I watched the Manchester derby a couple of days ago – no, not the Utd Vs City clash from this weekend, where the majority of the hype surrounding it emanated from the rival managers rather than the players. It was from April 1974 and far more was at stake that Saturday afternoon, for the Reds were looking relegation from the top flight of English football square in the face. Amazing as it may seem today, the dreaded drop came; and who should deliver the killer blow? In one of football’s cruellest ironies, it was none other than ex-King of the Stretford End, Denis Law. Deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, the last survivor of the legendary 60s triumvirate completed by Best and Charlton had been sold to United’s neighbourhood nemesis and returned to haunt the club that made him by scoring the goal that sent them down.
Law’s despair was immediately evident, and as his strike sparked a pitch invasion, he was substituted. Deciding to retire before the beginning of the next season, his crucial goal in the most dramatic derby of them all was his last ever touch in league football. Yet, even that momentous moment was ultimately overshadowed by the mass encroachment upon the players’ turf by the fans. Twice the match was stopped by the referee – the first time to clear the pitch before the game could be restarted and the second time to bring both teams off for their own safety. They never came back on, the result stood and Manchester United would be playing their fixtures in Division Two during the 1974/75 season.
Watching this game forty-two years on from when it was played, what struck me most about the pitch invasions was the age of the supporters participating in them. I doubt many were over eighteen. They all appeared to be young boys around 13-17 and could easily have passed for members of The Bay City Rollers going by their haircuts and dress sense. Even before they grabbed their fifteen minutes, they were visible in great numbers every time the camera closed in on either goalkeeper. The ground seemed to be packed with no supporters representing any other age group, as if the pop star following George Best had brought to Old Trafford had permanently lowered the average age of the average fan, even though the wayward Irish genius had already drifted off into the last wasted decade of his career.
Even the pitch invasions themselves, though obviously planned to disrupt the match should the result go against the home side, had a shambolic, almost anarchic feel to them; there was a distinct absence of the pseudo-militaristic organisation that became the hallmark of the slightly older ‘professional’ football hooligans that characterised a good deal of the 1980s, and the mobile police wall that was formed to herd the fans back into the stands didn’t provoke any fisticuffs. Hindsight naturally comes to the fore when viewing an archive example of the troubles that plagued the national sport for more than a decade thereafter, with Brian Moore (the host of the programme showing the game) decrying the hooliganism and advocating the erection of fencing to prevent further incidents of this nature – something that took a few more seasons to happen. Nobody clearly had any idea of how much worse the situation would become.
The more physical followers of Manchester United had a bad reputation for a long time, though were gradually superseded by similar-minded supporters of other clubs by the end of the 70s. I have no doubt that many of that decade’s young hooligans grew up to be older (though far from wiser) hooligans in the next decade, yet the fact they started so young and were allowed to run riot for so long says a great deal about the way the game changed in the 70s.
Yes, the Best phenomenon certainly played its part in attracting more youngsters to matches, but the absence of the older father figures that had always indoctrinated their sons with a passion for the sport so that they would keep their team supported for years to come meant there was no longer anyone present to admonish the youngsters. Early retirement from match-day was encouraged by increasing leisure pursuits for the older man and fan, and many were dissuaded from returning to full-time supporter status by the far-from family atmosphere that had developed on the terraces. The great tribal clashes of the 60s, particularly the Mods and Rockers, appeared to have relocated from seaside resort to football ground, even if the only thing that now divided the enemies in terms of dress was the colour of their respective scarves.
How big a hole did the cost of supporting one’s chosen team eat into the pocket-money or wages of those kids on the Old Trafford pitch in 1974, one wonders? It can’t have been that great an amount or else they would have been priced out of football and would have had no option but to divert their adolescent aggression elsewhere. They certainly couldn’t enact the same ritual at Old Trafford today, nor at any other ground in the Premier League. All-seater stadia has probably served to reduce the potential for trouble in a way the old terraces couldn’t, but the cost of attending regular football matches in the twenty-first century precludes the presence of unescorted youngsters in such high numbers. There was apparently ‘a bit of trouble’ at the West Ham Vs Watford game on Saturday, but hooliganism is so rare in top flight football today that any inkling of it receives the kind of coverage major incidents would have in the past. And I’ve a feeling those involved would have all been over-18.
If old-school hooliganism exists on any scale in English football in 2016 it is usually in the lower leagues, at clubs where ticket prices remain low and attendance at one’s local ground doesn’t help to subsidise the weekly income of foreign millionaires. The least attractive element of 70s soccer survives out there in the wilds of what used to be the Third and Fourth Divisions, though should a team rise through the ranks and reach the Promised Land of the Premier League, it soon evaporates. Better grounds, better pitches that enable better football to be played, the virtual outlawing of the contact sport, and the higher skill factor that overseas players have brought to the game have all raised the bar beyond anything that could have been foreseen forty years ago; and one sometimes only notices the breadth of the changes when one peers into the curiously brutal portal that replays the game as it used to be.
© The Editor