The Day Leeds United's Elland Road Truly Descended Into Pantomime

Silly season.
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Silly season.


“Leeds and Liverpool are still deadlocked at 0-0 here at a packed Elland Road. Clarke to Jones. Jones shimmies past Tommy Smith and lays the ball off to Giles. Giles in characteristic fashion gazes round the field for options and passes squarely to Bremner. A challenge comes in from Emlyn Hughes which Bremner rides, before passing the ball to…..oh my goodness…’s a pantomime horse.”

Of all the unruly events that have held up play at Elland Road over the years, certainly the most bizarre and the most covertly planned and expertly executed, occurred on October 20th 1973 in a Division One match against Liverpool. During Leeds’ 1-0 victory through a Mick Jones effort in front of 44,911 on their way to winning the title, the pitch was invaded by a pantomime horse.

With comic brilliance the horse trotted nonchalantly on to the pitch and was pursued by two policemen, helmets dislodged to add to the Benny Hill artistry, prior to an unceremonious detainment amid a tangle of arms and legs, and before the confused gaze of some of the countries most expensive footballers.

Some pitch invasions are a spontaneous reaction to certain on-field events but this was an orchestrated encroachment many weeks in the making; a furtive and strategic intrusion that required a level of underground design not seen since ‘The Great Escape’.

One of the group involved in the famous incident was Nick Hammond, a season ticket holder of many years until 2013, who has recently moved to Cornwall. “At the age of ten,” Nick begins “my best friend's father, a season ticket holding Scot, encouraged two football playing youngsters to accompany him in his car to Elland Road. He left us outside the ‘boys’ pen’ with strict instructions to watch the game from its relative safety in the bottom corner of the old Kop. Exiting some two hours later, but five minutes before the end of the game to ‘miss the traffic’, after a 6-1 home win. I was hooked.

“Fast forward eight years and I gained a place at Sheffield University. Almost immediately I became embroiled in the Rag Week events. Each year there was an attempt to attract publicity to the Rag Week by creating some unusual stunt which might make the local press. Over beers one evening, a plan was formulated to kidnap a pantomime horse from the foyer of the local theatre.

“After several more beers this had exploded into a much bigger idea relating to the horse and any sporting event that would be televised. We looked at the football fixtures and the nearest match that was bound to be televised was The Mighty Whites versus Liverpool at Elland Road. I was therefore put in charge of the strategy for the stunt. We abandoned the kidnapping as one member of the group was involved in the Uni Dramatic Society and he was certain that they had a pantomime horse costume which could be borrowed.

“We decided that the best place to attempt to enter the pitch was opposite the TV cameras, which then, as now, were in the West Stand. We obviously needed to be right at the front of the terracing and midway between where the stewards sat. In those days there were far fewer stewards and they sat facing the pitch so that they could watch the game, there was never any trouble in the Lowfields Road terracing. But we needed to be there early in order to claim the front row. The other major issue was how to get the horse into the ground without attracting suspicion. Some bright spark came up with the idea of bedecking the head of the horse in blue, yellow and white and stating that it was our mascot for the day.

“The next day, Friday, we reconvened over lunchtime beers, the horse costume had been procured and I brought in all my LUFC paraphernalia; rosettes, scarves, a wooden rattle.... A minibus was hired from the University and a time of 9.30 for setting off was agreed. Eventually we left the Union Bar to rehearse the entry onto the pitch. This was achieved using a four foot high brick wall outside, it appeared easier for the two halves to go over separately and join once over, however we realised that the stewards could interrupt the half horses’ progress before they had become one. It was therefore planned that two of the group would go to both the nearest stewards and distract them by some means or other, so their attention was diverted from the area between them.

“We set off from Sheffield the next morning, Saturday October 20th 1973. The minibus was full, a total of 15 people. We had all the necessary equipment, the horse costume bedecked in LUFC colours and a banner saying ‘Sheffield Rag Week 1973’ and arrived at Elland Road about 11.00. We immediately joined a queue at the turnstile on Lowfields Road for the main terracing. The gates opened about 12.30, the man behind the turnstile enquired as to why we were carrying a horse's head, but was reassured that it was simply a mascot to be placed on the wall at the front of the terracing, ‘Fine, but don't throw it at anyone, those teeth look nasty!’ After entering the ground we legged it as fast as possible up the banking and down the terracing and got to the front. We stood in two rows to ensure that no urchins got in front of us because they couldn't see over our heads.

“We'd decided that we'd wait until about 15 minutes into the game and then stage the invasion. Three o'clock arrived, as usual Billy won the toss and chose to play towards the Scratching Shed. There was a good crowd of over 40,000, we were leading the division and Liverpool were mid-table, but both team-sheets read like the stars that they were, Harvey, McQueen, Hunter, Lorimer, Clake, Jones vs Clemence, Smith, Lloyd, Hughes, Keegan, Highway, Toshack.

“As 3.15 approached we created a semi-circle round the two starring lads, they donned the back half and the front half, we removed the head from the terrace wall. The two distracters started shouting to their stewards some rubbish or other and we lifted the two halves over the wall. We'd started doing this when the play was very close to us, however, in the 30 seconds that elapsed to get them over the wall and the head in place the play had moved to the other end of the pitch. It was too late to abandon the attempt, so the horse ploughed onto the field. It got about 10 yards on and started to run around in circles before anyone in authority noticed. Then the stewards realised there was an equine invasion and about four of them ran onto the field and apprehended the horse. It seemed to be over almost before it had begun, the linesman signaled to the referee and the game was briefly brought to a halt whilst the horse was removed to the side of the pitch. I don't think any of the players actually saw what had happened, there was certainly no reaction from them.

panto horse 2 - Horse

“As we'd expected, the two incumbents and the head were marched round in front of the Kop towards the north west corner. When they were about a third of the way round there started a murmur from the back of the Kop that became louder and louder, ‘My Horse, My Horse, I Was Saying Goodbye to my Horse, and as I was saying Goodbye to my Horse I was Saying Goodbye to my Horse.’ Repeated ad nauseum for the rest of the afternoon.

“The remainder of us then watched the rest of the game. After the match we went round to the outside of the north west corner and enquired as to the whereabouts of the two’ hooligans’ that had invaded the pitch. The police told us that they had been released, but were being interviewed by national news reporters. We asked that a message be passed onto them that we'd be waiting in the Peacock.

“About 6 o'clock they turned up in the bar, still with the horse. We had a couple more beers and heard that they'd been treated very well. The stewards told them off with smiles on their faces, police warned them not to try it again and then they'd been held until after the game so that the reporters could interview them. Mission accomplished we headed back to Sheffield. Unfortunately, as it's over 40 years ago I can't remember any of the names of the people involved. I know we made it into the YEP, the Sheffield Star and I think one or two national papers. It was certainly classed as one of the more successful Rag week stunts.”

The Kop’s spontaneous rendition of the traditional navy song of the time ‘Saying Goodbye to My Horse’ (to the tune of ‘Bless Them All’), as the four-legged captive was forlornly lead away, remained a staple ingredient of the Leeds fans’ repertoire for some time afterwards, often sung to the backdrop of bemused fans who had no idea of the relevance or origins of the song. Even considering some of the strikers Leeds United employed in their recent three-year League One tenure, whether this episode in Elland Road’s history will ever be bettered for sheer slapstick genius is open to question.

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