As Bad As Things Got: Millwall, 13th March 1985

by | Mar 7, 2021

The passing of three and a half decades has left the past looking very much like a foreign country. They do things differently, there. Everybody now knows just how bad football’s crises of the 1980s were, and where they ended up. It was a slow build-up from the late 1960s on, really, and as crowds continued to fall from their post-war high, the hooligans stood out more and more. They had not walked away from the game, and started to make up a bigger and bigger proportion of everybody who was left.

And when the amount of disorder at matches started to really accelerate from the middle of the 1970s on, nobody really knew what to do about it. Every incident would result in the same indignant spluttering from the game’s governing bodies and government ministers. Politicians and columnists who yearned for simplistic and sharp punishment were easy to find and happy to mug in front of the cameras for money, attention, or both.

No-one seemed to know what the resolution to a problem that seemed all the more intractable as time continued to pass, but we did all know that the vast majority of solutions that were proposed would either have been grotesque curtailments of the rights of the majority of peaceful supporters, or populist soundbites designed to satisfy the cravings of armchair generals who believed that there wasn’t a problem in society that couldn’t be solved without national service, corporal punishment, or both.

By the beginning of the 1980s, the size of the gaps on the terraces had grown enough to be obvious to be obvious, but the responses to hooliganism continued to be met with baffling strategies. A small number of clubs believed that it was inextricably linked to terracing, and that forcing seats on all supporters would somehow forcibly gentrify supporters. Others continued to with dismiss or downplay the significance of the increasingly regular disorder at matches, claiming that it was dreary, defensive football that was keeping fans away.

Ultimately, though, the new decade began with a sense of foreboding in the air. It was common knowledge that the fair right was using matches as a fertile breeding ground amongst disaffected men. Their literature was sold outside grounds on match days. Their poison was spread through word of mouth. Yet the reaction of both governments and the game itself was woefully inadequate. Fences started surrounding pitches, but this was containment and no more. Out of sight, out of mind, and no-one seemed to have thought through the safety implications of putting them up. Every season seemed to plumb a new nadir, only for fresh ones to be found the following year.

Some groups of supporters revelled in their notoriety, and nowhere was this more evident than at Millwall, a club which had achieved little of significance on the pitch but infamy away from it. In 1977 the club, at the urging of manager Gordon Jago, invited the cameras of the BBC’s Panorama into the club in an attempt to dispel what it considered to be the ‘myth’ of the club’s bad reputation. The National Front’s “national activities organiser”, Martin Webster, was interviewed to lend substance to the BBC’s claim that, rather than being sporadic outbursts of random violence there was something altogether more sinister underpinning the surge of violence at matches. Footage of his supporters selling fascist literature outside The Den was broadcast to the nation.

With what was left of the club’s reputation in tatters, Jago – who’d taken the club up from the Third to the Second Division in 1976 – resigned shortly afterwards. When supporters rioted in full view of the cameras of Match of the Day during an FA Cup quarter-final match against Ipswich Town the following year, chairman Herbert Burnige followed him. Millwall were relegated back to the Third Division in 1979. The government continued to splutter their outrage without seeming to have either the will or the wit to do anything about it. The game’s governing bodies seemed paralysed by it all. Clubs, many of whom were already losing money hand over fist thanks to downward spiraling attendances, were little better. And fans continued to drift away.

By the start of the 1984/85 season, it felt as though the entire infrastructure of football was starting to crumble. Barely a weekend went by without a story from somewhere of a match being delayed or suspended because of trouble. It felt as though a catastrophe of some sort had to come, but that no-one knew exactly how or where this would come to pass.

When Sunderland beat Chelsea in the semi-finals of the League Cup at the start of March 1985, forty people were injured and more than a hundred were arrested when Chelsea supporters rioted once the tie was put beyond their team. The following day, FA Secretary Ted Croker could offer little more than, “It’s the clubs we feel sorry for.” The Chelsea riot came on the evening of the day that the miner’s strike ended. The response of the police to outbreaks of trouble during that had been markedly different to anything seen at football matches at the time.

Millwall, however, remained the low bar against whom every other club’s problems were compared. In 1977, the club’s average attendance at The Den was 10,601. By the 1981/82 season, when new chairman Alan Thorne threatened to close the club after yet more problems, this time during an FA Cup match at non-league Slough Town, they’d fallen by 60%. On the pitch, though, things had improved. The appointment of George Graham as manager had revived their fortunes, and by the spring of 1985 the team was in the Third Division promotion places and attendances had recovered a little. A win against York City on the 9th March 1985 put them in second place in the table.

They were still in the FA Cup, as well. A run of wins against Weymouth, Enfield, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Leicester City had put them through to the quarter-finals of the competition. The other quarter-finals had been played on the same weekend that Millwall beat York, with their match put back to the following Wednesday night. Anxious at what might be to follow, the club had contacted Luton Town to request that the match be made all-ticket, but Luton turned down the request. Bedfordshire Police, apparently unaware of the tinderbox upon which they were sitting, didn’t force the matter either way.

It was apparent long before kick-off that there were going to be significant problems, with reports from St Pancras Station in London and the Arndale in Luton town centre during the afternoon. By the early evening, the trouble had spread throughout the town. The Metorpolitan Police had warned Bedfordshire Police that they would need mounted officers to keep any semblance of control of events, but Bedfordshire Police didn’t have any. In addition to matters of public order, there was a risk of something even more serious happening. Upwards of 10,000 Millwall supporters had made the trip to Kenilworth Road that evening, encouraged by the midweek kick-off and being able to pay on the gate.

And Kenilworth Road by this point was, like many grounds in 1985, barely for purpose. 1977 had brought the ground under the jurisdiction of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act, and the club had to spend £350,000 just to bring it up to standard, which included installing 1,500 seats into the Bobbers Stand, which ran the length of the pitch. Hemmed in on all four sides by roads and a railway line, and with the capacity of the ground having been trimmed from 30,000 to 22,600, the club had been looking for a site for a new ground since the end of the 1970s, only to find that every set of plans they put forward was rejected by the local council. They even considered moving the club twenty miles north, to Milton Keynes.

By 1985, Luton’s average attendance was only just over 10,000 for league matches, with the team in the relegation places in the First Division, but with the FA Cup being considerably more important than it is now, the decision not to make this match all-ticket seemed all the more perplexing. An hour before kick-off, the Kenilworth Road terrace, which was designed to hold 5,000 Millwall supporters (though it has been suggested that this capacity was underreported), was full and overflowing after gates were broken down and supporters forced their way in. Hundreds scaled the fences and got onto the pitch. Some found their way into the Bobbers Stand and ripped out seats, attacking home supporters and the police with them, as well as with bottles, nails and coins. The police, however, managed to contain this situation, and the match somehow managed to start on time.

Any semblance of “peace”, however, didn’t last for very long. The match kicked off with stewards and police almost on the pitch at one end of the ground, trying to move supporters away from the overcrowded terrace, and it only took fourteen minutes before a further pitch invasion forced the referee to take the players from the pitch again. It took twenty-four minutes for the pitch to be cleared again. When play resumed, the atmosphere was as tense as it had been before. Brian Stein scored for Luton after thirty-one minutes to win an afterthought of a match.

At the end of the match, what happened was inevitable. The trouble had spilled everywhere around the ground by this point, with even journalists present being asked to evacuate the press box, and when the final whistle blew the players sprinted for the tunnel, as hundreds of supporters spilled onto the pitch, again hurling whatever missiles they could find. By the time the dust had settled, £15,000 worth of damage had been done to the ground itself. Even on the way back to London, a further £45,000 worth of damage was done to a train.

It was little short of a miracle that no-one was killed that night, but 81 people were injured, of whom 47 required hospital treatment. Only 31 were arrested, and when they appeared at Luton Magistrates Court the following morning, it was notable that many of them identified themselves as supporters of Chelsea and West Ham United. This, it turned out, had been a co-ordinated effort between the hooligan elements of several different London clubs.

The condemnation the following morning was as empty as ever. Chelsea’s Ken Bates, a man almost as addicted to publicity as he was to money, told the press that he was going to electrify the fences surround the pitch at Stamford Bridge. The Greater London Council’s Public Services Committee eventually put paid to that decision when it voted to ban the fence on safety grounds, but while Bates’s idea received widespread condemnation, it also attracted support from some. Millwall’s Alan Thorne was amongst them, although his poor health was exacerbated by the stresses of running this particular club at this particular time. He left Millwall the following year.

The clubs involved in the trouble from the night before, however, were largely let off the hook. BBC Breakfast’s (pre-meltdown) sports presenter David Icke told the watching audience that what had happened at Kenilworth Road the night before had been “a very, very rare occurrence”, even though it came just nine days after their League Cup semi-final against Sunderland. Millwall were fined £7,500, but the fine was withdrawn upon appeal. Luton were ordered to put up better fencing around Kenilworth Road, but this was also withdrawn.

The most significant after-effects of that night of violence came at Kenilworth Road. David Evans had joined the board of Luton in 1979 and became the chairman of the club in November 1984. Keen to make a name for himself in the Conservative Party as a prospective MP, Evans’ solution was the most drastic ever seen in English football. As the government established a ‘war cabinet’ on football hooliganism, Evans proposed banning all away supporters from Kenilworth Road and introducing a membership scheme that would keep details of all match-going supporters on record.

That scheme began in August 1986, but support for it was far from universal. The Football League insisted that Luton relax the ban for League Cup matches, but when Evans refused to allow Cardiff City supporters to visit Kenilworth Road for a second round match, the club was banned from the competition for that season. The FA announced that Luton would be allowed to maintain their ban on visiting supporters in the FA Cup, but also that they would allow other clubs to ban away support from Luton.

In response to all of this (there were suspicions at other clubs that this ban was being pushed through – alongside the installation of an artificial playing surface at Kenilworth Road – with as much of an eye on competitive advantage as eliminating hooliganism), Luton eased the ban slightly – 500 tickets would be given to certain clubs, with this number doubling should the match pass without incident. The suspension of away support continued for four seasons before being withdrawn. David Evans, meanwhile, got the safe Tory seat after which he’d been angling. He won the Welwyn Hatfield seat in the 1987 general election, and remained as the MP there for ten years.

Those who’d taken some crumb of consolation from that dismal evening that surely things couldn’t get any worse, however, were in for tragically nasty shocks. On the last day of the 1984/85 League season, a young supporter was killed by a collapsing wall as Birmingham City and Leeds United supporters fought at St Andrews, while the terrible state of Britain’s football grounds was thrown into the sharpest focus possible when the main stand at Valley Parade caught fire and 56 people were killed.

Two and half weeks after this, rioting at the European Cup final vomited the English disease over the television screens of the world. 39 people were killed when a wall collapsed at a crumbling Heysel Stadium. English clubs were banned from European competition. For a while, it seemed difficult to see whether the game could even survive these increasingly frequent body blows. The following season, attendances at matches across the board reached a record low. But some lessons were not learned. The policy of treating supporters as a problem to be contained remained in place until after the cruelty of the fences and police incompetence was fatally exposed at Hillsborough in April 1989.

There are lengthy arguments to be had over whether anything much changed in the culture of English football after the events of spring 1985. On the one hand, grounds are now considerably safer and trouble within them, especially on the scale seen at Kenilworth Road and elsewhere in the mid-1980s, is considerably more rare. When Luton Town drew Millwall in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup in 2013, a visibly large police presence was in attendance. Twelve arrests were made, and only two of those convicted would have been old enough to even be able to remember the 1985 riots.

The floggers and birchers, however, would not get their own way. The answer to ridding the game of this problem has never been definitively found, but preventative policing, better ticketing arrangements, and the return of regular, non-violent supporters to matches would all go some way towards at least making going to matches a less intimidating experience than it was in 1985, when it felt as though the whole of professional football might buckle under the weight of this sickness.