Cruelty. It’s a byword that seemed to course through the veins of English football throughout the ’80s. Whether it was the pain of circumstance and tragedy: the dark tides of Heysel, Hillsborough, and Bradford creating a history that would be mourned for decades after by the English game; there was also the sense from that period that things would never be the same again.
There was something pertinent that cast a dark shadow too. English football’s most infamous nihilistic export: hooliganism. By the mid-80s it was caught in a dangerous transition phase: from the full-blown tornado of the dead-eyed ’70s to the more bespoke, subcultural style that would occur later. For those travelling to away games it was a commonplace fear that potentially lay around every corner. Whilst for those on the outside looking in, it may have seemed somewhat of an urban myth. Gushed about by a sensationalistic press but rarely glimpsed beyond back alleys and clandestine meeting points in towns and cities around Britain.
On the evening of 14 March 1985, all that was about to change, however. Football hooliganism would explode on to the nations consciousness and things would never quite be the same again. It would occur at a 6th round FA Cup tie between Millwall and Luton. For the two clubs, the fixture at Kenilworth Road was a chance to book their place into a potentially lucrative semi-final. The financial implications for the South London club, in particular, were clear. As was the chance to finally make national headlines for something football related rather the reputation of their notorious support.
Prior to the kick-off, however, a cross-section of Millwall fans would state their intentions early. As various railway football specials ferried them into the fixture, they began to destroy anything within touching distance. Windows were smashed, staff soaked with alcohol; by the time they reached their destination, they’d already caused thousands of pounds of damage to carriages, despite the relatively short journey. Whilst the police struggled to contain them – worryingly there were already other factions beginning to flood into town.
An estimated 10,000 Millwall fans would make the trip despite the allocation only being half that number. As sporadic fighting began to break out in the town centre, an air of menace began to envelope the fixture. Even Luton manager David Pleat felt it. Driving to the ground he would witness a mob of Millwall fans hanging out of van windows goading anyone within spitting distance. “It felt more than just male bravado,” he would later recall. “It felt as though a fuse was being lit.”
Pleat’s prophecy would prove correct. By the time kick-off arrived, a handful of stewards were no match for Millwall fans who simply stormed the turnstiles. Once inside, the highly charged atmosphere intensified. “It was the most frightening game I ever played in,” Luton’s Mick Harford would later say. As the away fans goaded the police inside the ground at every opportunity, the football seemed secondary. A solitary Brian Stein goal in the 31st minute would eventually be the difference between the two sides, but by then Millwall’s more nefarious supporters had made their way into home ends, attacking Luton fans at will and forcing an ongoing battle with the police who simply couldn’t cope with the number of hooligans they were confronted with.
The final whistle was the cue for complete mayhem. As Millwall fans ripped up seats and began to invade the pitch, the police inside the ground made a futile effort to hold them back. They were greeted by a baying mob who not only outnumbered them but cared little about authority. As the television cameras looked on, the shocking sight of officers being beaten senseless on the pitch was both a surreal and grisly sight. One sergeant had to be resuscitated pitch-side after being hit with a concrete block. When Millwall fans got bored of that, they simply moved out of the ground into Luton town centre. With trouble before, during and after the game, it was estimated that it had been a rolling disturbance that had lasted over 10 hours.
The fall out was huge. The shocking images would be played out around the world the next day but for a homegrown press it was the cue for a mass of front page headlines. “It was a night that football died a slow death” wrote Robert Armstrong in The Guardian. The incident itself would take football hooliganism into the mainstream. The problem was subsequently discussed in Parliament and from there a draconian future of CCTV and regimented segregation was dreamt by politicians and the FA rather then run the risk of such a riot again.
Millwall were hit with hefty fines, which they would end up successfully appealing against, whilst Luton took the decision on a complete ban on away supporters at Kenilworth Road. Perhaps the saddest thing of all, however, was a statistic later revealed by Luton chairman David Evans. Over a third of Luton season ticket holders would never return to the ground after the hellish events of 14 March 1985. It was almost as if they were shell-shocked survivors not of a football match but of a bloody, war zone.
Part of our Magic of the Cup series