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The 1980s football’s darkest decade

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Tragic events and the terrifying rise in hooliganism would change the sport forever.

The 1980s, destined to become the darkest decade for English football, opened with a portent of things to come when England travelled to the European Championships in Italy.

Trouble on the terraces during the first-round match with Belgium led to the deployment of tear gas by police and both teams forced to leave the pitch.

The rioting on the terraces during that tournament was a sight that was to become commonplace whenever the national team travelled abroad in the ensuing years.

You name a European city and it will have experienced so-called England fans terrorising stadiums or rampaging through the streets and squares.

Domestically, fans of rival clubs fought on a weekly basis as going to a football match became akin to visiting a war zone.

Segregation, police with riot shields and perimeter fencing became the norm.

In addition to the violence and intimidation, the stadiums hosting the games were becoming ever more antiquated and unsuitable.

All were ingredients that went into a mix which was to produce the tragic events that defined the decade and changed football forever.

The blackest single year for the game was 1985.

In March, there was large-scale rioting during an FA Cup quarter-final between Luton Town and Millwall at Kenilworth Road.

A disproportionately large away following, twice the size of Millwall’s average home gate, packed into the terrace and it was overflowing 45 minutes beforekick-off after turnstiles broke down.

Hundreds of Millwall fans scaled fences and police were helpless as they rushed down the pitch towards Luton’s supporters at the other end, hurling missiles.

The rioters then ripped out seats and brandished them as weapons.

Eventually, Millwall manager George Graham appeared to appeal for calm and police dogs cleared the pitch.

After only 14 minutes, the match was halted as the visiting fans began to riot again. The referee took both teams off for 25 minutes.

The game was completed with Luton winning 1-0, but missiles rained down onto the pitch throughout and at the final whistle, the players fled for the tunnel.

Hooligans tore down fences and again ripped out seats, hurling them at police.

Of the 81 people injured, 31 were policemen. One sergeant was struck on the head with a concrete block and stopped breathing, but a constable managed to resuscitate him.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately set up a “War Cabinet” to combat football hooliganism. But there was worse to come. Much worse.

Just two months later, at the European Cup Final in Brussels between Liverpool and Juventus, 39 fans were crushed to death as a consequence of the behaviour of other supporters.

Liverpool fans had been allocated only one half of a terrace behind the goal at the dilapidated Heysel Stadium. Alongside them, separated by a flimsy wire fence, were Italian fans, who also populated the terrace at the opposite end.

Liverpool supporters, packed like sardines, tried to tear down the fence, chunks of concrete terracing were thrown, and fighting broke out. The fatalities occurred when a wall collapsed.

The disaster led to all English clubs being banned from European football for five years.

Two weeks before Heysel, another tragedy took place, but this time it was not as a result of hooliganism.

At Bradford City’s Valley Parade, 56 people were killed and 265 injured as the main stand caught fire during a match against Lincoln City.

The old wooden structure became an inferno within minutes of a small fire starting beneath the seats. In the panic that ensued, fleeing crowds had to break down locked exits in order to escape. There were many cases of heroism, with more than 50 people receiving police awards or commendations.

The disaster led to major new safety standards in UK football grounds, including the banning of new wooden grandstands, the immediate closure of other wooden stands deemed unsafe and the banning of smoking in other wooden stands.

On the same day as the Bradford fire, a 14-year-old boy died at St Andrew’s when a wall collapsed following crowd violence at a match between Birmingham City and Leeds United.

The fighting that day was described by a judge as more like “the Battle of Agincourt than a football match”.

A committee set up by the Government into the troubles surrounding the game stated that “football may not be able to continue in its present form much longer”. PM Thatcher called for hooligans to be given “stiff” prison sentences and her Minister for Sport, Colin Moynihan, attempted to bring in an ID card scheme.

Such was the extent of the shadow hooliganism cast over the game that when the Hillsborough disaster occurred in 1989, there was an assumption that the misbehaviour of fans was to blame for the death of 96 Liverpool supporters.

Only recently has the stigma carried by Liverpool fans for what happened during that FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest finally been removed.

The tragedy happened when sections of the terracing at the Leppings Lane end of the ground overfilled and fans were not able to spill over to the safety of the pitch because of the anti-hooligan fences erected around the ground.

In the aftermath of Hillsborough, there was a general acceptance that terracing and perimeter fencing were not safe and that grounds should be all-seated and unfenced.

With events off the field dominating the whole decade, it’s easy to forget that there was still some football played during the 80s!

Liverpool dominated the domestic scene, winning six league titles, two FA Cups and four League Cups. They also won two European Cups before the ban.

Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United in 1986, threatening to “knock Liverpool off their perch”. He won nothing during that decade but he certainly made up for it afterwards.

Perhaps the club that suffered most because of the European ban was Liverpool’s neighbours Everton.

Under Howard Kendall, they won the League a couple of weeks before Heysel but were unable to take on the best of Europe the following season.

On the international scene, England had a dismal World Cup in Spain in 1982 but looked much better in Mexico four years later until Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal knocked them out.

The little Argentine was the decade’s most outstanding player, though Ruud Gullit of Holland and Frenchman Michel Platini ran him close.

No question that in Britain, the best player of the 1980s was Kenny Dalglish.

He became player-manager at Liverpool in 1985 and won 14 major trophies during the decade.

He also played a huge part in steering the club through the dark days following Hillsborough.

Dalglish’s Liverpool were to win the first title of the 1990s, too, but it was also to prove the club’s last.

Football was about to undergo huge changes with the advent of the satellite dish and power was about to shift 30 miles along the East Lancashire Road…