Luton Town vs Millwall: Remembering The Night That Changed Football Forever

English football now is unrecognisable compared to the three decades ago. Hooliganism has been largely banished from our stadia - and looking back at the Luton Riot shows just how far we've come...
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English football now is unrecognisable compared to the three decades ago. Hooliganism has been largely banished from our stadia - and looking back at the Luton Riot shows just how far we've come...

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It was a cup draw that prompted almost immediate reaction on Twitter from the most unlikely of sources including Piers Morgan and Monty Panesar. Luton Town have played Millwall twenty-seven times since March 13 1985, including an FA Cup tie, and yet you can’t utter the words ‘Luton’ and ‘Millwall’ together without conjuring up images of rampaging hordes chasing policemen across a football pitch beneath a torrent of orange plastic seats.

That night has now become almost singularly synonymous with eighties football hooliganism, even though it was just one of a number of incidents in the spring of 1985 alone where English football seemed hell bent on destroying itself.

It proved to be a watershed, a tipping point where the national game’s problems spilled over into the political arena and became part of a nationwide agenda for addressing social unrest. It also represented a useful tool for the then government to use to garner public support which was slipping fast in a mid-term crisis.

It’s amazing how many experts there are on football hooliganism, past and present, and equally intriguing how many base that expertise on sound bites and video clips from incidents like the one at Kenilworth Road in 1985. If you need filling in, here’s a bit of background for you:

The 1985 FA Cup campaign had been disrupted by a combination of replays and a big freeze. In an era where penalty shoot outs were reserved for World Cups and European competition, second, third and even fourth replays were commonplace to settle stalemate ties. Third round matches were being played the same night as fourth round replays and Millwall were forced to wait for the outcome of the Luton v Watford fifth round match before knowing where they would be travelling for their quarter final.

With crowd control very much at the top of the agenda for almost all matches at that time, Millwall made enquiries to both clubs about ticketing and visiting fan allocation arrangements. Watford agreed that the match would be strictly all ticket; Luton decided it would be open house. The Bedfordshire club won the tie and the blue touch paper was lit.

The overriding factor and the trigger for trouble that night was the sheer weight of numbers of travelling fans arriving in the town as early as 4:30pm. Quickly the Police realised to their horror that they had grossly underestimated just how many fans would make the short trip.

Naivety beyond belief when you consider that, because the game was not all ticket, many of those estimated 10,000 visiting fans may well have decided last minute after a few afternoon pints to make the trip, a decision not open to them had a ticket been required, and one which swelled their number way beyond the management of the Bedfordshire Constabulary’s resources who numbered just 200 on duty. Coupled with that was the fact that this was the only match played that night, freeing up fans from a host of other clubs to join the jolly to Kenilworth Road.

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Probably the biggest misconception about ‘The Luton Riot’, is that it wasn’t actually a riot, in fact not even a sporadic outburst of organised violence, until long after the match had ended.

As Police lost control of the situation, more and more fans tried to squeeze into the away terrace. It was quickly evident that 10,000 bodies into a maximum 7,000 capacity space wasn’t going to work and the dam broke. Turnstiles were forced and the small concrete space quickly filled to its high metal fenced limit.

Millwall fan Steve Nixon was at Kenilworth Road that night and remembers the point at which it all started to go wrong: “That night at Luton was similar to events at Hillsborough, where so many people were crushed into one end.” Steve recalls. “One bloke climbed over the fence to get a St John Ambulance man from the other end of the pitch because his mate was being crushed, then someone else followed him and everyone did it. The Police lost control and once they’d lost control they were never going to regain control.”

In an attempt to stem the flow of fans onto the pitch, the Police tried to round them up and condense them into the nearest available area – which happened to be adjacent home supporter seating. In all fairness to the Police, it was achieved with relative success (but would prove to backfire on them horribly after the match). Police were instructing fans caught in the crush to scale the perimeter fence in order to be re-located. It was a very tenuous Plan B. Sufficient order was restored for the game to start, albeit in a tourniquet-tight atmosphere, a red hot powder keg ready to explode.

Meanwhile crowd control progress outside the ground was not going so well. Fans were still pouring in to the now unmanned entrances and slowly the problem of crushing was building once more and resulting in a steady flow of fans either sat atop the fence or on the touchline. By the sixteenth minute they had encroached to such an extent that referee David Hutchinson, himself a police inspector, instructed the players to leave the pitch, leaving officers to spend the next 25 minutes securing the away stand entrance and settling fans once more.

So was it a Hillsborough-style crush more than a riot?

Broadcaster and Millwall support Danny Baker was also there: “Most people, even if they don’t follow football at all, have deep opinions about football and its supporters. They’ll say: ‘they’re just apologists’, but football is easily controlled. There’s no such thing as organised football violence, it’s disorganised. If it was organised the police would sort it out like that and do most weeks. But when it breaks down and someone like Luton were too mean to get the police in because they wanted to grab every shilling they could out of an important cup tie, they estimated Millwall would bring about 3,000 supporters – they turned up with 10,000. Then they threw their hands up.”

It was still around 50 minutes after the final whistle sounded to confirm Luton’s 1-0 victory before things really turned nasty. However, the way the match footage was edited at the time gave the impression that the end of the game immediately sparked the now infamous scenes.

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Many of the Millwall fans who had been re-housed in the grandstand were being kept behind in the stadium while the home fans departed. Deciding to affect their own exit, they began using their seats as weapons as a pitch battle with the police began and raged long into the night, spilling out into the streets and an orgy of violence and destruction resulting in thousands of pounds of damage and injury to bystanders and police officers. It was, without any mitigation, a horrible night for football, for Luton FC and for Millwall FC.

The legacy of that night wasn’t just away fan bans, all ticket sanctions and membership only schemes.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was angered that the events at Luton had stolen the headlines from her meeting with Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev. It was also pounced upon by opposition leader Neil Kinnock. His party felt it was a result of the Government’s policies and unemployment. With the Miners’ Strike already cutting deeply into Conservative popularity, coupled with the familiar mid-term crisis that most administrations suffer, Thatcher found herself in a similar quandary to that of her first term when the Tories appeared to be heading out of office a year before the country voted. In 1982, the Falklands Conflict saved her. In 1985 she needed another Falklands, maybe now she had it.

Chairing a “Soccer War Cabinet”, she vowed to take on the football hooligans as well as the striking miners and win, as only she knew how. Whether it helped push her party to its 1987 landslide election victory is probably pushing it a bit, but it proved to be a useful crusade to lead her party out of the doldrums.

The fallout was one of the bleakest ever periods for football fans. Luton carried out their threat to ban visiting fans. Across the country, matches were now categorised, with the ones seen as ‘high risk’ placed under tight scrutiny making it harder for fans to attend and producing crippling policing bills for the clubs. In fact police forces now had a major say in football match administration.

As Baker explains: “Football is a useful thing for newspapers and politicians, ‘political football’ is no mean phrase here, ‘law and order, control these football supporters’ – the football supporters were the sons and daughters of the people buying the papers but they didn’t recognise it as that because there was this cartoon image of a football supporter”.

I’d like to think that the most high profile meeting between these two teams since 1985 is an opportunity not only for football to show how it has changed in the last 28 years but the media too. Guaranteeing that the match will pass trouble-free is risky, it’s up there with Michael Fish dispelling rumours of a hurricane, but I’d be happy to stick my neck out and say that it will.

We’ve all come a long way since March 1985.