Sometimes, people bemoan modern football for not being as good as it was back in the 1980s. But for many it was a scary and dangerous place. The violence on the terraces, often replicated on the pitch, made all the headlines and for a time it threatened to kill the game. Parents became too frightened to take their kids to the match because of fighting within and between organised groups of young men and the police.
Chelsea firms, in particular, had a notorious reputation for racist-edged violence, thankfully something that has largely been put behind English footballing culture through a mixture of stadium design, better policing and ticket prices, with a little helping hand from the late ‘80s rave scene. And the Chelsea dressing room of the time has also been subject to allegations of racist conduct in recent years. But, at a Milk Cup Semi Final under the floodlights at Stamford Bridge in March 1985, things really started to get out of control.
In the first leg at Roker Park in mid-February, Len Ashurst’s Sunderland had beaten Seaham-born John Neal’s Blues two-nil with two goals from Colin West. The Chelsea crowd of over 34,000 had their expectations raised for a comeback early on, as took the lead early through David Speedie, but were brought crashing back down to earth when Clive Walker put away a right-footed equaliser on 37 minutes.
The drama on the pitch would heat up after the break, with goals and tackles flying in on the pitch while missiles flew in the stands. The game was interrupted for a long period as hundreds of spectators invaded, and it all properly kicked off when Walker pounced on a mistake at the back on 71 minutes to put the Black Cats 4-1 up on aggregate and the tie beyond the home side.
Two minutes later, the furore overspilled even further following tackle from Gary Bennett on Kerry Dixon. The Sunderland man was given a yellow card by the referee, and an unfortunate Chelsea steward was given a head injury by fans hurling seats from the stands.
Walker was piling on the misery against his old club, and he was key to Sunderland’s third goal of the evening on 77, crossing from the wing for West, who was joined in the box by several invading fans but still managed to find the back of the net. This was the final straw for some ordinary Chelsea fans, not because of their side’s performance but rather the behaviour of others around them, which was only getting worse. Two supporters in the Chelsea end later told The Reading Evening Post that this was it for them, and they left:
We were both sat comfortably in the Chelsea Members Enclosure when Sunderland scored their third goal. It was at this point we felt we were sitting among animals who had to break out or smash the benches to throw missiles at the police on horseback. We then walked out of the match and, I’m afraid, on Chelsea FC for the remainder of the season.
These fans did miss seeing Pat Nevin score a consolatory second for the home side on 84 minutes, but they escaped witnessing even more violent scenes on and off the pitch as Speedie was dismissed for a tackle that laid out Sunderland’s Shaun Elliott, and one fan came onto the pitch to try to strike Walker, the match-winner, in the face.
After the game, Chelsea Chairman Ken Bates called the rioters, who it later emerged included an off-duty Metropolitan policeman, “scum” and “animals” but, in what now seems an outrageously complacent statement, wouldn’t go as far as banning the hooligans from the stadium altogether:
There is an element of scum at most clubs. This particular element must be driven out of the seats and back onto the terraces, where they can be more easily monitored.
Sunderland’s achievement in reaching a cup final for the first time in a dozen years, in the midst of a relegation battle in the league, was truly overshadowed by the chaotic scenes that spilled onto the pitch. The game made the headlines nationwide for all the wrong reasons, with the back page of Daily Mirror the next day capturing the moral outrage.
Over 100 arrests were made as over 20 police and as many supporters were injured on the night. As a result Chelsea fans were banned from the forthcoming league fixture at Roker Park, and the unsafe nature of the decaying game of football led, ultimately, to a government crack-down on fans in general that, despite stadium and policing improvements, still has an impact on restrictions governing followers of the English game to this day.
Sunderland: Turner, Venison, Pickering, Bennett, Chisholm, Elliott, Hodgson, Berry, West, Daniel, Walker
Chelsea: Niedzwiecki, Jones, Rougvie, Pates, Jasper, Bumstead, Kevin, Dixon, Speedie, Thomas