A police officer astride a white horse, trying to control football crowds! No, this story is not about the ‘White Horse’ FA Cup Final at Wembley in 1923 but it too comes from a different age and could almost be replayed in black and white, if not sepia.
Having done the double over fellow Yorkshire promotion rivals Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, Leeds United look to extend their points total of seven from the last three games in their next match away to Birmingham City on Friday evening.
The timing of the game is not unusual in the ‘modern era,’ being effectively sponsored and scheduled by Sky Sports who will be showing the match live on satellite TV. We take all of this for granted nowadays don’t we, as well as the good-natured banter between rival fans on social media? However, there was a time when a visit to Birmingham’s St Andrews ground – for all football teams – felt far more like going backwards in time than making any kind of progress.
Head-to-head against Birmingham, City have won just one more than we have and they are often very tight affairs. We narrowly lost our first match there, in our first league season after being reformed as Leeds United, 1.0 on 18th December 1920.
The first significant match I can remember against the Blues was when we beat them in the 1972 FA Cup semi-final 3.0 in front of 55,000 at Hillsborough on the way to our only FA Cup success to date.
The 1996 semi-final wins against Birmingham in both legs of the League Cup (or Coca-Cola Cup as they tried to persuade us it was now called) were other great events to cherish before I travelled to the old Wembley for a dismal Final against another club from Birmingham – Aston Villa – in which Tony Yeboah and the rest of the Leeds team barely showed up.
I still consider that to be a terrible day but perhaps real terror applies to the Second Division clash just over 30 years ago, on 11th May 1985 when nearly 25,000 supporters packed into St Andrew’s, including 6,000 from Leeds. There was eager anticipation beforehand: if Leeds won the game and other results went our way, we still had a chance of getting promotion back to the First Division we had left behind three years earlier. Birmingham had already gained promotion back to a top flight which they themselves had been relegated from the previous season.
Sadly, Birmingham’s fanbase at that time had been largely infiltrated by hooligan ‘firms’ under the umbrella of the ‘Zulu Warriors’ which not only disrespects South African culture (well, all culture) but remains a blot on the football history landscape as does the so-called ‘Service Crew’ from Leeds.
Large-scale violence accompanied City on their travels throughout that season as well as fighting between rival fans at New Street railway station and in Birmingham’s city centre on numerous occasions including, most seriously, after Blackburn Rovers had dared to win at St Andrew’s two months earlier.
On that fateful Saturday afternoon in May 1985 Leeds lost a close game, 1.0 – just as they had done 65 years earlier – but missing out on promotion was quickly rendered utterly irrelevant.
Birmingham Police had received intelligence that mass violence had been planned for the game yet preferred to send their Operational Support Unit (OSU) to West Bromwich where there were similar fears over the Baggies’ game with Arsenal on the same day. In the event, a half-time pitch invasion at St Andrew’s, following pre-match violence in the city, saw the OSU hastily recalled.
After the match finished, mainly City fans invaded the pitch again and tried to attack the Leeds fans who were mostly penned in behind fences at the Tilton Road corner of the ground. Mounted police – including one officer on a white horse that was badly hurt during the rioting – attempted to keep both sets of hooligans apart.
500 people (including 100 police officers) were injured, some very seriously, mainly as a result of missiles (made from ripped up advertising hoardings at the City Road End) being thrown at anything that moved; flares and smoke bombs.
As Birmingham’s manager Ron Saunders urged the home fans to go home ‘in the name of football’ a 12-foot high wall collapsed above an exit in the away end killing a 15-year old Leeds fan – Ian Hambridge – from Nottingham, who was attending his first ever professional football match. Even then bricks were hurled at the St John’s Ambulance crew who had rushed in to help.
West Yorkshire’s day of mourning continued with the terrible fire and deaths of 56 people at Bradford City before, just 18 days later, football violence in Belgium saw 39 mainly Italian lives lost in fighting at the Heysel Disaster and, four years further on, another 96 deaths back at Hillsborough, as a result of Liverpool fans being crushed behind fences amid police incompetence.
So, yes, we do take Sky TV and Friday night kick-offs for granted these days. Many will say that this has effectively ‘killed football’ but, before we indulge in such inappropriate metaphors, spare a thought for the family of Ian Hambridge who just wanted to see his beloved Leeds United play a football match in Birmingham and had to take his life in his hands to do so – a life he ultimately lost.
We might win on Friday but, even if we don’t, we will not lose anything like what was lost to football in the 1980s and, far more importantly, will hopefully all still be here to tell the tale.