Today, thanks to the stewardship of oligarchs both Russian and American, Stamford Bridge has been transformed into something of an all-seater jewel. I’ve heard older, more hidebound Chelsea FC fans deride it as a “bleedin’ galleria”. Back in the winter of 1985, when attending my first proper English match there, it was no such thing. Fans of Daniel Gordon’s superb “30 for 30” documentary on the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster would recognize the old Bridge for what it was: a utilitarian ground serving a hardscrabble, working-class club with fans to match.
Here’s what I learned during that maiden voyage, what I should have known or sussed out beforehand frankly, what my English roommates would have told me had I bothered to ask: Chelsea FC supporters circa 1985 were among the hardest and most hostile in British soccer. And we’d have been far safer that early February evening standing among them.
I blame Barry Mothes for our lack of judgment. Like me, he was an American exchange student in London — at Westfield College in Hampstead, to be exact — but he had family in Sheffield. It was he, the cross-Atlantic Wednesday fan, who suggested our journey south. It was Barry who, upon arrival, made a beeline for the visiting fan entrance.
Inside the Bridge, our fellow Sheffield Wednesday fans occupied a pen that current observers might also recognize from the Hillsborough doc: No seats. Completely enclosed. Your basic British footballing terrace from the old school. Only a few hundred traveling supporters had arrived for this League Cup quarterfinal second replay. There was no crush of humanity clamoring to enter the North Terrace all at once. There was plenty of room in the pen to move about freely, though we huddled together for warmth — and protection, from the odd AA battery or pound coin hurled our way.
From the outset and some considerable distance — the full width of an open, unused terrace, maybe 25 yards — the Chelsea faithful pelted us. To be honest, it wasn’t all that threatening; a bit of a laugh really, in the early stages. What a good and practical idea, I remember thinking, to leave that section unpopulated, as a buffer.
The match itself? Well, that’s when the problems started. [Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect highlights of this Feb. 6, 1985 contest to exist. But never in my wildest dreams, prior to 2005, did I imagine a resource like YouTube. So, here they are.] Wednesday opened the scoring. Immediately post-goal, I remember questioning a south Yorkshireman standing beside me as to why the players and our fellow traveling fans were so very subdued. “Getting out of here tonight will be hard enough, laddie,” he explained. The Blues equalized just before halftime. Right about then, to our chagrin, the empty section that separated the home crowd from ours was opened up, practical caution apparently giving way to the reality of ticket sales.
What ensued was a jailbreak led by berserkers. There’s no other way to describe this flood of drunken, highly agitated humanity. The Chelsea throng poured over (!) and around the 10-foot, spear-tipped fencing like a horde of rabid 11th century Danes and made straight for the lone wrought-iron barrier now separating Us from Them. Soon they were pressed up against it, singing, screaming obscenities and taunting us, their arms reaching through the metal bars like those of desperate, famished prisoners.
We instinctively moved away from the fence, gathering at the far edge of our pen and pulling our jacket collars up around our heads so as not to take a Duracell, now launched from much closer range, in the ear. This menace did not fade with time. The Chelsea fans were on us the entire second half. Thank god no human could spit that far. Let me tell you: It was fucking scary. I turned to Barry: “I should NOT have gotten stoned on the train.”
Four months later, when news of the Heysel Stadium disaster broke, it was easy to understand why the rush/crush of fans proved such a fatal force prior to that Liverpool v. Juventus European Cup Final, in Belgium. Thirty-nine Italian and Belgian fans were killed at Heysel; UEFA banned all English clubs from European competition for 5 years. Liverpool got 10 years, though the ban was later reduced to 6.
I had arrived in London on Jan. 2, 1985. In England itself, every week produced some spasm of fan violence big enough to make the back pages. Still there was no discernable police or steward presence inside Stamford Bridge the night of Feb. 6, only a smattering of uniformed folk along the unsheltered concourse that ran along the back of all three pens. They paid our situation no mind whatsoever.
Curiously, while the Chelsea fans had previously scaled one wrought-iron fence, an identical barrier continued to hold them at bay. What stopped them from invading the traveling Wednesday space? A few Bobbies watching from above? Perhaps an obscure, deep-seated vestige of British restraint? I honestly don’t know. Had the Blues not leveled things before halftime, maybe the fan interaction would have played out differently.
Game situations do play a role in these dynamics, or they did back in the mid-’80s. That semester at Westfield I would also pay visits to Upton Park, Highbury and White Hart Lane. What I came to realize: In the pre-Hillsborough era, supporters and players possessed a keen understanding of potential fan froth, in the stands and outside stadia. Accordingly, when it was potentially ugly, players certainly didn’t celebrate too, too much — lest they put their own traveling supporters at risk afterward, on their way out of town.
Today, in the more genteel Premiership era, visiting players score and sprint en masse toward away sections where much fist pumping, bellowing, knee-sliding and hand-to-ear gesturing is enjoyed by merry, comparatively care-free bands of supporters in attendance. On-field English football comportment was far less exhibitionist during the 1980s. The cultural milieu was different; so few of the games were televised, after all. But visiting goal celebrations were relatively muted, in part, so as not to put traveling supporters in unnecessary danger inside and outside the ground.
Fortunately, for our safety, Mickey Thomas scored a very late winner to secure a 2-1 result for Chelsea that brisk, long-ago evening at Stamford Bridge. I shudder to think how things might have played out had it ended 1-1, or (perish the thought) had the Owls managed to win the match. Maybe something like the scene when Chelsea dropped the eventual League Cup semifinal to Sunderland some five weeks later.
Which is not to say we traveling supporters strolled out of Stamford Bridge and enjoyed post-match pint in one of the pubs designated for traveling fans. When the final whistle blew on Feb. 6, 1985, the Chelsea colleagues spent a few minutes hugging each other and chanting with religious fervor before rushing the fence and emptying their pockets one last time.
As my new Wednesday friend had warned, our exit proved more frightening still. We left first, while the entirety of the stadium sat tight — and suddenly there did appear several dozen policemen to help us execute this dicey, delicate withdrawal. As the Chelsea fans remained sealed in their respective sections, we filed along the Bobbie-lined egress route, which necessarily passed directly behind our neighboring pens. I heard the hue and cry but did not witness the spectacle, not with my eyes. This was London, 1985: Most everyone of a certain age wore fashionably long overcoats we’d nicked from our fathers or purchased at second-hand shops in Camden Town. Some in the crowd were middle-aged fathers, wearing their own topcoats. Collars up-turned, we all filed out.
Outside the ground, waiting for us, stood two long lines of police on horseback. We walked between them those three city blocks back to Fulham Broadway Station where a special train awaited. We piled on, the doors closed, we exhaled. As the train pulled away, a group of Chelsea fans burst down onto the platform, half of them singing We love you Chelsea/Oh yes we do-ooo… The other half shook their fists and reprised the venomous invective to which we’d become accustomed inside the Bridge.
Sheffield Wednesday was and remains no particular rival of Chelsea FC. This encounter had been a second replay, which could have engendered some intemperate blood. But otherwise, just your run-of-the-mill, bleak-mid-winter Cup tie pitting a pair of mid-table sides going nowhere special. And yet the atmosphere that February night was dire. And routine.
That such everyday menace, that such unconscionable incidents as Heysel did nothing to move the English Football Association (FA) toward meaningful institutional reform — like replacing terraces with all-seater sections — remains confounding 38 years on. That it took Hillsborough to institute those changes, four full years later, remains both confounding and tragic.
Later that night, back at Westfield College — up the Metropolitan line and onto the 113 Bus, one of three serving our stretch of Finchley Road — I found my two English roommates at home. Well and truly sobered up, I began to regale them with tales of my nerve-rattling introduction to in-the-flesh football hooliganism. Yet I’d hardly begun when Trevor interrupted me. “Hang on, mate. You sat with the away supporters?” He and Adrian shared disbelieving glances. “That was fucking stupid.”
There was far more to English football in 1985 than existential dread. My North London travels to White Hart Lane cemented my sorely-tested-but-ultimately-undying love for Tottenham Hotspur. The back pages of a dozen different newspapers introduced me to proper football writing while tracking a lively title race. Come May, my first FA Cup Final proved a rich cultural experience, taken in with Super Bowl-style pomp and circumstance at Trevor’s council house in Crawley, Sussex, complete with food, drink and visiting neighbors. The match itself was a humdinger: Manchester United defender Kevin Moran got himself sent off — the first red card issued in nearly 100 Cup Finals! Even so, the 10-man Reds held on to beat a fatigued Everton side, 1-0.
Just three days earlier, in Rotterdam, the newly crowned league-champion Toffees had claimed the European Cup Winner’s Cup, besting Rapid Vienna, 3-1. Amazing stuff, but the ethos of hooliganism really did prove rather inescapable that season in London. Rapid Vienna, for example, owed its place in that Final to a victorious replay — with Celtic, on neutral ground in Manchester — occasioned by earlier fan violence in Glasgow. Then, just a few days after Everton claimed the Cup Winners Cup, Heysel went down and football fans the world over were subjected to ghoulish scenes of dead bodies hauled away from stadium rubble on sections of fencing deployed as stretchers. In retrospect, the semester I spent in London could fairly be described as the nadir of British fan violence.
There would be no more European appearances for Howard Kendall’s Everton. Heysel and the subsequent League-wide travel ban saw to that. In their place, I crossed the Channel early that June of 1985 to backpack one last time across select portions of the continent. I bought a kick-ass pair replaceable-stud Pumas near the end of that expedition, in Paris, somewhere near the Gare du Nord. Nearly out of cash after six months away from home, I recall carefully gaming out my expenses against my last travelers check: boat/train to London, 3-4 meals, one final night in a South Kensington hostel, one last piss-up in a nearby pub, Tube ride to the airport… The math worked. But only just, prompting the first in a series of sorry mornings at Heathrow, hung over and unshaven, hungry and broke, waiting for a flight back to the states with nothing to pass the time but a pack of Dunhill Reds.
Brilliant. You captured the time, the place and personal experience very well, as I was there, too, at the same time.