As Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City take the pitch for their FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium this afternoon, we could perhaps be forgiven for believing that there is a slight chill in the air. These are two sides whose continued presence in the game are a solid link with the past, but they are both clubs that have changed with the times. Perhaps the most significant change in the recent history of either has been their departure from their historical homes. Stoke City left the Victoria Ground for The Britannia Stadium after one hundred and nineteen years in 1997, whilst Bolton Wanderers departed from Burnden Park for The Reebok Stadium after one hundred and two years at the same time.
That these two clubs should be meeting in this competition, however, should also grant us pause for thought at another of football’s tragedies, The Burnden Park Disaster of 1946. Attendances for football matches had been increasing rapidly in the years up to the start of the Second World War, and the resumption of FA Cup football after the war (the Football League did not resume until the 1946/47 season) was one of the key signifiers that the world might actually, albeit with tiny steps, be returning to normal. With the war in Europe having ended in May of 1945, there was no time to set up a league programme for the start of the following season, so with the FA Cup the only show in town for the following season, the FA changed the rules of the tournament so that every match in the competition proper would be played over two legs, up to the semi-finals.
The interest in the competition can be seen clearly from the attendances for that year’s matches, some of which reach almost cartoonishly high levels. Almost 50,000 people, for example, watched Birmingham City put six goals past Bradford Park Avenue in the quarter-finals, whilst 76,500 people were at Villa Park to see Derby County beat Aston Villa by four goals to three. Even the crowd at Villa Park, though, wasn’t the highest of the round. That came at Burnden Park for the second leg match between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City. The first leg had seen Bolton win 2-0 at The Victoria Ground, and up to 85,000 people (the actual figure is disputed) turned out for the return match, which saw a goalless draw and Bolton get through to the semi-finals of the competition.
What happened on the pitch, however, was completely overshadowed by what happened on the terraces that day. Even though Bolton had won the first leg comfortably, interest in the return match exceeded anybody’s expectations. Stoke were the team of Stanley Matthews and, at a time when there was next to no television coverage of the game, the opportunity to see England’s most famous football was too difficult to turn up for many people. Yet Burnden Park was not ideally suited to hosting such a high profile match. The ground, the previous record attendance at which had been 69,912 for a match during the 1933/34 season, had one of its stands, The Burnden Stand, out of action because it was still being used by the Ministry of Supply. This meant that almost 3,000 spaces in the ground were not available, and also that the stand’s turnstiles were not available for use, meaning that supporters wishing to use those entrances had to be directed elsewhere.
The first reports of there being a problem came forty minutes before the kick-off, with news of a build-up of pressure outside the ground. Within fifteen minutes, the gates were ordered to be closed, but these were forced open and, in addition to this, people were scaling walls and breaking down doors to get into the ground or, conversely, to escape from the building crush. By ten to three, these were being sealed, but other access points were being broken down at the same time. One gate reportedly had its lock picked by a father and son desperate to get away from the crush, leading to another rush of people into the ground. In another section of the ground, the police ordered that a perimeter fence be torn down to relieve pressure on the terrace in the ground, but as many people were still streaming into the ground as were trying to get away from it.
By the time that the teams took the pitch at 2.55, the scenes around the ground were absolutely chaotic, and it was the kick-off that proved to be the breaking point. With a bottleneck having formed at the back of the terrace, the crowd was surging to and fro as if as one, and people were already starting to spill onto the pitch. Under this intolerable pressure, two crush barriers collapsed and the entire crowd surged forward, trampling those unfortunate enough to to fall beneath its weight. The match was temporarily halted, but only so that the police could move spectators that had spilt onto the pitch back off it. Eventually, though, a policeman instructed to referee to take the players off the pitch and play was held up for fifteen minutes before restarting, with bodies covered in coats lining the touchline and a new touchline having been drawn up using sawdust. At half-time, with many people still apparently not having realised the horror that had played out right in front of them, the referee turned the teams straight around and a goalless draw was played out. Thirty-three people, however, had died, with over four hundred requiring medical attention.
An enquiry was immediately launched, while the Manchester Evening News, with regard to the fact that so many people, including a sizeable number of servicemen, had broken into the ground, sombrely noted that, “Perhaps the war has left people with less respect for the law than they used to have”. The Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, appointed R Moelwyn Hughes QC to lead the enquiry, and his findings were depressingly obvious:
How easy it is for a dangerous situation to arise in a crowded enclosure. It happens again and again without fatal or even injurious consequences. But its danger is that it requires so little influence – an involuntary sway, an exciting moment, a comparatively small addition to the crowd, the failure of one part of one barrier – to translate the danger in terms of death and injuries.
Hughes’ report found that three factors had determined what had happened at Burnden Park. Firstly, it took too long for the police and club staff too long to securely close all turnstiles and that by the time that they did, it was too late to avoid what came to pass. Secondly, there had been large scale illegal entry into the ground, particularly through one door. Thirdly, one of the barriers that had collapsed was rusty and defective. Hughes concluded that Bolton Wanderers were not to blame for what had happened. There were sufficient police present, but communication between them and the ground staff had not been effective. The club spent £5,500 on safety measures after the incident. His recommendations were that clubs should implement a more scientific approach in calculating the capacity of terraces (several different measures were used at the time, and it was established that the number of people on the Railway Terrace was probably a safe one) and that football grounds should be licensed.
In 1948, the FA introduced a ground licensing system for all grounds with a capacity of over 10,000, but it was wholly inadequate. There were no specific guidelines or standards for the required inspection, and it wasn’t even specified who was to carry out the inspection, beyond “qualified personnel”. All inspection reports were unquestioningly accepted by the FA, and licenses issued. Astonishingly, this state of affairs remained the same until the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act, which came about as a result of the Wheatley Report, which was commissioned by the government after the second Ibrox Disaster of 1971. In short, clubs learned little more from the Burnden Park Disaster than when to close their turnstiles, and the sense of urgency to improve safety standards diminished when crowds at matches started to decrease again during the mid-1950s.
That football didn’t learn a great deal from the Burnden Park Disaster is, perhaps, no great surprise. The policy of packing in as many as possible and doing no more containing (or attempting to contain) them continued until the horrifying but utterly predictable events of Hillsborough in 1989. On such a day as this, when Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, two clubs that continue to flourish in the twenty-first century, sit on the edge of reaching an FA Cup final for the first time in years, it is perhaps only right and proper that we take a moment to remember those that died for no reason other than that they wanted to watch a football match. We should thank our lucky stars that we live in an age when a repeat of it seems inconceivable.
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