LONDON – For the first time since hooligans rioted and forced their match to be abandoned 18 years ago, the England and Ireland soccer teams will take to the field on Wednesday, in a contest seen as a historic chance for redemption.
Tensions are high in London ahead of the exhibition match, which is being staged as part of the English Football Association's 150th anniversary celebrations — but has been causing deep anxiety at Wembley Stadium where the game will be played.
A stream of warnings have been delivered by England's coach, Roy Hodgson, imploring fans not to shout anti-Irish chants that could turn the clock back to an era of political and sectarian strife between the nations.
The conflict endured for generations, with Britain hit by terrorist attacks during a long confrontation with the Irish Republican Army. But with a peace accord now in place and regular violence mostly a memory, match organizers say the time is right for the rivals to take each other on.
"It's in the distance in the past now," Hodgson said. "There have been problems between the two countries. We can't rewrite history, but we are playing the match in completely different circumstances to the past."
The new match also offers a chance for England to demonstrate it has made progress in tamping down on violence among some its supporters, who earned an international reputation in the 1980s and '90s for hooliganism. The team came close to being thrown out of the 2000 European Championship after rioting in Belgium.
The 1995 match lasted just 28 minutes before the referee ordered the players off the field. England fans rampaged inside Dublin's Lansdowne Road stadium, tearing up wooden benches and throwing them at opposing fans, before battling it out with Irish police. More than 20 people required hospital treatment and over 40 were arrested.
Alan Kelly, who will be on Ireland's bench on Wednesday as goalkeeping coach, was in goal 18 years ago and remembered the night as "horrendous."
"The mayhem that was caused and the potentially life-threatening injuries some of the supporters could have sustained," Kelly recalled. "Some of the debris that came down from the stands was truly horrific."
"We can't deny there have been some dark times," Hodgson said.
The 1995 "friendly" game came three years before the landmark Good Friday Agreement that transformed relations between the U.K. and Ireland after a conflict stretching backing decades.
Although the paramilitary bloodshed has receded considerably since the 1998 accord, there was a reminder of the ongoing civil strife in Northern Ireland the hours before the teams trained on Tuesday in London.
Two pipe bombs were thrown at a police vehicle as two officers, who escaped injury as they responded to a bogus emergency call. No group claimed responsibility for the ambush in an Irish Catholic part of north Belfast, but Irish Republican Army splinter groups regularly target police as part of their efforts to undermine Northern Ireland's peace process.
The specter of the IRA has been ever-present at England games for years, with fans chanting "No surrender to the IRA" at stadiums both home and abroad. It's these incendiary chants that the Football Association is pleading with fans to refrain from on Wednesday.
"Wembley is considered the world over as the home of football and we ask those attending to not take part in any chanting — particularly of a religious or political perspective — which could cause offense to our visitors or fellow fans," Hodgson wrote in an email sent to ticketholders.
The last England-Ireland match to be completed ended in a 1-1 draw in March 1991 in London.
The countries have not attempted to play a friendly game since and haven't had to play each other in qualifiers for the World Cup and European Championship because they haven't been matched in a random draw.
Police and stewards will be out in force to guard against any repeat of crowd violence. There was last violence at Wembley last month when Millwall fans fought with workers and each other during a loss to Wigan.
In 2011, a Wales supporter was killed in an attack outside Wembley by an England fan, who was later jailed for three years.
But for the most part, England fans have been traveling the world without major incidents for more than a decade.
"Long before I came into the job I knew that the behavior and reputation of England fans has developed into something we all should be very proud of," said Hodgson, who has been England coach for a year. "World Cups in South Africa and Germany in the last decade are shining examples of this.
"So I hope everyone who follows England understands that position has been built by many fans over a long period of time and sadly it can be undone very quickly by a minority."
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris.