From the mid-1960s on, football grew massively as a passive spectator sport. The realisation that football could evolve as a spectator sport for people that weren’t even at the match was a revolution in terms of the perception of the game. By 1983, moves for live televising of league football for the first time were already well in motion. By the end of 1983, the first Football League match to be shown on live television would have come to pass. Within a decade, the game would have been through its biggest crises and come out the other side towards a future that would both save the game and sell its soul down the river.
The final season before this revolution – the last season, in many respects, of “old football” – was a strange one. Liverpool won the First Division by eleven points, and this came with a slump in their last few matches, after the title had already been won. At the time, the television set up was fairly simple. On Saturdays, each ITV region sent their Outside Broadcast Unit to a match and, in the evening, showed a regional show featuring their local match and highlights of matches from two other regions. On Sunday afternoons, the BBC’s “Match Of The Day” showed highlights from two matches. With Liverpool running away with the First Division championship, the television companies soon tired of watching Liverpool romp home every week. The BBC famously ended up focussing on the battle at the bottom of the First Division, culminating in Luton Town’s late win against Manchester City on the last day of the season. ITV’s London Weekend Television, on the other hand, became strangely fixated upon Fulham.
Fulham were a team on the up. Relegated from the First Division in 1968, they hadn’t been in the top flight since, but the appointment of manager Malcolm MacDonald signalled the start of a rapid improvement in their fortunes. Promoted from the Third Division in 1982, they signalled their potential for a second successive promotion in October of that year with a 4-1 win at St James Park against Newcastle United in front of a home crowd that was stunned to silence and a similarly surprised “Match Of The Day” audience. With Liverpool walking away with the First Division title and the race for the UEFA Cup places (arguably unsurprisingly) hardly catching the public’s imagination, LWT’s “The Big Match” started to focus on Fulham’s bid for a second successive promotion. With Queens Park Rangers already clear at the top of the table and with Wolverhampton Wanderers tucked into second place, Craven Cottage became an unlikely magnet for ITV’s cameras.
By the time that ITV’s camera made their first visit of the season to Craven Cottage, Fulham were already wobbling. Going into their match against Grimsby Town at the end of March 1983, they had won just one of their previous five matches. Fortunately for Fulham, Grimsby were in even worse form (one win in twelve matches) and Fulham won 4-0, leaving them seven points clear of Leicester City and with a game in hand. The next big match at Craven Cottage was worthy of the ITV cameras – home match against Leicester, with the visitors needing a win to have any realistic chance of overhauling Fulham. At this point, It’s worthwhile taking a moment to remember how strong the Second Division was at the time. Fulham’s team included Gordon Davies, Tony Gale, Ray Houghton, Dean Coney and Ray Lewington, while Leicester’s had a strike partnership of Alan Smith and Gary Lineker. A crowd of over 24,000 saw Leicester win 1-0 thanks to a goal from Ian Wilson, which cut Fulham’s lead to just two points with just four games left to play.
The following week, Fulham lost again (this time at Sheffield Wednesday), but Leicester could only cut the gap to two points with a draw. Two days later, however, Fulham lost against the already promoted Queens Park Rangers and the advantage was handed to Leicester, who drew their game in hand to push Fulham out of the promotion places on goal difference for the first time since the previous November. LWT’s next visit to Craven Cottage saw them win 2-0 in a nervy match against Carlisle United (a match prefaced by a curiously jittery microphone announcement by a microphone-wielding Malcolm MacDonald about how this was “the most important match in the post-war history of Fulham Football Club”), but Leicester also won 1-0 away against Oldham Athletic to hold onto third place.
The final day of the season saw Leicester at home against Burnley, with Fulham away against Derby County. Fulham had clawed their way back to being level on points with Leicester, meaning that if Leicester won, they were promoted. If Leicester drew with Burnley, a win would be enough for Fulham at Derby and if they lost, a draw would be enough for Fulham. Derby, who had been the English champions just eight years previously, had struggled all season and needed a point to guarantee avoiding relegation. To reiterate how strong the Second Division was at the time, however, their team contained the likes of Kenny Burns, Archie Gemmill, Paul Futcher and Bobby Davison, and they were managed by Peter Taylor, who had been Brian Clough’s foil to a Football League championship and two European Cups at Nottingham Forest. What followed was arguably one of the most infamous English football matches of all time.
When people talk about atmospheres at modern football matches ever being “intimidating”, they don’t know what they’re talking about. The atmosphere at The Baseball Ground on that Saturday afternoon in May 1983 was poisonous. Derby’s old ground was always an intimidating one for away clubs, with tall, narrow stands on all four sides and the feeling that the crowd was only inches away from the field of play. On this particular day the crowd was swollen by Derby’s need to stay up, and Derby played above themselves. With fifteen minutes to go, Bobby Davison volleyed in the only goal of the match. What happened next, however, would leave the end of the season in chaos. The crowd invaded the pitch to celebrate the goal before being temporarily penned back in by policemen with dogs. With time running out, however, the fences behind the goal were opened and the crowd spilled out, standing on the touchline. With five minutes to play, Fulham were attacking on the left wing when Robert Wilson was kicked by a supporter. The referee called a halt to proceedings with two minutes to play when the crowd invaded the pitch, thinking that the referee had called for full time when he had actually blown for a free kick.
Ironically, the events of the last five minutes at The Baseball Ground were largely irrelevant. Leicester drew 0-0 against Burnley to secure their place in the First Division, meaning that Fulham would have needed to score twice in the last five minutes to stay up. However, it was an impossible atmosphere for the last ten minutes of the match and there is no question that Fulham’s players were badly treated, with many of them being assaulted as they left the pitch. Fulham appealed to the Football League for the match to be replayed, and Derby, safe in the knowledge that results elsewhere had gone their way and they hadn’t needed any points to stay up in the first place. The following week, the Football League decided to uphold the result, promoting Leicester and keeping Fulham down. As with so many other teams at the time, Fulham had serious financial problems, and their promising 1983 team soon broke up, with Malcolm MacDonald leaving as manager in 1984. It would take them until 2001 (and after several more scrapes with insolvency) before they finally made it into the Premier League. Leicester would go on to last until 1986 before being relegated again.
On balance, the Football League were probably right to veto Fulham’s appeal. Although there were merits to their argument, they ultimately only had themselves to play for being a goal down at Derby with ten minutes to play on the last day of the season whilst needing a win to stay up. Leicester ground them down by going fourteen matches unbeaten and deserved their promotion. It would have been desperately unfair on them to be kept down in no small part because of the behaviour of the wilder elements of Derby County’s home support. That Malcolm MacDonald would never see such heights again as a manager (he quit management after a disastrous spell at Huddersfield Town in 1987) and that it would take Fulham a further eighteen years to reach their goal, however, is proof that, in football, the smallest knocks can take the longest time to heal.