This article appears in Issue 9 of The Football Pink, available here
MARK GODFREY looks at 1985 – the worst of years for English football – and asks whether this was the watershed moment it needed to break free of years of hooliganism, neglect and decay.
From the moment a shirtless Michel Platini gleefully paraded the European Cup trophy around the chaos-ravaged Heysel Stadium on May 29th 1985, English football had to face the stark reality that its existence would never be the same again. The tragedy in Brussels claimed the lives of 39 people when a decaying wall collapsed under the pressure of hundreds of fleeing Italians. The responsibility for those deaths – and the majority of the trouble witnessed in and around Heysel that day – was laid squarely at the foot of the riotous, out-of-control Liverpool fans. The events of that evening were shocking in the extreme, yet this was not an isolated incident; Heysel was a gruesome punctuation to a decade long charge sheet built up against the English. Certain rampant hooligan elements who attached themselves to English clubs (and the national team) had long since spilled over the Channel from domestic football to the continent. For some time, UEFA had been itching to censure English clubs for the behaviour of their fans abroad – the Heysel disaster finally provided them with the necessary gun from which to fire their bullets.
English hooliganism certainly wasn’t restricted to trips abroad; regular newspaper headlines of ‘Brits on the piss’ shaming the nation skirted over the more invidious issues at home. Remember, 1985 was also the year of the infamous encounter between Luton Town (or, to be more precise, the town’s constabulary) and Millwall in an FA Cup tie at Kenilworth Road when running battles between police (and some home fans) and the Londoners’ hooligan firm ‘the Bushwhackers’ raged right from the moment they began arriving at the train station hours before kick-off. Inside the ground, the pitch was repeatedly invaded – suspending the game. Seats were ripped out of the stands and used as projectiles and one policeman was attacked in the centre circle with a concrete slab, leaving him needing emergency resuscitation by a colleague. The widespread picture of violence doesn’t end there; confrontation at or around football matches was a weekly occurrence up and down the country in 1985. One 15-year-old attending his first game, probably sheltering from fighting between the two opposing sets of fans, died at a game between Birmingham City and Leeds United at St. Andrews when a wall collapsed on top of him. Leicester City and Burton Albion were forced to replay an FA Cup tie behind closed doors after persistent crowd trouble marred their first meeting at the neutral Baseball Ground; Burton ‘keeper Paul Evans was struck by a plank of wood thrown from the stands. Heysel, Luton, Birmingham, Derby – hooliganism was it its zenith.
Another dark day in English football’s ‘annus horribilis’ was the Valley Parade fire. As Bradford City’s fans celebrated their Third Division championship win in their final home game of the season against Lincoln City, a catastrophic fire broke out in the bowels of the ground’s decrepit, wooden main stand shortly before half time. Within five minutes the flames had consumed it entirely and taken 56 lives in the process.
These shocking events were, of course, unfortunate for different reasons but they were all most likely avoidable. They did, however, provide Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government with even more reason to demonise not only English football supporters, but the game as a whole. The Tories, their lapdogs in the Press and their disciples in the middle and upper classes were happy to dismiss football as a ‘slum game played by slum people’ – it’s not unreasonable to agree that the minority hooligan element gave them ample cause – and were even readier to allow conditions at grounds to deteriorate to the point where a tragedy, and fatalities on such a scale seen at the Bradford fire, became almost inevitable. The Football Association – led by Bert Millichip and Ted Croker of the old school blazer brigade – took it upon themselves to self-flagellate its member clubs by pre-empting the UEFA ban and withdrawing them from European competition, all with the blessing of Thatcher and her disapproving cronies. It was an uncharacteristically swift response from the establishment, but the measures – opposed by Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the Football League – were viewed by many as too heavy-handed and, coming just two days after the disaster, their intervention was reactionary to say the least, especially as they had very little idea – or desire – of how to tackle the root cause of the problems.
Away from football, in certain parts of the country, it seemed as though the very fabric of society was breaking down. Thatcher and the Tories were happy to share in the good times if you belonged to the right class and wealth bracket, but if you didn’t – tough shit. In March 1985, the year-long Miners’ Strike came to an end. Soon after, the unions and the coal industry were smashed, for all intents and purposes, for eternity, and with it hundreds of working class communities – at the heartland of football in England – were decimated by unemployment, poverty and social deprivation; the very ingredients needed to breed the anger and alienation necessary for hooliganism to thrive. Under such economic conditions and with the threat of violence blighting attendances – which were at an all-time low – the Football League could not have reconvened post-Heysel under a much bleaker set of circumstances.
To make matters worse, a dispute between club chairmen and the only two TV broadcasters around at the time – the BBC and ITV – meant that football remained off our screens until the second half of the season. The rejection of a £17million rights deal was arrogant and preposterous given that the top clubs desperately needed to make up the shortfall from their lack of income from European games. The Football League’s solution to this dilemma was to introduce a new Super Cup, featuring the six clubs for whom UEFA’s ban had denied them European football and its extra revenue. Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City and Southampton took part – albeit reluctantly. Howard Kendall, manager of reigning champions Everton, usually sent out weakened sides and remarked in one pre-match team talk “what a waste of time this is – out you go”. The competition was anything but a success; attendances were generally pitiful – Spurs and Everton, both with average home gates around the 30,000 mark, mustered a combined total of less than 20,000 people through the turnstiles over their two-legged semi and until the final, the League failed to secure any form of sponsorship.
The final itself – between the two Merseyside clubs – had to be held over until the start of the following season as both clubs expectedly fought each other for silverware in early 1986 and neither were willing to further congest their fixture schedule. Once the two did meet to conclude the one and only running of the tournament, Screensport – a cable TV company who were part owned by ESPN and W.H.Smith and who would eventually be taken over by Eurosport – had stepped in as sponsors. Liverpool won the final 7-2 on aggregate; the Reds’ striker Ian Rush is alleged to have tossed the trophy away to a Goodison Park ball boy after the second leg.
The impasse over the TV deal robbed stay-away supporters of coverage of one of the most competitive and thrilling seasons for years. Liverpool had dominated the First Division since the mid-1970s (only finishing outside the top three places once since 1971) and barring the years when they relinquished the title to Nottingham Forest (1977-78) and Aston Villa (1980-81) were rarely threatened by a clutch of challengers. However, for the first time in exactly a decade, they went into 1985-86 without a single trophy to their name; neighbours Everton, with their vibrant blend of youth and experience, had romped away with the Championship the previous year and looked like they finally had a manager and team capable of ending a sustained period in the shadow of their closest rivals. Manchester United held the FA Cup while Norwich City were in possession of the League Cup; an honour Liverpool had come to regard as a given in the early 80s almost as much as the League itself.
Kenny Dalglish – 34 years old and nearing the end of his glittering playing career – took up the player/manager role upon Joe Fagan’s resignation after Heysel. His first task – it seemed initially – was to guide Liverpool through a period of transition, and while the merest of cracks were showing in Liverpool’s previously impregnable façade, Everton strengthened by adding the services of Leicester City’s speedy goal machine Gary Lineker, emphasising their intent to outscore anybody in the defence of their League crown.
The first club to burst out of the traps, though, were another of Liverpool’s bitter rivals, Manchester United. Ron Atkinson’s side – more renowned for their exploits in cup competitions – won their first ten games, prompting hopes of a first title win at Old Trafford in 19 years. Indeed, they were still topping the table at Christmas but, by then, the signs were that the wheels had already begun to come off. Inspirational captain Bryan Robson succumbed to a shoulder injury that would later blight his appearance at the World Cup in Mexico and, without him, United eventually faded to a disappointing fourth place finish.
The most surprising title challenges came from two unfancied London clubs – Chelsea and West Ham United. The Stamford Bridge outfit had spent the first half of the decade in the Second Division while the Hammers had failed to finish higher than 8th position in any of the previous four seasons.
The Football League and the TV companies finally reached a compromise agreement to screen highlights and the cameras returned to First Division grounds in January 1986 just in time to witness Everton shooting clear of the pack with an impressive run of form in the New Year – this was mostly due to their prolific strike partnership of Lineker and Graeme Sharp who, between them, netted 63 times in all competitions that season; Lineker’s 40 goals put him top of the scoring charts, earned the PFA and Writers Association Player of the Year Awards and secured a starting place for England as they prepared for the World Cup in Mexico that summer. However, that run faltered as winter turned to spring; injuries had plagued the Blues all season, and although Howard Kendall managed to deal with the absence of Peter Reid and Derek Mountfield for large parts of the campaign, the loss of Neville Southall and Kevin Sheedy, compounded by a surprise defeat at relegation-threatened Oxford United late in proceedings, would eventually prove crucial.
Just as Everton’s charge stalled, Liverpool hit their straps, dragging West Ham – and their own deadly striking duo of Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee – with them. Such lofty heights were the norm for the 15-times champions from Anfield, but to be so deep into a league season with real, genuine potential to clinch the title, was completely unknown territory for the Hammers; not even the World Cup winning trio of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters could propel the Upton Park club as close as they were in April 1986. They went on a six-game winning streak which included an 8-1 shellacking of Newcastle United – a game which saw the Magpies employ three different goalkeepers including star striker Peter Beardsley.
With just four weeks of the season to go, all five protagonists were still potential champions, but gradually, one-by-one, they fell away; first Manchester United – who had burned so brightly at the start – then Chelsea, who ended the season with four successive defeats to finish fifth. They had all waited in vain for a Liverpool slip up that never came. The last Saturday in the calendar was decision day. Dalglish knew that a solitary point at Stamford Bridge would be enough (Liverpool having a much superior goal difference compared to the others) to see them first across the finish line. Everton hosted mid-table Southampton (won 6-1) while West Ham visited relegated West Bromwich Albion (won 3-2). There was added spice given the fact that had Liverpool lost, their rivals each still had a game in hand with which to catch them, although this was against each other at Goodison Park just two days later in what would effectively have been a play-off for the Championship. As it transpired, that Bank Holiday meeting was a decider – but only for the runners up spot; fittingly it was Dalglish himself who settled the frayed nerves of the thousands of travelling Liverpool fans in west London and those listening back home on Merseyside to their radios with a characteristically well-taken chest-down and volleyed finish mid-way through the first half that clinched the most unlikely of title victories for the Reds (just three months earlier they floundered 13 points behind Everton after a 2-0 home defeat by them).
For Dalglish, 1985-86 was also a huge personal success, one year on from being part of the losing side on the night of the Heysel tragedy, the King of the Kop guided his beloved Liverpool to the Championship in his maiden season as a manager. Just one week on, there would be more elation and the icing on the cake; the League and FA Cup Double – something that neither the great Bill Shankly nor Bob Paisley could boast in their incredible list of achievements. The first all-Merseyside FA Cup final encapsulated most of the turnaround in fortunes witnessed during the league season; Everton were much the better side for two thirds of the game, taking the lead but failing to finish the job off, allowing a resurgent Liverpool to rally and punish them courtesy of knockout blows delivered by their serial tormentor, Ian Rush.
However, the excitement of the tightest title race in years barely masked a new introspection in England. European competition was forcibly ripped out of the clubs’ hands and years of failure to act by all sides to curb hooliganism left the game reaping what they had sown. But was 1985-86 the First Division’s ‘Year Zero’ or the accelerated death throes of the bad old days?
Attendances failed to recover, the standard of football deteriorated markedly over the coming years without the sharpening block of European competition to interact with, policing of matches became more reminiscent of the type of brutal crackdown seen during the Miners’ Strike just a year or two before and the government’s response was to propose the introduction of the Football Supporters Act; the policy of compulsory ID cards for all football fans – a concept that was subject to widespread condemnation.
Such worries didn’t deter Luton Town from piloting their own scheme which also included the banning of away supporters from visiting Kenilworth Road; controversial chairman and Conservative MP David Evans deeming it absolutely necessary in the aftermath of the Millwall riot. The implementation of the Act was abandoned after Hillsborough.
English football’s nadir in 1985 was about as bad as it could get – or so it was thought at the time. The Hillsborough disaster four years later remains – over a quarter of a century on – even more profoundly ingrained in the psyche of the game, and society in general, than the shocking list of events that preceded it.
It wasn’t until the aftermath of Hillsborough in 1989, the subsequent Taylor Report on safety at sporting events and the formation of the FA Premier League in 1992 that real change for the better began to happen – particularly in the top flight – both on and off the pitch. With the injection of vast sums of money, better organisation and regulation, and the will of the reformers – and, of course, supporters – the English game did eventually get up off the canvas to start on the path of redemption. That it took such a horrific event as Hillsborough to shake the entire fabric of football and the authorities from their post-1985 malaise, when the blatantly obvious warning signs had already played out so vividly four years earlier, is of eternal detriment to all concerned. 1985 may have been a watershed moment, but it was the beginning of the end, not a new beginning.