I attended my first football game in 1968, Doncaster Rovers v Barnsley, as a nipper. I was instantly hooked, not simply on the game, but on the ground, on the atmosphere. What follows is a series of recollections of grounds that I frequently visited, and meant something, for a variety of reasons.
I visited Ipswich regularly from the early 1980’s, lived there in the late 80’s/early 90’s and had a season ticket. So far, in my “memories” series I have recounted in detail the Abbey Stadium, Kenilworth Rd and Elland Rd. They were all very distinctive grounds, for very different reasons. Portman Rd was remarkable – for being unremarkable.
It is amongst the most remote league clubs when it comes to the proximity of other football clubs. Cambridge is 55 miles away, to the east, Colchester 27 miles to the south, Norwich 45 miles to the north. There is not much competition when it comes to watching a decent level of football, London being the closest otherwise to guarantee top flight football, with West Ham the favourite destination for all travelling down to Liverpool St station. It is a rural, non -urban fan base, with a big hinterland.
The club was rightly renowned for the quality of is football, and its perseverance with managers. Sir Alf Ramsey, John Lyall and Bobby Robson all prospered here. The fans were knowledgeable and committed – but I would not describe them as noisy and partisan.
The big games were West Ham, Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea, Liverpool and Man U, and Leeds, who for some reason always brought a big travelling support. Just once, the big game was Cambridge Utd, when they were challenging for promotion to the PL and won 2-1 with the biggest travelling league support they have ever taken, around 5000. It will be a long time before that happens again.
The home stand was the North Stand, a medium sized covered terrace divided into three pens with horizontal screening to prevent the throwing of missiles. I found it an odd place to watch the game from. I am not a fan of split home ends. The numbers, and volume, of home support is reduced, the sense of identity “this is OUR end” removed. The Barclay End at Norwich, and Spion Kop at Leicester (another oddity as it was also a double decker), were also split, I am sure there are others.
I always found the “Derby” games against Norwich strange affairs. The clubs are forty- five miles apart, the fans are drawn from different geographical areas, they are not going to work, to school to the pub, with opposition supporters. The rivalry always felt a bit contrived, the nastiness, nastiness for the sake of it. But with the other contenders being Colchester and Cambridge, you have to do what you can with a derby.
My favourite was the covered terrace at the other end, Churchman’s. There was rarely any singing, but it was solidly Ipswich, and the view was excellent.
On one side lay the new Pioneer Stand ( aka West Stand, Brittania, with two seated tiers and a paddock. The view from anywhere was tremendous. The current name “The East of England Co-op Stand” is amongst the most ridiculous nomenclatures ever. The approach is bizarre. After passing through the turnstiles there is a large training pitch in front of you. That sense of anticipation as you enter the bowels of a ground is completely lost, evaporating into an expansive park.
Opposite lay the Portman Rd stand, a conventional large seated stand with a terraced paddock below.
The ground was converted easily to all seater in the summer of 1990 without announcement or fuss, resulting in the away fans moving to the Upper Churchmans wing of the Portman stand. It was an unsatisfactory arrangement ,That corner offered poor views, but at the seating “firebreak” it was adjacent to amongst the most expensive home seats. The away fans had no-one to bait, the Suffolk gentry were not impressed by the behaviour of the great unwashed. The converted seating below has always been a bit of a mish mash too. Sometimes a family stand, the club didn’t like selling the lower tier tickets to home fans as they were bombarded from the away support above, but didn’t like selling the lower tier to away fans as segregation and control was difficult. The bolted on executive boxes were amongst the worst appointed I have ever been in.
When the North and Churchmans stands were redeveloped, the new seated capacity of 30,311 far outstripped the converted seated capacity of around 22,600, but the capacity of the ground has never really been tested. 37,000 at its peak in the early 1970’s, when they won the 1st Div they only averaged 22,863. In 1977, 26,672 was the highest average they had ever managed. By contrast, Norwich have built their average support much more solidly in the PL era.
The railway station is so close to the ground, barely five minutes away, the coach and fan parking so generous, that beyond the immediate environs of the ground, the town is largely untouched on matchdays. Ipswich does not catch big game fever. But the Station hotel immediately opposite the station, has always done a roaring trade for home games and is a bit of a favourite with away fans. Near the corner with Portman Rd the “Drum and Monkey” is the home fans favourite, not least because the away fans come close to enter their section of the Portman stand.
My three favourite memories?
Brian Clough’s final game as a manager, managing Forest on the last day of the season,8th May 1993. It was a glorious late spring day. Both Forest and Ipswich had a reputation for good football, and for punching above their weight in the league and Europe. As the teams came out, the whole stadium rose to give Clough a standing ovation, chanting his name. It was very moving, with the man himself physically shaking at the thunderous applause. We all knew he wasn’t an angel, that he had flaws, but perhaps that is what made him human, like us? I also like it when the home side is generous to the opposition- then beats them, as Ipswich did, 2-1.
On 3rd Sept 93 Ipswich were top of the champ table and hosting Swindon on a balmy late summer’s evening. Swindon were a run of the mill side, but with a world class player playing as sweeper, Glen Hoddle. Hoddle is one of the finest footballers England have ever produced, he is certainly amongst the best I have ever seen play. That night he was imperious. He ran the game. He had space. Ipswich did not close him down. He played a part in each one of Swindon’s four goals in their 4-1 win, creating opportunities and goals where none seemed to exist with majestic 50 yard passes. Although he did not score, he won the game, against a very good Ipswich side, and was rightly applauded off by the Ipswich fans at the end. He oozed class. He had time. He was head and shoulders above everyone else on the itch. The best 90 minutes from a footballer I have ever seen, anywhere.
In August 82 Liverpool were the visitors, always a big game at Portman Road. Ipswich had a decent side and up to 69 mins it was a good close game, 1-1, with Ipswich on top and looking to grab a winner. In the 70th minute,Jan Molby launched a pin point 40 yarder ( he didn’t like to run with the ball) for Ian Rush to run onto in front of the Ipswich penalty area. Rushy was lightning quick onto it. All looked lost. But from the far touchline teenage defender Phil Whelan was sprinting back even quicker. Rush was two steps into the penalty area ready to deliver the coup de grace when Whelan launched a sliding tackle from the side, Rush came down with the tackle, the ball cleanly taken, kicked by Whelan’s leg, went for a throw in, the Ipswich players raced to defend, the Liverpool players positioned themselves to attack, Rushy had dusted himself down to receive a Liverpool throw in… but the ref was pointing to the penalty spot.
NEVER have I seen a worse penalty decision. There was bedlam. Ipswich are a quiet crowd. They are not vociferous. But they do care about their football. They went mad. I mean everyone went mad. Jan Molby placed the ball on the spot, apologised to all the protesting Ipswich players… and scored. Cue pandemonium. Pretty much everyone is trying to reach the pitch, including matronly ladies from the upper tier of the Pioneer.
Somehow, the stewards and police prevailed. Somehow the game restarted. Somehow the incandescent Ipswich players and staff regained some composure. The last twenty minutes were like the Alamo, as wave after wave of incensed Ipswich players surged forwards. The Liverpool players sensed the injustice, and although they tried to counter-attack, they couldn’t. It seemed as though the combined weight of Suffolk was pressing them back. Then, in the 90th minute, Chris Kiwomya equalised. Forget the quietness of a normal Ipswich crowd. It was the loudest, most passionate roar I ever heard at Portman Road, amongst the loudest anywhere. This was not about a goal This was not about an equaliser. This was not about not losing to the mighty Liverpool. This was about Justice. This was about the theatre that just occasionally takes over a game, with a closing line, at the final curtain that takes your breath away. It was such a moment.
Ipswich’s current mediocrity is a shame, they are still paying the price of flying too close to the sun in the Burley PL era. The redeveloped ground is fantastic. Amongst the best appointed in the professional leagues, but the curse of the twin tier redeveloped ends damns it. As happened when they did the same to the North and South Banks at Upton Park. The sound is more than halved, as is the togetherness. A ground that is a credit to the club, and will see them through many years to come, but whose feel is not a match for the classic two covered end terrace, and two side stands with terraced paddock configuration.
Elland Rd Leeds
My aunt lived in Headingley when I was a child, and I went to University at Leeds. As usual, I did not miss an opportunity to sample the local team, and in Leeds United, and Elland Rd, there was something undeniably special. As a small child my first game, and only my second game ever, was Leeds v Newcastle, 26th Dec 1968, attendance 48,000. Admission to the best seats was £1, we couldn’t afford that so stood on the Lowfields terrace for 5’6, 27.5p in today’s money. The Scratching Shed was still there, a brooding, ramshackle terrace, the size of the new South stand later to replace it, and with a wooden barrel roof which was acoustically outstanding. It was rammed with Geordies, I recall the atmosphere being overwhelming, and was treated to my first ever hearing of “The Blaydon races”. Elland Rd on a big match day was only matched by Stamford Bridge, Upton Park, Anfield, Villa Park, Old Trafford, Maine Road and the Victoria Ground, Stoke for a combination of scale, intensity, and, critically, occasion.
Don Revie built Leeds United, but polarised the Club. The trench battle of the FA Cup Final and replay established the team as scrappers as well artisans. Revie’s attention to detail and incremental gains mentality, thirty years ahead of its time, was seen by others as being cynical and unsporting, certainly when juxtaposed with the glamour of Busby’s European Cup Winners, the City Slickers of Chelsea, and the increasingly successful Shankly inspired Liverpool, Shanks’ manner endearing himself to a broader public in a way that Revie could not replicate.
Catching the “Super Leeds” side of the early Seventies was like watching Barcelona. Football on a different level.
Two photos from 1949 show the West Stand which was to burn down twice, the small scratching shed, and how big the Kop was.
Elland Road was a superb amphitheatre for the side. The home end which I quickly graduated to when I could go without my Dad, had historically been known as the Kop, as had many big ends of the era. But as the seventies unfolded it became clear that there was only one Kop, and that was at Liverpool, and it quickly became known as the Gelderd (Rd) End, now rebranded the Revie stand. A large, single tier, covered terrace, at the time it held around 17,000. Rough, tough, and partisan, only Celtic for the European Cup tie in April 1970, succeeded in infiltrating and holding it. This was in no small part due to the number of Scots who lived in Yorkshire, historically drawn by the work in the mines. Counter chants of “Celtic” / “Rangers” followed by a unified chant of “United” was a regular feature of home games. When the chant went up, post 1970, of “No-one takes the Gelderd End”, they meant it. Like the Liverpool Kop, the Leeds fans enjoyed a surge. I liked to stand just above the central concourse entrances. All you would hear is a rumble of feet, then your body would be hit like a pile driver (think 50 steps of terracing behind you, 11st average, around 4 tons of force) and you would be carried a dozens or so steps forward before the sheer weight of compressed bodies halted you.
Seated quadrants book ended the Gelderd End setting a fashion which would be replicated around the league.
The Main, East Stand was unusually all seated with no terraced paddock by the 1970’s. Opposite lay the Lowfields Rd side terrace and West stand. The seated stand, elevated above a fairly big terrace, offered fantastic views. But it was odd in that it did not extend the full length of the touchline on either side, nor did it cover the standing terracing.
When the Scratching Shed was redeveloped in 1974 as the South Stand, it initially was split between a seated upper stand and lower terrace, the latter of which held 4000. The away fans were then moved to the wing section of the Lowfields terrace. This conspired to create one of the most hostile environments for away fans anywhere. Hard core Leeds support would mass on the Lowfields terrace adjacent to the away pens, on the South Stand terracing, roared on by the Gelderd End and, unusually the seats in the West Stand who would always join in the singing. The away support was surrounded. Furthermore, when they arrived, and left, there was always the thousands who would mass at the Old Peacock pub car park which, pretty unhelpfully, was located immediately opposite the access to the away turnstiles.
Three games stand out. Leeds hate southerners. All London teams were given a torrid time, and on the morning of the visit of QPR,in the late 70’s Stan Bowles was on the front of the tabloids for playing away with a page three model as well as for Rangers. It was a gift, and pretty much every sexist chant you can imagine was trotted out, with the added bonus that Stan was taking corners so could hear everything at maximum volume. As he was taking one, the chant “Does your missus know your here?” erupted. He paused, shook his head, and put his fingers to his lips. Cue the whole ground laughing and cheering his every touch thereafter. Leeds fans admired class, and Stan
In their Div 2 promotion in the late 80’s season they played a dirty Swindon side, featuring Chris Kamara, who were determined to kick Leeds off the park. It was goalless, but the refs notebook was full of Swindon cautions when Kamara scythed down crowd favourite Johnny Hendrie clearly just outside the penalty area. The entire Leeds support, and team had had enough, the Gelderd End were scaling the fences, Hendrie was motionless. Kamara looked petrified as a lynch mob massed from four sides of the ground. Fortunately, the Ref had had enough too. With amazing quick thinking, firstly he awarded Leeds a penalty, even though the offence was outside of the box, drawing roars of United approval, then sent Kamara off with the tunnel conveniently very close by. Kamara sprinted off thanking his lucky stars for an escape route. Hendrie was then stretchered off, badly injured, but as the crowd chanted his name, he propped himself up on the stretcher, ordered the bearers to stop momentarily, then saluted the crowd, before collapsing onto the stretcher again in what was undoubtedly an Oscar winning move. Cue further hysteria from the Leeds support. Their goalkeeper didn’t even bother to try to save the shot, the rest of the game Swindon barely made a tackle as, when any Swindon player drew close to a Leeds player the baying for him to be sent off started. Leeds won 4-0.
In 1977 Leeds were home to Liverpool on a Saturday in which the Bunch of Stiffs New Wave Tour was playing Leeds Uni that night, a gig for which I had a ticket. It drew a crowd of 45,500, Leeds lost 2-1. The natives were not happy. The buses heading back to the city centre were overwhelmed so we decided to walk back which involved walking past the away exits on the Lowfields terrace. The Leeds mob surged towards the exiting Liverpool fans who looked , understandably, concerned. None more so than a waif like, bespectacled young man. “ Don’t hit him, that’s Elvis Costello” I shouted watching on. Sure enough, in a gesture of remarkable musical good taste, he was spared. “Thanks mate” he shouted, disappearing into the throng. It was a great gig that night, for which I continue to take considerable credit…
I still watch out for their results. The, relatively new, West Stand a monument to financial folly, broken dreams, bad management, and unfulfilled promise as the YRA wait to rise again.
Abbey Stadium, Cambridge
I will always have a soft spot for Cambridge United. My parents lived in Cambridge in the early 1970s, so that was where I watched my football. The 106 bus into town, then another bus to the football ground from outside Boots. The crowd milling around the bus stop was so different to the other Saturday afternoon shoppers. A pall of cigarette smoke, Woodbines and No6, hung under the shelter roof, as a mixture of the local youth and old boys in flat caps gathered for the journey. The bus dropped you off opposite the car park entrance on the Newmarket Road, the closer you approached the ground, the more the ribbon of pedestrians along the pavements swelled. The Club had invited local schools for open days. Mine was not one of them. As a precocious schoolboy I wrote to the Chairman, David Ruston, to complain. He replied by inviting my friends and I to be his guests at the next home game!
The home end was a strange affair. The turnstiles opened pitch side. To the right was the supporters club. It has always looked awkward, and non-league, but the fans like it and it is to the credit of the Club that it has been retained as a quirky characteristic of the ground. To the left lies the home terrace which has four names. Geographically it was the Newmarket Road End. Older supporters called it the Corona End after the eponymous depot. But to the young fans that populated the end closest to the entrance, it was ”The Abbey”. More recently some have called it the North Stand. Cambridge is divided between town and gown and the gown was nowhere to be seen back then. Nick Hornby had not discovered the club’s joy. But as young schoolboys, the place had an irresistible lure. As often happens in provincial towns and cities, the locals had their own unique take on youth fashion. On entering the league in 1970, the club had a strong skinhead following, as did Peterborough, with Richard Allen’s “Skinhead” book essential reading. But that quickly morphed into Suedeheads, with a smattering of Clockwork Orange devotees. Immediately behind the goal, boys to the front, lads to the back massed in teenage scowl.
The walk to the ground across Coldham’s Common has always been an eyeopener for visiting fans, past grazing cows and horses. In the early days, when it was an open terrace, sometimes the local urchins would dig up assorted vegetables and lob, mortar style, carrots and celery, from the allotments, over the rear wall, onto the away fans behind. Cambridge was a backwater then, and as the club rose from modest rivalry with the likes of Colchester and Peterborough, so the arrival of the big boys in Divisions Three and Two marked the arrival of routine humiliations by away fans, with Chelsea and Millwall distinguishing themselves in this regard. Tellingly the only notoriety the United fans gained was at an FA Cup tie away to Hitchin.
Amongst our gang was classmate Mark Saggers now of Talksport celebrity. He was an excellent all- round schoolboy sportsman, and a regular on the Newmarket Road End.
To the right was the Habbin, a covered terrace which ran the length of one side, and which offered an excellent view of the game. The favoured spot for older supporters and dads with lads. The opposite end to the Abbey was the allotments end. A small uncovered terrace. Opposite the Habbin lay the main stand, which then only just made it to the half way line. What you have to remember is that in the 50 ‘s and 60s, Cambridge City, at the far better sited Milton Road, were regarded as the senior club. They treated the patchwork Abbey Stadium as a bit of a joke. The success of the club’s rise was down to good management, and some shrewd managerial appointments. In the 16 years from 1967, United only had three managers. Bill Leivers, Ron Atkinson and Jon Docherty. They all did brilliant jobs with some fine players passing through the club, from Ian Hutchinson, Brendan Batson, Andy Sinton, Steve Claridge to Dion Dublin, to name but a few.
The Abbey stadium was a bit haphazard, not expecting its league elevation. For a few seasons after joining the league it was still possible to walk all around the ground and switch ends at half time. Many did. Colchester became the new rivals, along with Peterborough. The songs were largely borrowed. “You’ll never walk alone” was a staple as it was at many grounds in the 70’s. Most of the lower division supporters borrowed songs from their more illustrious betters. “Bertie Mee said to Bill Shankly/ have you heard of the North Bank Highbury?/ Shanks said no I don’t think so/ But I’ve heard of the Abbey Boot Boys” was a favourite, even though, in retrospect, I now suspect that Bertie was unaware of the existence of United’s faithful. There was an undeniable community spirit there though. The local “Arbury” toughs, from the adjacent Arbury Council Estate thought they were the top dogs, the village lads from Histon and Bottisham thought different. For evening games all of our parents made us do our homework first, before we climbed on our bicycles, cycled to the ground, padlocked them and entered the ground at half time, when the gates were opened for free, and we had to ask those there what the score was. We did it because we thought they needed us. With gates around three to four thousand, they did. Today, with £50 not unusual for football tickets, football clubs no longer need, or deserve, that sort of support.
The curse of fencing blighted the Abbey stadium after a few years, as the thrill of league football met the routine violence that was endemic in football back then. The allotments end became the away end, access to transfers to the Main Stand was ended, the Habbin was sealed off, and football lost its innocence at the Abbey Stadium. A high perimeter fence in front of the vociferous section in the Newmarket Rd End obscured the view for about a half of the terracing behind, but, curiously, it didn’t extend the whole length of the stand, only about half of it. Very sportingly, none of the “Abbey Boot Boys” ever attempted the simple tactic of moving about twenty feet to one side to invade the pitch! It was a different story at the Allotments end though. The fencing was so high that only the last few steps at the back “enjoyed” (I use the term loosely) an unobstructed view. The best view for away fans was from the away corner of the Habbin which was split from the home fans terrace on the side by some hastily installed seating, a combination of height and angle giving a better perspective.
The most exciting game I ever saw at the Abbey was the last game of the season in 1974 versus Mansfield Town. It is probably still the most exciting game I have ever seen. If Cambridge won, they were promoted, if Mansfield won, they were promoted, if it was a draw, Newport or Aldershot could win a promotion slot at their expense. It was the ultimate one game shoot out. The gate of 10,542 still stands as a record for a league game. Mansfield took the lead, Utd equalised, Mansfield took the lead again, United equalised, and then late in the second half, United were given, and scored a penalty, courtesy of Bobby Ross, which won the game. The tension, excitement and post -match euphoria was unbelievable. Subsequently United gained a tidy reputation as cup giant killers knocking out Villa’s European Cup winning side and Coventry (both games I attended) amongst several memorable scalps.
British clubs have such a rich history, it is easy to take the present day for granted. But back in the 1960’s it was Cambridge City, with a ground that held in excess of 20,000, the largest non- league ground at the time, who looked likeliest to win league status. Yet United have a history of fans, physically building the ground, as well as financing it, in the 1960’s, and more recently helping to save the club. The Abbey Stadium has always been imperfect, half a main stand, half a home end, but somehow it has always been enough. The Habbin is a fine side terrace. The redeveloped Allotments End as a seated stand has a brilliant view, but tradition makes it the away end, therefore, in the lower divisions it is rarely full, so is a bit of a waste commercially, even though aesthetically it is a big plus. The Main Stand was extended, a good job was done, and the entire structure still has plenty of years left in it. The obvious improvement is to extend the Newmarket Road End. But tradition demands that it remains a terrace, and the extra 1000 capacity that doing so would offer, is rarely required.
It is approaching fifty years since the club was elected to the league at the expense of Bradford Park Avenue, another city where really, only one senior club will do. As a physical city it has changed beyond all recognition, the population has grown significantly, the city now has a strong vibrant commercial/ technological sector, it is far more affluent, it is no longer a sleepy backwater famed only for its University. But it still has yet to find its sporting potential. Cambridge University would traditionally open the cricket season on Parker’s Piece at Fenners against MCC, and touring Test sides would sometimes play warm up games there. But there is no purpose built cricket ground of county standard. With two rugby playing Public Schools and a fine University Rugby tradition, again with combined university sides sometime taking on touring rugby international sides, the city should be able to support a top flight rugby side, but it doesn’t. CRFC plays at the 1250 capacity Grantchester Rd in the third tier. Planning in the City is notoriously difficult, but you have a sense that a new 15,000 capacity stadium which served the university, Cambridge Rugby fc and Cambridge United could just elevate Cambridge United again, as well as sport in the city. Where they are now, a fourth tier club, with the occasional cup flurry, and temporary stay in the third tier, is about right.
I still keep an eye out for the “U’s” results.
Kenilworth Rd. Luton
As a young teenager living in Bedford in the 70’s, Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road was the closest, and most accessible football ground. Twenty minutes by train, forty minutes by road. My first game, with my dad, was sat in the Wing Stand for a game versus Fulham in 1973. I recall the crowd being around 12,000, there was no Fulham support whatsoever. Both teams were Div 2 mid table, Luton won 1-0. “Happy” Harry Haslam was the talented effervescent manager, comedian Eric Morecambe the celebrity Director. There was talk of a stadium move…
Incredibly, over forty years on, the ground is still recognisable. In front of the Wing Stand and Main Stand, there was a terraced paddock, where the Main Stand ended, the Maple Road terrace hugged the touchline. Now seated. To the left was the Oak rd Terrace, then the home end. Quite small, the terrace quite shallow, but fully covered and capable of generating a lot of noise. Opposite was the Bobbers Stand, so called as it used to be a covered terrace for which you paid a shilling, a “bob”, 5p, to get in, it had already been converted to seats, before being subsequently converted to “Executive Boxes” (don’t laugh).
To the right rose the large open terrace, the Kenilworth Road End, which then held around 8000. The view was fantastic, and it was the best place to view the game from- unless it rained.
Luton was a dump. The ground, located in Bury Park, was now in an area with a mainly first and second generation Asian population. They did not care for football, football fans did not care for them. The walk from the railway station was through narrow streets, across a large roundabout with overhead walkways, through a run down shopping centre, then up the Kenilworth Rd for visitors. The quick train times into London, some 20 minutes, meant that many in the area supported London clubs, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and West Ham particularly pretty much proportionate to how long it took to get to the grounds on the tube from St Pancras station. “Knees Up Luton town”, appropriated from West Ham and the East End was a favourite.
My next visit, in 74, could not have been a greater contrast. Luton were promoted and finished second that season, but M’Boro went up as Champions under Jack Charlton, and their visit at the end of March confirmed their Champions status. The ground was packed, the atmosphere crackled, and Boro had brought down around 4000, all in the Kenilworth Road end, they were an older crowd who all looked like either miners or shipyard workers. They probably were. Boro won 1-0 sealing the second division championship, and being with the Boro fans, and Jack Charlton their manager celebrating at the end was quite something. Upon leaving the ground with my Dad and brother two football life lessons came into focus. Firstly, the time spent in the ground had given the Luton fans time to mob up and launch a fusillade of missiles at us as we left the ground into the street. Secondly, in a football confrontation it is always best to be on the stronger side, as Boro charged, scattered and annihilated those who had sought to spoil their party.
My brother was a Chelsea fan so I would often join him for home games at Stamford Bridge. Rail travel was quick and cheap. We had caught the home third round FA Cup game against Sheff Wed on the Saturday. In the Shed the chant of “If you’re all going to Luton clap your hands” was a favourite – and it seemed that everyone was. The following Saturday 23,096 crammed into the ground to see a 1-1 draw. What struck me was how young the Chelsea travelling support was, mostly 13 -20 years old. At 2.30pm, about a thousand of the five thousand or so Chelsea fans in the KRE stormed onto the pitch, and “took” the Oak Rd End, a feat they repeated with almost identical numbers the following August, this time in the Second Division, after both teams had been relegated. The perimeter fences went up immediately after.
The town had always been depressing, the ground now started to follow suit . Due to its good rail and road links and central position it was a favourite awayday for pretty much any visiting teams to wreck the town, which they did with clockwork regularity. As the team prospered on the pitch, so things deteriorated off it. In addition to the perimeter fences, the KRE and Oak Rd end were soon divided into three pens, such was the regularity of mass movement disturbances. But this had two unintended consequences that made matter worse. Firstly, it is very easy to be brave taunting the opposition when there is a caged eight foot high steel bar walkway with five foot firebreak dividing you from the opposition. Secondly, if a pen was heavily infiltrated there was no way out, with terrifying consequences. The nadir was the home game With West Ham when around two thousand West Ham fans infiltrated the Oak Rd End. For the Chelsea games, the Luton fans had been able to flee to the wings or onto the pitch, this time with the cages there was no escape.
The routine was familiar. Chelsea and West Ham always “took” the Oak Rd End, everyone else didn’t but just trashed the Town. Attendances plummeted , the core support deserted the Oak Rd End, with a new, very small band reappearing in the Maple Rd Corner, the away support safely caged in.
My last game at Kenilworth Rd was the Millwall game in 1985. I worked in Upper George St in the town centre then, from lunchtime, mid-week, they started arriving. It was a cup game with no London fixtures of any note. The entire London hooligan population turned out for an evening jolly, irrespective of who they supported. Millwall FC had heard what was brewing and pleaded with Luton to make it all ticket, but Luton refused, they wanted the money from a pay on the gate fixture. The gate was just short of 18,000, Millwall’s following was around 9,000. The initial invasion was not aggressive, it was as a result of a massive crush as the 8000 capacity of the KRE was breached after the gates were demolished as officials tried to close them. The picture below shows how overcrowded that central pen was, I should know, I was in there somewhere.
That game soured my view of football, for a long while. Luton installed a primitive plastic pitch which was great for them, but bad for football. The away fan ban of almost five years adding to the surreal miasma which hung over the club at that time. I had grown up, and had a car so could get to Villa Park and Villa aways more easily. Leaving Luton, and Kenilworth Rd, behind became easy. The shame was that on the pitch they had some great players, the Futcher brothers, Ricky Hill, Brian Stein, Mitchell Thomas, Brian Horton, Paul Walsh, and in Haslam and Pleat some great managers. The subsequent mismanagement, failure to move ground, and piecemeal ground improvements, making the Oak Rd End the away end, only reinforced my detachment from a club that provided me with some great memories, great games, and fine footballers.