May Days: The month that almost Finished English Football Forever

In the mid 1980s Britain was in turmoil. Unemployment was about to hit an all-time high and inflation was following suit. The government had spent the best part of 18 months battling striking miners and as spring broke in 1985 it was football’s turn to be in the spotlight – for the most tragic circumstances imaginable.

The relatively new Conservative government, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, had brought about some huge changes in British society which would shape the nation for a generation to come.

The country’s economy, with its massive public sector debt, was in the process of being completely stripped-back during an aggressive period of public sector privatisation, and selling off the family assets was seen as the best way of covering the costs. But when it came to football things remained pretty much as they always had been, with no investment and little forward planning.

Fans were forced to put up with conditions that resembled the 1880s rather than the 1980s, and by the end of the 1983/84 season, the average attendance in England's top flight had fallen to just over 18,000 – a drop of almost 10,000 in half a decade.

But the month of May 1985 would not only place the national sport on the front pages of the papers, alongside stories of riots, strikes and general civil unrest, it would leave many questioning if it had any kind of future at all.

On the field, the 1984/85 season was becoming memorable for all the right reasons as the campaign came to a close. Everton were in the process of closing-in on a league title, while also making the final of the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. Meanwhile, neighbours Liverpool found themselves in the final of the European Cup for a second successive year.

But a sign of what might be around the corner occurred just a couple of months earlier when Luton faced Millwall in an FA Cup 6th round replay at Kenilworth Road. In front of a live, televised audience trouble erupted before, during and after the tie which ultimately ended with a fully blown riot taking place on the field as Millwall fans surged towards Luton supporters at the other end. The police could only stand and watch.

The incident did nothing to help football’s awful reputation at a time when football hooliganism was rife and footage of a rampaging mob running freely on a football pitch in front of millions of viewers at home would very much set the tone for the remainder of the season, if not the decade.

The government may have defeated the Coal Board after a long and bloody battle, weakened the powers of the Trade Unions and even kicked-off on a group of hippies in a Wiltshire field, but as the 1984/85 campaign drew to a close it was now football fans who were enemy number one after a series of tragic events meant that, for football, May 1985 would become the worst in living memory.

Valley Parade, Bradford, May 11th

Bradford City's Valley Parade stadium on fire, May 1985


On May 11th 1985 Bradford City faced Lincoln City in the final game of the season at their Valley Parade stadium. Having clinched the Third Division title the week before the fixture was seen as the perfect opportunity to celebrate promotion, but as it turned out the game will be forever remember for different reasons.

Just before half-time a small fire broke out in the old main stand, which was due to be demolished at the end of the season. Initially the incident was viewed with an element of humour and even John Helm appeared to laugh about the goings on as he commented on the match, but things quickly got out of hand.

In less than four minutes, in windy conditions, the blaze engulfed the structure with its highly flammable wooden roof. Burning embers fell from the roof onto the crowd below, while black smoke and flames soon enveloped the whole stand.

There were no extinguishers in the stand's concourse for fear of vandalism, and fans even tried to break into nearby offices to use the one there, only to be fought back by the flames. Some supporters ran to the back of the stand to escape while others ran onto the pitch – those were the lucky ones.

Most of the exits at the back were locked as soon as the game started and there were no stewards present to open them, meaning many of those who had done the right thing and headed to the exits were either burned to death or killed by the thick black smoke which now hung heavy across the city.

In total, 56 people died at Valley Parade that day, including 27 who were found by the exit at the rear of the stand and unable to get out. Some died where they sat while others were crushed in the sheer panic that followed.

The nation was rightfully horrified by what they had seen, with the match being covered by Yorkshire Television for their Sunday afternoon regional football show The Big Match, and footage of the fire was transmitted live on a number of news channels and afternoon sports bulletins.

The tragedy was yet another example of how football stadia had fallen into a shocking state of disrepair, especially when an inquiry concluded that the fire had been caused by a dropped cigarette which had ignited decade’s worth of rubbish that had collected under the crumbling wooden structure.

St. Andrews, Birmingham, May 11th

Incredibly, on the same day that 56 people perished in the fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade stadium, another young fan lost his life in yet another tragedy to take place on the terraces in May 1985.

That morning Ian Hambridge left home to watch his first football match. He was just 15 years old, still at school and looking forward not just to the game, but also telling his friends and family about it when he returned. Tragically, he never did.

Birmingham City were taking on Leeds United,  a win potentially taking them top of Division Two that night. Unfortunately the result that day became irrelevant due to fighting that broke out between the two sets of fans and the deadly consequences.

Police fought a running battle to keep the two groups apart and mounted officers were called in as the fighting spread throughout the ground. The scenes were described by Justice Popplewell, during a subsequent inquiry, as more like: “the Battle of Agincourt than a football match.” 200 people were injured including 96 policeman. Young Ian Hambridge wouldn’t be so lucky.

Having fled the fighting he took shelter behind a 12 foot wall at the back of the stadium but even here he wasn’t safe. As a result of the violence the wall crashed to the ground below. Ian suffered fatal head injuries and died in Smethwick’s Neurological Hospital less than 24 hours after the carnage.

Heysel, Belgium, May 29th

Liverpool and Juventus fans fight before their European Cup final in the Heysel stadium


By now, football was at its lowest ebb. The scenes at Bradford and Birmingham had put the sport well and truly into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. But when it came to events on the field the game had plenty to celebrate, not least Liverpool’s second successive European Cup final, this time against the ‘Old lady' of Italian football, Juventus, at the Heysel stadium in Brussels.

However, football was overshadowed yet again as violence marred what should have been a thrilling climax to the season, when trouble flared between the two sets of fans after lumps of concrete and debris from the crumbling terraces had begun to be thrown from both teams' supporters.

As the trouble escalated, and with the Belgian police seemingly helpless to do anything about it, a number of Liverpool supporters rushed at their counterparts, who were on the other side of the terrace and behind what can only be described as a flimsy chicken wire fence.

As a large number of Juventus fans fled the violence they were crushed together in a section of terrace hemmed in by a concrete retaining wall. Unable to withstand the force of the fleeing supporters the lower portion collapsed.

Whether caused by the collapse of the wall or the stampede which ensued as panic set in, 39 people perished as millions of viewers looked on in horror across the world.

Bodies were carried out from the stadium and laid outside before being covered with giant football flags, coats, jumpers and anything that could be found to protect their modesty. The scene was horrendous and if anything things were going to get worse as the news spread.

In retaliation for the events at their end of the stadium, many Juventus fans then went on the rampage and ran amok in the stadium looking for revenge, but police intervention managed to stop the advance. A large group of Juventus fans then engaged in a pitch-battle with the police using anything they could find as ammunition for two hours in one of the ugliest nights the game has ever seen.

In an effort to prevent further trouble the game eventually got underway as officials continued to tend to the injured, dying and dead outside the stadium, the result was irrelevant but Juventus finally emerged victorious after a dubious Platini penalty, but nobody was the winner.

The Aftermath

After the worst few weeks in the history of English football, many began to question what, if any, future the game could still offer, but for government there was no doubt that the blame lay firmly at the feet of the fans — all football fans.

In just 16 days, almost 100 people had lost their lives watching the sport that they loved, meaning that May of 1985 would be by far the most miserable month ever in the history of English football — but things would get worse before they got better.

Football hooliganism in the 1980s was so rife that Margaret Thatcher's government even set up a “war cabinet” to tackle it, and even spoke of withdrawing English clubs from European competition, convinced that much of the trouble on the continent was being organised by left-wing agencies and Marxists organisations.

But she needn’t have bothered. UEFA banned English clubs from all European competitions for at least five years following Heysel, with Liverpool being excluded indefinitely following their supporters’ role in the disaster.

Everything from ID cards to banning away supporters were put forward as a solution to what many saw as an ‘English disease'. Rather than concentrating on the causes, if you were a football fan the finger was very firmly pointed at you as the government saw an opportunity to put the sport well and truly in its place.

But by the time the 1985/86 season began, things had already started to change with the formation of the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), as well as a number of other supporter based groups that were set-up to protect the interests of match-going fans who were beginning to find themselves isolated and increasingly targeted.

“Another organisation born out of a tragedy,” was how the FSF's first chair, Rogan Taylor put it, and there is no doubt that much good followed the dark times for the country’s national sport, even if there was plenty more work to do.

Still, no one then could have foreseen how football would change in the decade that followed, mostly fuelled by the income from satellite television broadcasters, international TV rights and the sheer popularity of a game that many thought wouldn’t survive another decade.

But what does it say about the state of the game at the time and of the nation as a whole that almost 200 people would have to die watching football during the 1980s before any effective solutions were considered?