How Hillsborough And Ecstacy Brought Down Leeds' Prison Camp

We're fenced in no more.
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We're fenced in no more.

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Combining steel and militant antipathy, the fences that were erected in front of the stands on all four sides of Elland Road in the late 1970s were a symbol of a very forgettable period in the club’s history. The Elland Road ambience had very quickly degenerated from a bubbling vibrancy promoting togetherness and success to a decaying emblem of coldness and undesirable austerity, like a deserted concentration camp.

Examples of trouble at Elland Road had steadily escalated in frequency since the late 1960s and gained increasingly withering media attention in the mid-1970s. But the main trigger for the fences being installed was the FA Cup tie against Manchester City in 1978 when a fan entered the pitch from the Kop, with no fences to stop him, and confronted City keeper Joe Corrigan. The Kop therefore became the first stand to have fences erected immediately after the City game.

Some £30,000 was spent making the barrier from the floor to the top of the fence 10 feet high in time for the next home game. Before the decade was out all four sides of Elland Road had perimeter fences erected, even the traditionally more gentile surroundings of the West Stand. Images of the time show the ugly steel enclosures as a backdrop of empty seats or terracing, and certainly this was an unpleasant period for the game, not just at Elland Road, but across the country as attending football became an unfashionable, tyrannised and cynical experience. Steel fences had first been discussed at Elland Road in 1974, as other grounds in the country had adopted the measure in the face of the growing problem in the game. At that time the FA and Football League wanted clubs to build moats around the pitch as many continental clubs had done. At Leeds, they simply hoped the problem would go away.

As the outbreaks of trouble continued into Leeds’ eight-year residence in the old Second Division during the 1980s, so the authorities’ zero tolerance towards crowd control was intensified. On top of the already erected fences were installed a series of brutal 18 inch spikes in August 1984, which pointed inwards at an angle; further adding to the prison camp aesthetic where comfort and safety for attending spectators were way down the list of priorities. The club also considered using anti-vandal paint as a further measure but feared it would get on the players’ shirts if the ball hit the fences during play.

The staging of a football match in the 1980s was routinely an exercise in preventing ‘serious’ crowd trouble; football was policed as a necessary evil rather than a form of entertainment. Football fans were treated like caged animals mainly because a huge percentage of the dwindling crowds behaved like one, or so the theory went. The very existence today of the Football Supporters’ Federation and Supporters’ Trusts suggests that mentality still exists to some extent, although no one who attended Elland Road in the 1980s could possibly say the venomous atmosphere and overwhelming sense of imminent threat that was present then, is in any way evident today.

Incongruously, the fences were party to some positive experiences during the 1980s with famous goal celebrations by Brendan Ormsby, Mel Sterland and Vinnie Jones ensuring that the fences added to the explosive theatre of manic revelry. Despite few examples of supporter unrest at Elland Road in the latter part of the 1980s, even with crowd levels increasing under Billy Bremner and then Howard Wilkinson, the fences remained in place until the Hillsborough Tragedy of 15th April 1989.

QPR '87 ON FENCE - fences

In physical terms it was clear that the perimeter fences at Hillsborough had been the main obstacle to supporters attempting to escape the crush in the Leppings Lane terrace, and almost overnight the authorities woke up to the concept that perimeter fencing was quite literally a death trap. However, although Leeds United tried to get the Elland Road fences taken down before the end of the 1988/89 season, ie. immediately after Hillsborough, a legal row between the club, the police and the council prevented it. Initially the terracing capacities were cut as an alternative measure, and gates in the fences were left open.

On the eve of the 1989/90 season at Elland Road, the Kop and Lowfields terraces lost nearly 9,000 spaces at a stroke. The club also installed a tannoy system to communicate with fans outside the ground, as a measure to allay potential overcrowding in the queues that were steadily building with the club’s long-awaited success, and which had been a feature of the panic witnessed at Hillsborough. But finally, the fences started to come down.

Before 1989, younger fans like myself who liked to stand at the front will have never watched a football game without the obstruction of an ugly blue mesh fence, until Howard Wilkinson lifted the gloom and provided a clearer view of prosperity in much more than a metaphorical sense.

Although the Hillsborough Disaster prompted a relaxation of the dogmatic approach to crowd control the mood change did coincide, at least at Elland Road, in a more positive vibe generally. Howard Wilkinson’s team had created a buoyant, natural vibrancy to match days and a fan base stung by years of mediocrity saw very clear signs of a return to greatness.

Finally there was no reason to lash out, less of a chip on the shoulder and there was something encouraging and a collective energy to rally around. As well as Wilkinson’s team, which contained several players fighting for cult hero and fans’ favourite status, many people cite the emerging dance scene in Leeds and its associated Ecstasy culture as contributing to a softening of past attitudes amongst fans.

Suddenly, altruistic young fans who would previously be arriving at the match looking for confrontation, were on the R2 buses still coming down from the night before and arrived looking for kinship and communion. There was plenty of that at Elland Road in 1989/90 and the hordes of beatific youths in bleached denim, flares, parallels, dungarees and beanie hats were feeding off blissful nights out and a football club they could be proud of again. The holy triumvirate of juvenescent wellbeing; football, music and socialising, combined perfectly and it was an unforgettable time to be a Leeds United fan.

Fences

The West Stand fences were removed in time for the 1989/90 promotion season. And with Leeds United ushering in a new era of trust and general, positive inclusiveness which was heading for warp-speed, the South Stand fences were also removed in time for the 1990/91 season when it was transformed into a fully-seated family stand. But the Kop fences remained in place (though minus the spikes so that escape was marginally easier) until the start of the 1991/92 title-winning season.

These were removed following a 12-month period of consultation and monitoring involving safety teams, emergency services and the police. The move was finally granted based on the good conduct of the fans in the Kop during the 1990/91 campaign. At the same time that this was announced, the club also informed fans in the Lowfields that their conduct could result in those fences coming down. However, ground development work intervened and the Lowfields fences weren’t fully removed until the East Stand began to take shape during the 1992/93 season.

Today, images of fencing at football grounds represent the barbaric conditions which football fans had to simply accept. They were one of a number of all-encompassing measures through which every fan was uniformly judged and sentenced. Looking back at how widespread violence was at Elland Road and how dramatically different the football-watching experience was for ‘normal’ fans, it is difficult to see how panic-ridden and despairing authorities could have acted any differently, however extreme the fences seem now. In this sense, the fences were a perfect metaphor for how life was in the political minefield of the late 1970s and 1980s, and their absence since also, perhaps, mirrors how society and attitudes have evolved?

This is an extract from Jon Howe's new book 'The Only Place For Us - An A-Z History Of Elland Road'

Follow Jon @jonhowe1971