Football Behind Closed Doors: 1992 Style

by | Jun 23, 2020

“I want to hear silence,” said my grammar school art teacher, Mr Denham, as he struggled to control thirty-two 12-year-old grammar school students with no discernible interest in potato-printing. “You can’t hear silence, sir,” school-mate David Cunningham said, landing him the unfairest of one-hour detentions.

I soon decided that I also wanted to “hear silence” and watch the English Premier League (EPL) “Project Restart” on Sky Sports Premier League rather than Sky Sports Main Event. The sound of pre-recorded Aston Villa fans cheering an early Sheffield United attack, and the sound of them cheering at all after half-an-hour of dross, felt as wrong as it was.

As an Isthmian League Kingstonian (Ks) fan since 1982, I’m used to “hearing silence” during matches. Midweek Surrey Senior Cup-ties at Ashford Town Middlesex (I know…I know) are ideal occasions for hearing coaching assistants shouting “do you know who I am?” at referee’s assistants after disputed throw-in decisions (Martin Tyler, since you ask).

However, by December 1992, Ks had played three-and-a-bit seasons of often scintillating football at their then-new Kingsmeadow Stadium. And home attendances rose considerably. Thus, when Ks played “behind” the “closed-doors” of Peterborough United’s London Road stadium, it felt genuinely unsettling to hear Ks captain, Adie Cowler, screaming “what is your JOB?” at momentarily-sleepy centre-back Solomon Eriemo.

That November, Kingstonian drew 1-1 at home to then second-tier Peterborough in their first FA Cup first round tie since 1933. Ks got the usual patronising pre-match headlines, with top-scorer Francis Vines paraded as then-Prime Minister John Major’s “postman.” They got a few post-match mentions too, after the game opened ‘Match of the Day’ and a football nation watched bewildered as the Ks team celebrated big centre-back Andy Russell’s opening goal late in the first half by “doing” the “dying fly,” players lying on their back, kicking their legs in the air like…well…idiots, actually.

However, the real headlines came from the replay. The four-tier gap between Football League Championship (as the second-tier became in that first-ever EPL season) and Isthmian League Premier was horribly evident to Ks’ sizeable travelling support. The Posh were worthy three-nil leaders after an hour and seemingly unready to stop there. Then, this bit of FA Cup history changed on a coin-toss. Not the heads-or-tails variety. But the thrown-from-the-crowd-by-someone-with-more-money-than-sense-even-if-that-was-their-last-coin variety.

For reasons beyond reason, a Peterborough fan propelled a reported 50p piece at Ks custodian Adrian Blake, who was carried off injured. And, in these pre-sub-keeper days, dictionary-definition diminutive Andy Parr replaced him and was largely help/hopeless as the Posh coasted to a 9-1 win. Striker Tony Philliskirk scored five of the nine. But the “one” was goal-of-the-game, elegant right-back John Finch pinging one into the top corner from 25 yards.

At 5-1, the players were in no mood for dying flies. Not so, the Ks hundreds behind the goal. Amid the terrace murk, TV cameras missed the full horror of so many odd-shaped flies dying. Nearby Posh fans may still have flashbacks. Yet when I got home, my father said “it looks as if you’ve got a replay, then?” I imagined he’d only half-watched “Sportsnight” (that dates things) and that Sportsnight’s brief highlights were one of Boro’s half-dozen-and-a-half goals, and Finch’s worldie.

Ks fans chanted “you’re going out of the Cup” even as Blake was led away. But we were joking, given that Ks were being so thoroughly outplayed as to be in third when the coin struck. And yet the record books show that Peterborough won the replay 1-0 (and, savagely, that Philliskirk didn’t score). And certain Gary Lineker had told Sportsnight viewers that the issue of a potential replay was “a difficult one.” This seemed like nervous new pundit Lineker unwilling to stick his neck out as far as his ears.

But it was a Sportsnight discussion because there was FA Cup precedent, when Lineker’s hat-trick helped Leicester thump non-league Burton Albion 6-1, at Derby County’s Baseball Ground. The 1985 third-round tie was moved from Burton’s Eton Park, for “safety reasons,” which Burton keeper Paul Evans would soon find ironic.

On 23 minutes, Evans got hit by a missile thrown from behind his goal. He vomited during treatment. Burton had already used their only available sub. And a dazed Evans let in five more goals. Burton appealed, as it was 1-1 when Evans was felled. And the FA ordered a behind-closed-doors replay at Coventry City’s Highfield Road, “to send a clear message…that crowd trouble must not pay.”

Leicester only won it 1-0. And Leicester manager Gordon Milne thought it “unfair” to “ask teams to play” without fans. He didn’t want “any professional side” to be “asked to do that again,” as “the crowd is part of the game and you can’t perform without them.”

In 1985, fuck-wittery clearly changed the game. In 1992, it clearly did not. And Ks manager, Chris Kelly, called the FA’s decision to order a re-replay a “farce.” He’d been at his “rent-a-quote” best about Ks injury crisis before the 9-1 game, joking that “If the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Jesus Christ rang up, they’d probably get a game.” Especially the then-Pope, a goalkeeper in his youth.

He suggested, correctly, that it “wouldn’t have been far short of 9-1” if Blake hadn’t been hit, that “the score could be higher next time. Peterborough can turn up like a normal day’s training, give us a belting and go home.” And he quipped “I might even have to play myself,” when player availability re-emerged as an issue. But he was a lone voice among important Kingstonians (I wrote in a Ks fanzine disclaimer that “the views about the Peterborough affair only seem to be mine and Chris Kelly’s”).

The most important Kingstonian, chairman Barry Chauveau was calling for a replay almost before the ninth goal went in. And a three-man commission, consisting of Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire and Bedfordshire county FA officials, said “yeah, OK,” on the preposterous basis that the incident “significantly influenced the result.” This would have been true if goal difference made a difference, But it doesn’t in cup football. Even if the “score” was “significantly influenced,” the “result” would have been identical, a second-round tie for Peterborough at Plymouth Argyle.

Yet Chauveau, a decent guy, had the temerity to suggest that “ideally we would have liked the match to be played at Kingston in front of our own fans,” before admitting that Ks had “a fair hearing” and would “accept the FA’s decision because they have to look at the wider aspects of the game.” How nice of him.

The FA set the game for 2pm on a Friday because of course they did, non-league players having jobs somehow escaping their attention. Midfielder David Kempton being a “cheese salesman” didn’t escape media attention. Players had to work that morning and shut their shops. And, presumably, somebody else had to deliver John Major’s fan-mail. I had to work that morning too. One colleague, who heard about the game on the radio that morning, insisted “you won’t get in.” But she was wrong.

Some Ks’ officials couldn’t go or didn’t want to dignify matters BY going. And, after promising to dress for a directors box, some fans got their complimentary tickets. We looked a bit young to be non-league officials (at 26, I was decades too young). But Ks’ mascot for the first game was a 20-stone 40-something. So, the London Road stewards were unfazed.

Ks fan Phil, a film researcher for London Weekend Television arts magazine programme The South Bank Show (SBS), also got in, wangling a press pass, though presumably not on the basis of researching for an SBS “special” on non-league football’s aesthetic pleasures. If he wanted to research a programme about the cynicism of football journalism, he was sat alongside plenty of material. Many of them “would have been happier ensconced in a nice little warm pub back in London,” Phil wrote in the fanzine.

“When one saw the be-suited Ks officials,” (us, remember), “he stared disbelievingly,” Phil observed. “He watched the whole game with his feet up and even laughed out loud at one point.” Phil, a Socialist Workers Party member (ask your parents), attributed this to “the cynicism of the bourgeois press” and made the pertinent point that “(it was) an interesting paradox; some watched the match because they had to, while thousands were gagging to see it, but couldn’t.”

Given Kelly’s hype addiction, no-one was surprised to see a full-strength Ks on our complimentary team-sheets. “Another Kelly con,” one journo declared. Correctly. Cowler’s aforementioned verbal histrionics showed how fundamental he was to Ks’ defensive organisation; his absence from the 9-1 game-that-never-happened arguably as “significant” in “altering” the result as Blake’s shorter, coin-induced one. And his voice resonating around such a large empty stadium un-nerved even those of us used to BEING crowds rather than being among them.

Ks were more competitive than in the game-that-never-happened, although they could scarcely not have been. Ks defender Darren Broderick’s harsh first-minute booking for kicking the ball away suggested that Ks were being earmarked for punishment for demanding this game, although Broderick must have heard the whistle in an empty ground.

But the game soon became as eerily quiet as the ground. Ks “officials” marked the tenth-minute, the time of the first goal in the 9-1-game-that-never-happened, with “a small, heavily-suppressed ‘Red Army’ out of the corner of our mouths,” before “carefully counting the minutes ‘survived’” until half-time (All quotes are from my fanzine match report).

Survive the first half we did. Boro’ dominated possession. But, as in some early Project Restart games, they lacked the determination at key moments which thousands of supportive voices might have inspired. Not that Ks had many moments themselves. But defensively they were credible.

And, after half-time, they had a good-ish spell. Finch drilled Ks’ most credible effort at Boro custodian Ian Bennett. But ‘tricky’ wideman Roddy Brathwaite’s speculative-and-a-half lob made the national press match reports. It threatened only because Bennett “was forty yards from goal and looking for all the world like he was chatting to his centre-half about the weather.” So when Brathwaite shaped to shoot, “not only was there no-one behind the goal, there was nobody in it.”

Alas, his lob failed to embarrass Bennett more than momentarily. Although it got the crowd going, as we forgot who we “were” and abandoned the pretence thereafter. And Boro’ were worth the 67th-minute winning goal, even if it was as unsatisfactory as the occasion. Philliskirk gained a sliver of consolation for losing his five replay goals when his cross was cleared by cheese-seller Kempton straight at Worrell Sterling who netted with an indeterminate facial feature.

Boro could have won by more but twice hit the “woodwork”, with audible echoing thumps disproving the presence of “wood.” Meanwhile, Vines fell over as he bulldozed his way towards goal (inspiring the above-mentioned laughter-out-loud from the press box). Ks otherwise didn’t threaten. And “had Peterborough grabbed a second goal without reply, we couldn’t have argued.”

The occasion was underwhelming. Circumstances knocked the enthusiasm out of most protagonists. And fans are as much “part of” such games as Milne suggested in 1985. “Project restart” has so far reinforced Milne’s view of fan-free football in thousands-capacity stadia. Although it would be unfair to judge behind-closed-doors football until fully-fit EPL and/or Championship sides start playing it.

As for piped-in crowd noise, I remain firmly with my art teacher’s desire to hear silence.