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Off-Topic: The Birmingham Riot

I've been meaning to write this off-topic Sunday post for a few months now. It's stuck with me for a number of reasons so I've finally made the time.

The photos and video footage (below) is of a football match I attended, having travelled the 100 miles from my home in Leeds to Birmingham for the end of season game. The team I support, Leeds United, had a notorious away following at the time of the worst hooliganism in the UK. I used to travel with a couple of brothers who were older than me, one already had a car, so he was 17,18. The date of this match is seared into my memory for a couple of reasons. It's the day before my birthday and it's the day of the Bradford fire, when 56 people died at a football ground in the town just a few miles from Leeds. My good friend's father was one of the fire service chiefs called to attend the fire and direct operations, so it was that close to home.

I have been to hundreds of football matches all over England, and a few abroad. I didn't follow Leeds then because of the trouble, I chose Leeds because I could see the ground from the end of the street I grew up on. At the time, and for much of my life, Leeds have been a second tier team, so it certainly wasn't for the glory. The notoriety certainly added a frisson to an impressionable teenage lad.

The trouble at this match started early. Leeds didn't need an excuse to misbehave. I remember hearing the rumble of trouble from the back of the stands, I was about halfway down in the all standing end behind one of the goal. Next I saw whole wooden panel walls being passed over head and thrown onto the pitch. The rickety tea hut (concession stand for Americans) had been torn to pieces. I can still see the big aluminium kettle being slung towards the pitch as play continued.

The home fans, themselves the infamous Birmingham City Zulus, didn't take kindly to the visiting fans demolishing their ground from the inside out, and invaded the pitch. The game, naturally was stopped. The Birmingham fans were rounded up by mounted police, and herded back into the stands, allowing the game to recommence. Everyone knew that wasn't the end of it. As soon as the final whistle blew, waves of home and away fans ran onto the pitch. So did the police horses.

By this date, in 1985, I'd probably already been to 50 matches, and not one of them with an adult. I said it was the date before my birthday, and it was, I'd turn 14 the next day. I was THIRTEEN years old!

The violence at this match was so bad that questions were asked in parliament about it and a high court judge was commissioned by the Thatcher government to research and write a report on the hooliganism and future responses to it.

When we eventually were allowed out of the ground, kept behind for well over and hour while the police cleared all the Birmingham supporters from the area, my memory of the scenes were like something from the Battle of Agincourt. Mounted police were still chasing hooligans across the wasteground outside the old ground. When we got back to the car, we all knew Leeds were in the shit again.

Then we turned on the radio and heard the shocking news from Bradford, where dozens would die in the inferno, this nothing to do with hooliganism, just a dropped cigarette in a dirty, decrepit ground and a complete lack of health and safety - fans were locked in the ground and fenced in on all sides. The stand had already been condemned and, as this was the last game of the season, it would be demolished within days if not for the fire. We also heard that a boy, who turned out to be a 15-year-old Leeds fan, had been crushed to death when a wall collapsed under the weight of herds of fans.

Later that month Liverpool played Juventus in another old ground, the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Liverpool hooligans charged the Italians and part of the ground's walls and fences collapsed under the weight of the Italian fans trying to escape the violence. 39 would die that night too.

The reasons I kept wanting to write this bit of social history that I lived through is because now I have a teenage son, out doing his own things. He's 17, so older than I was, and thinking back to days like this makes me shake my head in disbelief. I had such a long lead/leash as a kid. There was such a level of disorder at this match, that the 13-year-old, nearly 14, me had attended, that the government took notice, yet I don't remember either of my parents asking me about it, or suggesting, gently or otherwise, that perhaps a kid shouldn't be travelling to the away matches of a club with one of the most feared and violent crews in the world. So I just kept going, until I bought a Vespa and started attending scooter rallies around grotty 1980s Britain with a different group of hooligans instead.

1 Comment

Aug 31, 2020


Your story about growing up a Leeds supporter, and the specific monumental events mentioned, remain riveting with each telling...perhaps more so in print. Thanks for sharing.

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