 Setanta Cup First Round draw was made in Belfast City Hall there was no doubt what emerged as the tie of the round. Linfield were first out of the hat, followed seconds later by Dundalk. Cue wry smiles all around.

That this fixture is regarded as one of the most high profile on the island of Ireland would be startling to an outsider, especially when you consider that both sides have not met in a competitive match since paired in the European Cup of 1979.

However when you take into account what happened at the first leg in Oriel Park on August 29, it explains just why this game will take centre stage above all others when the competition kicks off on Valentine's Day.

The Battle of Oriel

Played at the height of the Troubles, and just two days after the IRA assassination of Earl Mountbatten in Sligo and the death of 17 British soldiers in Warrenpoint, the night is dubbed by many as the "The Battle of Oriel".

Despite appeals from both clubs for their supporters to maintain respect, the night saw over 150 people injured as Linfield fans fought a running battle with the Gardai after tearing down a fence and mounting the roof of The Shed and the floodlights at Oriel Park.

More trouble followed after the game with windows broken along the Carrick Road as the Linfield supporters were given a Gardai escort back to their buses at the Harp Lager brewery. Dundalk fans retaliated by stoning and petrol bombing some of the buses headed for Belfast.

In a recent interview with UTV, former Linfield FC manager Roy Coyle recalled the game.

"There was a lot of tension about the place at the time. We could sense that there was going to be problems at the game, I remember looking across at the far stand and seeing both our supporters and supporters of Dundalk trying to climb onto the roof of the stand and create problems."

Dundalk's Mick Lawlor went even further, describing the experience as "the most frightening of my career."

As the fall out continued afterwards, Linfield were given a two match home ban in European competition and were made pay 5,000 for the damage inflicted on Oriel Park. UEFA ruled that the second leg had to be played at a neutral venue and Haarlem, Holland, was selected where Dundalk won 2-1 to qualify for the next round on a 3-1 aggregate score. For many, the result is the hardest thing to remember about the occasion.


The relationship between the clubs grew since that night in 1979 and 20 years later the Dunfield project, an initiative which organised leisure and social development for children from both sides of the border was set up.

It was hugely successful before the plug was pulled on the scheme in 2002 when Co-Operation North refused to hand over any money to continue funding the project, despite the fact it had brought thousands of kids together from both sides of the border.

It is those links with Linfield, and not the memories of 1979 that Dundalk FC Club Promotion Officer Paul Johnston – who was present at the draw on Monday - is keen to play up ahead of the tie.

"We have to look positively at the draw", he said. "We won't neglect what happened in 1979. It was a very serious event at that time but I think both clubs and the country have moved on an awful lot from those times. If we think about what came after the event and what has happened between both clubs since, it has been very positive.

"The Dunfield project was a huge success and was very beneficial in repairing some of the damage done back in 1979. The initiative probably came from that game. Kids from both communities got to understand things a lot better and this is the generation that is up and coming now so hopefully the work done will see that there is no re-occurrence of 1979.

Linfield manager David Jeffrey, who will take his side to Oriel Park for the second leg echoed Johnston's comments.

"People probably would have thought something like Dunfield could never have happened given that infamous night. Our own youngsters went down to Dundalk. We had the Dundalk youngsters up here and there was a real bond between the clubs. There really was a tremendous way, you talk about something positive coming out of something negative. Dunfield was that", he added.


Despite the success of Dunfield, Johnston said it would be foolish of the club to rule out the possibility of trouble. And despite the draw only taking place on Monday, Dundalk have already been in discussions with the Gardai.

"We will be liaising with the Gardai – we have done already – and we will be meeting with both the PSNI and Linfield. Yesterday we met Linfield's secretary and we have already put plans into place to meet in advance of the games. We won't be taking our eye of the ball. We understand that there might be an issue and we will be fully prepared for that.

"We see it (trouble) all the time", he added. "Football has done a huge amount to eradicate the issue of crowd trouble but there is always an element looking to cause hassle. Football clubs know that there might be an undercurrent on both sides of the support, sometimes it's people with absolutely no interest in the game, who are out to cause trouble. That's who we will be watching. People who are looking to push that agenda won't be able to use our football club to do it."

Supporters buses

Johnston also said that the club intends to run official buses to the game in Windsor Park on Valentine's day - Dundalk's first visit to the ground.

"It's very early but we will be looking to run official buses where our fans can come in and out. There will be people who will go on their own and we will work with Linfield officials to make sure everything is okay for them. To be fair to the likes of Tony Curtis, they put a lot of hard work into getting their bus going to games and I'm sure they'll be there. I hope we can mushroom out and get more buses to go with that."

A date for the second leg has yet to be confirmed – it will either be February 28 or March 1 - but it promises to be a special night in Oriel Park.

"Unfortunately we can't get 17,000 people in to the ground anymore but I'm sure the atmosphere will be fantastic", said Johnston. "We could get 4,000 to 6,000 in and I think think it will be a great spectacle. It's a great game to have at Oriel Park."