It could have been so much worse

More often than not you remember games you have been to for the right reasons.  A day out in a cup final, a thrashing of your local rival or just a game where everything just seems to click.  However, sometimes there are events that you will always remember but for the wrong reasons.  These things are often locked away in your darkest places simply because you do not want to face up to them.

Football should be a pleasurable experience.  But there are times when reality touches the game, and reality is not always a bundle of laughs. I grew up in a turbulent time for the game.  During my most impressionable years I witnessed the Bradford fire, Hysel and numerous games tainted by serious crowd trouble.  Football Hooliganism had been a feature of our game home and abroad for most of the decade, and the rise of organised groups was testament to the fact that the police had no idea how to counter the frequent incidents.

As a West Ham United fan I was fully aware of the presence of the Inter City Firm, and the Under 5’s.  As a regular both home and away since 1980 I had seen scary incidents at Coventry City after the 1981 League Cup semi-final and the near riot at St Andrews in a FA Cup tie in February 1984. But one game will always stick in my memory, primarily for what could have happened but also for events a year later.

In January 1988 I turned eighteen.  I was allowed to go to games with my mates without my Dad having to make sure I was OK.  I went to as many games as I could and for my birthday treat, a gang of six of us went to Lofts Road 10 days after my birthday to watch West Ham beat a high flying QPR side 1-0 thanks to Alan Dickens goal. Ironically due to the weather, West Ham’s next game was to be a repeat of this fixture two weeks later in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup.

For some reason interest in the tie was huge.  At the time QPR’s Loftus Road had a capacity of just under 25,000.  West Ham had been given the whole of the School End, both upper and lower tier – a total of around 4,000 tickets.  Tickets went on sale two days after the first game, yet despite them being snapped up, QPR announced days before the fixture that there would also be cash turnstiles on the day.

This was the day before the internet, so how the rumours started is a mystery but all of the talk on the train up to London on Saturday 30th January was that there were thousands of forged tickets doing the round. Instead of heading to the Griffin at Charing Cross, we decided to head over to Shepherds Bush early and get into the ground.  We weren’t the only ones.  West Ham fan Mark Segal remembers something similar:-

“I remember getting to the game early as we always did back then so we could get a good space at the front of the terrace. We had bought tickets and the game was advertised as an all-ticket affair but I’m pretty sure people were also being allowed to pay on the door.

In those days after you went through the turnstile in the away end you had to walk through a narrow corridor before going up on the terrace. It was packed.”

Another West Ham fan there was Stuart Henderson:-

“I was in my mid twenties and a regular at The Boleyn Ground by this time. However I was still a relative novice on the road, due mainly to having had a job that meant working on Saturdays and that didn’t pay well enough to make road trips viable anyway. A local(ish) derby in the FA Cup on the other hand was too good an opportunity to turn down, so off I set on that sunny Saturday morning, little knowing what was to unfold….”

Jamie Smith was another West Ham fan there that day:-

“My first ever FA Cup game away as a child and I remember the change of routine being a big part of the day. I recall getting to ground and realizing it was swarming with West Ham. Once in the ground you soon noticed was were in three sections of the ground. It was like a home game.

Despite getting to Loftus Road by 2pm the place was packed.  We were pushed by riot police towards the away turnstiles, being squeezed tighter and tighter, almost as a tactic to stop anyone being able to go in any other direction but to the ground.  Fans started getting desperate, unable to move as the turnstiles ahead were going through additional checks on the tickets.  Quite what they would have done with anyone with a forged ticket as turning around was impossible.  Congestion in the narrow concourse the other side of the turnstiles was putting more pressure on the gathering crowds outside.

Eventually we managed to get into the ground.  The guy on the turnstile literally looking at our ticket and waving us through and the surge of the crowd took us into the section nearest the South Africa road stand.  It had taken us nearly 45 minutes to get into the ground.

I remember the game kicking off on time, but people kept coming in from behind constantly pushing us further down the terrace.  West Ham started well, with Liam Brady and Billy Bonds playing in midfield, with Cottee and Dickens up front.  These were the days of the plastic pitch at Loftus Road so the ball zipped around a fair bit.  But within ten minutes our attention had turned to trying not to get crushed as a surge of people suddenly hit the back of the stands.

Again Stuart Henderson was in the thick of it:-

“I remember getting there reasonably early and finding my way in, getting a good spot on the terrace. Yes they still existed in those days. Kick off approached, the sun gleamed off the plastic pitch, the atmosphere was electric and there was optimism all around. Unusually for West Ham, this optimism even continued past kick off! I do remember it getting a little tight on the terrace as the first half went on – I was never a small lad but this was ridiculous – until it got to the point where there was nowhere to go except over the fence and onto the pitch”

Jamie Smith was hardly enjoying his first ever West Ham away cup game:-

“We got wind of forged tickets and this being before Hillsborough, no one thought about the dangers but as it got busier, people spilled onto the pitch for safety resulting in the game being delayed.”

Likewise Mark Segal remembers little of the open exchanges and more of the worsening situation in the West Ham end:-

“Once at the front we started watching the game. Not sure when it happened but I remember being pushed further and further towards the pitch as more people came in from the back.

Eventually people starting spilling out onto the pitch and fortunately I was helped up over the wall.”

With around twenty minutes gone and the score at nil nil the police eventually realised there was an issue.  At first the assumption was that this was a pitch invasion but when one or two fans were pulled out unconscious it became evident that this was a completely different issue.  Fans literally poured onto the edge of the pitch and initially no more than half a dozen officers tried to push the fans back onto the terrace.

“The next twenty minutes or so were a little surreal. Police trying to shoehorn us back into a terrace where there was no room, taking us round the touchline to try and find other places for us, players jogging around police horses trying to keep loose.”

The game initially went on for a few minutes with the crowd encroaching on the pitch before the referee stopped the game.  But he didn’t initially take the players off as Stuart Henderson mentions above.  Instead the mounted horses were brought on to try and solve the situation.

What should also be mentioned at this point was that the Metropolitan Police were hosting a delegation from Germany at this game.  With Germany due to host the 1988 European Championships they had travelled over to London to see how us Brits handled crowd control.

With the temperature dropping and now six more horses on the pitch the referee had no option but to take the players off.  Stuart Henderson again takes up the story:-

The one over-riding memory of this though was the horse that had obviously had enough of all this and let its displeasure be known through the raising of its tail and depositing of a large steaming turd in the middle of the pitch. I know I wouldn’t want to have been the poor bloke who got a barrage of abuse as he went on with a broom (plastic pitch remember) to sweep it all off. Even so I don’t think the provocation was enough to justify him picking up a lump of said turd and launching it in our general direction!”

The Police simply didn’t know what to do with the fans.  They marched them around the pitch, initially trying to put them into the QPR fans but it became clear that that wouldn’t work.

“I lost my brother and a friend but eventually found them and not sure who told us to move, but we watched the game from the terrace running down the side of the pitch where the teams ran out from.” Mark Segal’s situation was uncannily like mine.  I was split up from my brother and mates as the crowd surged forward and I was forced onto the pitch.  Confusion reigned all around us and after initially trying to get us all to sit around the edge of the pitch, we were led, very peacefully and calmly along the side of the pitch to room here.  I saw my brother about 20 yards ahead, and obviously in the days before mobile phones had to shout as loud as I could to make him turn around.

The game was held up for nearly an hour.  Apparently it had been reported on Grandstand that crowd trouble had halted the game, and that the West Ham fans had invaded the pitch.  I knew Mum and Dad would have been worried sick but there was little I could do until the game had finished.  As for the rest of the afternoon, I remember that QPR seemed more interested in winning the game and eventually run out 3-1 winners.  Some years later I bumped into Ray Stewart, who played right back for West Ham on that day and he said that the players had sensed there was a big problem early on, and in the dressing room there had been a feeling that the game would simply be abandoned.  Perhaps it would have been if the German guests would not have been there.

So in the grand scheme of things nothing happened.  With no internet it was left for the papers to report a small paragraph on the incident.  There was a promise of an investigation into what happened, and how many West Ham fans ended up in one particular area of the ground.  Some say that a gate was simply opened to let the fans surge through but I can never prove that.  What I do know is coming out of that ground thinking I was lucky not to be seriously hurt. I was not alone. Mark Segal summed up his feelings “I remember being incredibly scared that day and have no doubts that if there had been fences in front of the terrace people would have died”

There had been similar incidents before and there would be incidents after Loftus Road.  Did football learn anything from that day in West London? Perhaps it did, but events at Hillsborough  15 months later suggest otherwise.

Many thanks to FinestFootballTeam for the use of their video and stills from the above game.

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4 thoughts on “It could have been so much worse

  1. Very good if not harrowing article and brings back home the bad old days in football,many of us in the 45/50 range have been through similar circumstances and would never like our children see the likes of this again.

  2. As a QPR fan i was there also that day,From our point of recall is a bit different i was young then and not drinking so i remember getting on the tube,and hammers fans all over the place and thought it was odd as was seeing so many near the ground.
    As i took my place in the Loft i said to my mate at the time that is over fill at their end i seen a few west ham fans come onto the pitch with the police marching them.
    And thinking this is strange as did most of our fans then like school kids they were seated around the pitch.
    There was a bit of tenson then all went as the did get underway and then also at half time some QPR fans get drinks and some food for the west ham fans nearby.
    It could have been worse and in someways was a wake up call or should have been by as always the police and powers that be ignored the lessons form that day as from teh goverment down football under Thatcher was treated as bad as the striking minners.
    It was a day when Queen’s Park Rangers won the game and football and common sense won the day.

  3. As a 21 year old West Ham fan I was also there that day along with my girlfriend (and now wife) for her first ever game. She has not been to a game since. Such was the overcrowding I wrote to the FA to implore them to do something to ensure this situation never happened again and they wrote back a rather dismissive reply saying they had passed my letter onto the relevant authorities. Following Hillsborough, I wrote back to them to express my disbelief and dismay that if they had addressed the issues raised, then they may have prevented the 96 deaths and never received a response.

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