When fans pitched in and saved Derby’s day

Policing at football has come a long way since the time that ANTON RIPPON gave expert evidence on a game where the outcome was decided by the hooligans

It was the final day of the 1982-83 season and the equation was simple: Fulham needed victory at Derby to stand any chance of winning promotion to the First Division; Derby needed all the points to be sure of avoiding relegation to the Third.

And I was writing a book about, among other things, the hooligan crisis facing football. I’d chosen this game to study police tactics.

On the morning of the match, I was invited to attend the senior officers’ briefing at Derby’s main police station. The aim was clear: to protect Fulham supporters. Given what was at stake for both clubs, and Derby fans’ long-established tradition of invading the pitch at the end of the last home game of the season, it was fraught with additional problems.

So the briefing, headed by Chief Superintendent Jack Watson, was quite clear. A pitch invasion was inevitable; fans would swarm over the Baseball Ground fences. And as the police would be powerless to prevent them, the best thing to do would be to unlock the fencing gates at the final whistle, let the home fans on to the playing area to cheer off their heroes, and deploy men, dogs and horses around the Fulham enclosure, thus protecting visiting supporters.

Twenty minutes before kick-off, I walked around the pitch with Chief Superintendent Watson. The mood was tense. At the start of the year, Derby, with only two wins, had been given up for dead. Then the returning Peter Taylor had overseen an astonishing 15-match unbeaten run before two defeats brought back memories of the season’s darker days. In the meantime, Malcolm Macdonald’s Fulham had never been out of the top three until slipping up in the final month of the season.

Watson took me over to the fencing on the Baseball Ground’s Pop Side, where rival fans were segregated. He was right: the fencing wasn’t high enough. Police and stewards could have thwarted the odd pitch invader. But if two or three thousand decided to go over the top, then there was nothing to do done to stop them.

At half-time, the game stood goalless, the tension among the 21,124 crowd even greater. The referee, Ray Chadwick, a newsagent from Darwen in Lancashire, came into the little police office to complain that not only was the linesman on the Pop Side covered in spit, he had also been struck by a salt cellar thrown from the home crowd.

There were 14 minutes remaining when Bobby Davison put Derby ahead with a brilliant goal. With 12 minutes to play, home fans began to climb over the fences. That was when the order was given: “Open the gates.”

Within seconds, one complete side of the Baseball Ground had spectators pushed right up to the touchline. This vital football match was becoming a farce. The linesman on that side had to run up and down actually on the pitch, and there was no way that a player could safely take a throw-in. Indeed, the touchline itself had disappeared under thousands of feet that encroached well into the playing area. On at least two occasions, a home supporter tripped a Fulham player.

There was less than two minutes to play when Chadwick gave a long blast on his whistle. To the crowd, and probably to the players, it signalled the end of the game and several thousand spectators now poured on to the pitch. Players and officials struggled to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, although not before Fulham’s Robert Wilson had been kicked by a spectator.

I sat in the police box on the touchline and watched in utter amazement. Then came news from the referee’s room. He had whistled for offside. There were still 78 seconds to play. After about 15 minutes, however, it was obvious that it would be impossible to clear the pitch and play out the remaining time. Chadwick announced that he had abandoned the game.

That night I wrote a piece for The Guardian, relating these events, asking why the fencing gates had been opened so long before the end, wondering why the referee hadn’t taken the players off as soon as the touchline disappeared, and sympathising with the visitors:

“The Fulham manager, Malcolm Macdonald, was justified in saying, never mind the missing 78 seconds – what about the 10 minutes before that when his players were intimidated and afforded no protection?”

A few days after the piece appeared, Macdonald rang me. Fulham wanted the game replayed. Would I give evidence as a “professional observer”? Other results that day had gone Derby’s way, so I didn’t face the dilemma of again exposing my dear Rams to the threat of Third Division football. Quite what I would have done if Derby had still been in danger of going down, I don’t know to this day. But my overriding feeling was that Fulham had been ill-served. No footballers, never mind members of an away team, should have had to operate in conditions like that. I said: “Yes.”

Macdonald came up to Derby to see me. He brought with him his brother, Neil, a solicitor, who took my statement. The appeal was due to be held at Lytham St Annes, a few days after the FA Cup Final between Brighton and Manchester United. When that ended in a 2-2 draw, Fulham’s hearing was switched to FA headquarters at Lancaster Gate, on the Thursday after the Cup Final replay.

I met the Fulham manager and his brother that morning, at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, before we took a cab to a solicitor’s office where I swore an affidavit. Then it was on to Lancaster Gate and a boring morning that went on well into the afternoon as I sat in a stuffy ante-room with other witnesses including Chief Superintendent Watson, referee Chadwick and the Derby County secretary, Michael Dunford.

Eventually, at about 4 o’clock, I was called in. The panel consisted of FA chairman, Bert Millichip and representatives of the county FAs. The room was hot and airless, and in one corner a large television was still showing a silent version of the final minutes of the Derby-Fulham match.

Malcolm Macdonald seemed to fancy himself as Rumpole of the Bailey.

“You are Anton Rippon?” he asked. I said that I was.

“And you are a journalist and have written 20 books on football?”

Before I could answer, Millichip (whose knighthood was still years away) intervened: “I don’t think that we are concerned with how many books Mr Rippon has read…”

Macdonald tried to put him right, but Millichip wasn’t having any of it.

My evidence wasn’t much use, anyway. Fulham were clutching at straws. We all knew there was no way that the game was going to be replayed.

All except Malcolm Macdonald, that is. He seemed supremely confident. His argument was sound, so far as it went. He produced at least one example where a club had scored twice in the last 78 seconds to turn a losing scoreline into a winning one. But the counter-argument was that it would be impossible to recreate the conditions of that final Saturday of the season. For one thing, Derby now knew that they were safe.

As we waited for the verdict, Macdonald was already making plans. Fulham’s nearest rivals, Leicester, had only managed to draw their last match. The Cottagers would win the restaged Derby game and go up along with QPR and Wolves.

He looked genuinely devastated when the inevitable pronouncement came, and he saw it as a triumph of expediency over principle, and a victory for hooliganism. In that last point, I think that he was probably right.

Read Anton Rippon’s latest column in the Derby Evening Telegraph by clicking here

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