When the draw was made for this weekend’s English FA Cup Fifth Round featuring the last 16 teams standing from an original field of 758, two clubs - Luton Town and Millwall - were matched by the random pairing.
Ricky Hill, a mercurial midfielder with Luton between 1976 and 1989 and now coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League, was among those for whom the draw held great significance. To the younger generation of soccer fans the game simply pits giant killers Luton, who were shock winners over Premier League Norwich City in the last round and hail from the fifth level of the English leagues, against a Millwall side currently sitting in mid-table obscurity in the Championship.
But to Hill, and those who recall the dark days of English football, Luton versus Millwall is historically a clash that epitomizes the term ‘hooliganism’.
On Wednesday, March 13, 1985, with a place in that season’s FA Cup semi finals at stake, a riot before and during the Sixth Round meeting caused the kickoff to be delayed and players to be taken off the field after only 14 minutes. The away end of the Kenilworth Road ground was packed to almost twice capacity and Millwall fans spilled onto the pitch, hurling seats, golf balls, bottles and coins at the home supporters.
As they sat in the dressing room before the game, Hill and his Luton teammates were aware of some disturbances, which had been predicted given the Millwall supporters’ reputation and the game kicking late enough for the mob to fuel their anger in the local pubs.
But as the Rowdies coach explains as he takes up the story, none of the Luton or Millwall players were prepared for what they experienced at Kenilworth Road that evening.
“We walked out of the tunnel 35 minutes before the game and we would normally go to the top or away end to warm up. We’d always run to the halfway line to salute our own fans and then come back to warm up.
But where normally there was a family section for season ticket holders, right in our line of vision, instead there was a large number of police on the field with police dogs and we thought ‘why are they here?’
We were completely taken aback. Beyond the police there were fans, although I use that word loosely, in the family enclosure, teasing and taunting the police, trying to aggravate them, shouting and screaming, but they weren’t the fans who were normally there. The families had gone and these fans were just going crazy. There were orange seats being ripped out and thrown everywhere on the field and there were lots of excited and aggravated fans.
At first, things seemed to be under control but that was only in a 40-yard area of the field towards the away end. We managed to warm up to a degree, but when we went back inside the dressing room we thought it seemed a little helter-skelter out there. The atmosphere was frightening.
Millwall had a notorious reputation during that period and when they traveled they took good numbers with them. Added to that ours was the only game being played in the south east of England that night and it seemed as if there were a lot of general mobs from various different clubs there with the intent of causing trouble. Back then there was a certain amount of credence placed on the FA Cup, like there is with the Champions League now, so this was a massive game for the two clubs and for fans from elsewhere who wanted to be there.
Before the game we prepared as we normally as we could and didn’t have too much conversation about what had what happened and we were unaware of the gravity of what had taken place outside that immediate area. At that time, we didn’t know about riots in town or the turnstiles and gates being broken that had allowed more than 3,000 extra fans into the away end who were dropping onto the pitch.
We witnessed that when we came out and still managed to kick off, but more and more people clearly came in through the broken gate and it became difficult to take corners or throw-ins because fans were on the track beside the grass. They were trying to grab and kick us and be a nuisance. Thinking about it afterwards, it could have been nasty, but we just got on with it.
The police did tremendous job of protecting us, but the referee witnessed what was going on and took us off and back to the dressing room until control was really regained. We were 1-0 ahead and we thought there was no way the game was going to carry on or get to the end, so we thought with being off the field for almost 30 minutes the game would be abandoned.
As the delay went on, every 10 or 15 minutes we thought we might be brought back on, so we were trying to keep warm and in the right mindset, which caused its own set of problems. It was hard to concentrate. Then we were told we would be going back on in ten minutes’ time, but hand on heart, the consensus among players was that we wouldn’t be able to complete the whole game.
To my surprise we went back out and it was still a very volatile atmosphere, very tense.
Our players feared not for ourselves, but because the hooligan element was kicking off in the stands and the skirmishes were where regular fans usually sat, were worried about the women, child and senior citizens who were caught up in it all. The trouble was in the areas normally established for them so we were more fearful for them.
We got through to halftime and the police, who were tremendous on the night, allowed the game to continue.
As the game got closer to the end and we were still winning 1-0, we were worried about how we’d get off the pitch. It was one of those situations where you don’t know what to expect.
I’d played in a game against Manchester City in the old First Division and we had to win to stay up and the loser would be relegated, a real winner-takes-all game. I was struck twice by fans running on the field at the end. They were only glancing blows and racism being what it was back in those days it never really bothered me because I’d come to expect it.
So I was always on my guard generally in society in that generation, but I wasn’t naïve enough to think that someone wouldn’t come and have a go at me and do a lot worse in the Millwall game.
Considering how tense it was, all players, black or white were on their guard in case there was any physical confrontation when the game ended and how something like that didn’t happen, I’ll never know.
The ref actually told us all that when ball goes in the far corner he’ll blow the whistle and we should just run straight to the dressing room and get off the pitch. Brian Stein, who had scored the winning goal, was out on the left wing and I can still picture him as he tries to make his way off the field and a whole crowd of people are chasing him hell for leather!
But we managed somehow to get off with no harm done to players or officials on the field. But lots of people were hurt. We were the lucky ones.”
Luton’s historic FA Cup run ended in the next round with a 2-1 extra time Semi Final defeat to Everton, but Hill and the Hatters went on to capture the Football League Cup three years later and remained in the top flight of English football until 1992.
Looking ahead to Saturday morning’s Fifth Round FA Cup clash, Hill added: “I think Millwall will be a very difficult side to beat. You are going to get an honest, hard-working and industrious performance from their players. They won’t be phased and will believe they are superior, as they are in league status.
“But people rise to the occasion and if we have a bit of luck and get our noses in front, it will be a good game and Luton will edge it 2-1.”
- Michael Preston
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