Forty years of London football

I wrote this in 2008, for Time Out’s excellent 40th anniversary compendium, London Calling.

It’s 1991, and after queuing for an hour to get in, and then waiting another hour for the match to begin, I’m starting to wonder if it was the effort and £8 entrance fee; Chelsea are losing 2-1 to Wimbledon at Plough Lane, the latter’s cramped, tumbledown stadium near Wimbledon dog track. The view from the away terrace is terrible, you can barely make out the top of the crossbar in the goalmouth beneath you, but as Chelsea’s Gordon Durie turns and scores, the surge from the celebrating fans pushes me down the terrace and twirls me back to front. My leg catches on the vertical support of a crush barrier and twists round, creating a huge purple bruise that I proudly show at school on Monday.

Abruptly, the celebrations end. The linesman’s flag is raised. He has disallowed the goal and there’s no big screen action replay to show why. The Wimbledon fans jeer, Chelsea lose, I nurse my wound. Chelsea finish the season 11th; Wimbledon come 6th. Nearly breaking my leg celebrating a disallowed goal is one of the few memorable moments from a dismal season that included a 7-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest.

If you told that story to a 15-year-old supporter from 1968 or one from 2008, it is difficult to guess who would be more surprised. Football has undergone extraordinary changes over the past 40 years, transformations encapsulated by the oscillating fortunes of Chelsea and Wimbledon. In 1968, Chelsea were the most fashionable team in the land: young, vibrant, popular, stylish and successful. Conversely, few knew of Wimbledon, an amateur outfit stuck in the Southern League. Forty years later, and after plenty of ups and downs and a period when Wimbledon habitually outperformed their neighbours, Chelsea are once again one of the biggest clubs in the country. But terraces have gone, Plough Lane has gone – hell, even Wimbledon have gone, a stellar rise through the leagues ending in ignominy when they were split in two, with one ersatz version playing league football in Milton Keynes and the other back in non-league, playing in front of 3,000 in Kingston.

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The only way to really grasp these changes is to look at them chronologically. In 1968, football was riding the crest of the postwar wave and attracting huge crowds. However, two trends were emerging that would distinguish 1960s football from its forebears. The first was the transformation of footballers into celebrities, a result of the abolition of the minimum wage in 1961 and the introduction of regular televised matches. Manchester United’s George Best was the poster boy for football as the new cool, but it was also a role manfully shouldered by King’s Road carouser such as Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke, David Webb and Tommy Baldwin.

The other factor was the appearance of a distinctive youth culture in the later 1950s; teenagers had the freedom and cash to go to games at home and, crucially, away, where bonds were formed and rivalries cemented. In ‘Football Gangs’, a landmark piece published in Time Out  in 1972, Chris Lightbown explained what this meant, as kids claimed the terrace behind each goal as ‘The End’ to be protected from invaders at all costs, vocally and physically.

But football hooliganism was not seen as a major threat: drinking was still allowed on terraces and there was no segregation. But things worsened as the 70s progressed and the fortunes of the four major London clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham – plummeted from 1971, when Arsenal won the Double, Chelsea won the European Cup Winners Cup and Tottenham won the League Cup. Arsenal went missing for much of the decade; Chelsea were relegated, promoted and relegated again as they stumbled towards insolvency; Spurs went down and up; West Ham beat Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup final, then went down and stayed down. In 1975, Queens Park Rangers were London’s highest-placed club; they came 11th. The decline from the high points of the 1960s was manifest.

The backdrop was uglier. Hooliganism, especially – but by no means exclusively – at Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall was destroying the game from the inside, driving away crowds and investment, turning stadiums into barbed wire police states. Hooliganism effected every club, including Arsenal and Spurs, particularly in any London derby or when a big northern club – Manchester United especially – came to London. On the pitch, England failed to qualify for two successive World Cups as the game faced a talent drain despite an extraordinary run in the European Cup that saw English clubs win the trophy seven times in eight seasons between 1976 and 1984, no thanks to London.

The result was an increasingly unpopular national sport. Chelsea’s crowd drained from 40,342 at the start of the decade to 24,782 at the end; the First Division average went from 32,074 to 27,428 in the same period and continued declining into the early 90s. In 1974, Time Out‘s Sports Editor Peter Ball thought he’d spotted the problem: ‘In the last 20 years, football has been taken away from its natural community, commercialised and given the worst trappings of Hollywood by the media. Is it any wonder that the kids, whose dads used to live next door to the local players, feel alienated?’

The upside of this was that it levelled the playing field and allowed smaller clubs to move into the vacuum. Wimbledon joined the football league in 1977 and began a staggering rampage up the tables that saw them in the First Division within a decade. Crystal Palace were dubbed the Team Of The 80s as they briefly topped the First Division in 1980; Watford’s tag team of manager Graham Taylor and chairman Elton John powered into the First Division and reached the FA Cup final in 1984; even Leyton Orient reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1979.

But part of the climate that allowed them to prosper was the stunning primitiveness of the English game. Excluding Liverpool, who ruled the era with Stalinist ruthlessness but considerably more efficiency, English football was tactically and technically sterile. Most teams were built on the model of ten grafters and a crafter – Hoddle at Spurs, Brady at Arsenal, Brooking at West Ham, Wilkins at Chelsea. Peter Ball dissected England’s failure in the 1980 European Championships and came up with some familiar problems: ‘The English game… does not enhance the development of techniques, nor of flair players, who tend to be regarded with suspicion. The history of the English game is littered with names whose vision and skills have failed to tell over the long haul of English seasons, and have, in the end, lapsed into a sullen and possibly embittered disenchantment.”

One way to get round this was to recruit foreign players, which Tottenham did in 1978 when they signed the Argentines Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, a policy that resulted in a couple of FA Cups and introduced the concept that London might be an appealing home for overseas footballers. But for the most part the English league was suffocatingly insular. And often it was plain racist. All the London clubs suffered problems with bigots, but Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall had the worst of them, with the National Front recruiting on the terraces. Whereas West Ham first fielded black players in the 1960s and Millwall in the 1970s, Chelsea did not take the plunge until 1982, and when Paul Cannoville made his debut, a significant proportion of Chelsea fans walked out. It was only under chairman Ken Bates, who had bought the bankrupt club for £1, that a battle to reclaim the club from the racists was staged.

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Chelsea weren’t the only club to suffer financial problems, as property developers began eyeing up the valuable tracts of London occupied by half-empty and decaying stadiums. By 1985, Charlton’s average attendance had dropped to 5,000 and the club could no longer afford to stay in its home ground, the Valley, so moved in with Crystal Palace. Two years later, Fulham and QPR fought a sustained battle against David Bulstrode, a developer who wanted to merge the clubs into Fulham Park Rangers and turn Craven Cottage into flats. Stamford Bridge was threatened by Cabra Estates until Bates secured the freehold against the backdrop of a property crash.

Charlton Athletic: The Valley

The turbulence had a positive effect on supporters, who suddenly began to take a more constructive approach. A fanzine movement sprang up, allowing supporters, previously cast as goose-stepping, baby-eating Neanderthals, to show they had wit, intelligence and creativity, and were prepared to challenge their clubs rather than blindly support them. Fans of clubs like Millwall, who rarely had a good word printed about them in the national press, were suddenly able to counter their tabloid image. By the late 1980s every club had at least one fanzine and most had several, ranging from tatty sheets of photocopied, hand-stapled A4, to epic, glossy tomes that rivaled official programmes in expense and were considerably better value. Sportspages, a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road with hundreds of fanzines strewn across the floor in giddy piles, became a rallying point for supporters in London.

The early days of the fanzine movement even engendered a brief flowering of camaraderie among rival supporters who faced similar issues of over-zealous policing and scheming owners – Arsenal and West Ham fans, for instance would unite to battle ‘bonds’, a sort of long-term season ticket – at least until antagonistic, insular publications such as Manchester United’s Red Issue turned up to revel in their own divisive nastiness, hastening the demise of supporter solidarity and heralding the tedious partisan commentary of many of today’s football bloggers. Nick Brown, editor of the Chelsea Independent, recalls: ‘The early Chelsea Independents, like all fanzines, brought fans back to football and allowed supporters to air their views where otherwise they would have been ignored. The Independent could challenge the club on the serious issues of racism, policing, pricing and ticket arrangements.” At some clubs, enfranchised supporters went a step further. In 1990, Charlton fans formed the Valley Party and secured 11 per cent of the vote in local elections on  a platform of getting the club back to their old home. Charlton returned to the Valley two years later.

The 1980s had been a terrible decade, but the fun was returning to football. With hooliganism in decline and crowds returning, this was a good time to be a football supporter. Huge terraces meant cheap tickets and few games were televised, meaning the 3pm Saturday kick-off still dominated. Grounds were vast, so matches rarely sold out, allowing the promiscuous supporter to pick and choose fixtures on a Saturday morning. In London, you could decide that morning whether you fancied the rough-and-tumble of Leyton Orient, the lower league faded grandeur of Fulham, a vocal work-out at West Ham, or even go and watch some of the best players in the country at Arsenal or Spurs.

The cost of this improved environment had been great. Wooden stands were phased out after an inferno at Bradford killed 56 in 1985; that same year, a riot involving Liverpool fans in the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, caused the deaths of 39 Italians and led to improved policing and serious sentences for hooligans. Perimeter fences came down after 96 caged Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989. Hooligans had not gone away but cameras in grounds and the threat of long prison sentences forced them on to the streets, where the anarchic gangs of the 1970s became quasi-military groups, adopting names like the Bushwhackers and Headhunters as they engaged in pre-arranged meetings away from most normal supporters.

On the pitch, the football was tough, fast and tactically primitive, but it could also be unpredictable and exciting. Wimbledon’s ragtag bunch of hodcarriers and hoofers rough-and-tumbled their way into the First Division, where they terrified the elite and won the FA Cup against Liverpool in 1988 – a formidable achievement for a club with crowds of barely 10,000. Arsenal, scarcely more sophisticated, secured an astonishing league title on goal difference a year later (their first since 1971), when they beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield, with the crucial second goal coming in the last minute of the last game of the season. Stately Spurs enjoyed some success with a team that included the world class talents of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, while inconsistent Chelsea and West Ham continued to switch between the top divisions. Smaller London clubs were also prospering – Millwall, Charlton, QPR and Crystal Palace all playing in the First Division.

As the visible threat of hooliganism receded, attendances rose, boosted by England’s unexpectedly successful World Cup campaign of 1990, headed by Gascoigne and Lineker. Which made Nick Horby’s timing all the more fortuitous. Fever Pitch, his solipsistic account of the trauma of supporting one of the most successful clubs in the country, was an astonishing success, launching football into the arena of the middle classes. Published in 1992, it told the story of Hornby’s life, measured out in Arsenal fixtures, and its acceptance by serious critics marked the first significant step in football’s long march towards gentrification.

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The same critics didn’t have much time for another Arsenal fan, Colin Ward, who, equally significantly and just as unwittingly, had written a eulogy for the old guard three years previously with Steaming In, a fan’s eye view of terrace culture since the early 1970s. My copy was passed around the playground with wonder, like a holy bible of terrace lore, containing numerous alarming and hilarious anecdotes about football fans from this scorned era. Tough and self-confident where Fever Pitch was reserved and self-analytical, Steaming In was the first book written by a former hooligan and remains the only one worth reading. But Ward was already a dinosaur. The Taylor Report, commissioned after the Hillsborough disaster, called for all-seater stadiums, and the great terraced Ends up and down the country were broken up and sold, piece by piece, back to the fans via the club shop. With this, an entire culture was dismantled; an act of social vandalism that changed football’s character forever. Some clubs, like Millwall, took the chance to sell valuable land and move elsewhere. Others, like Wimbledon, couldn’t afford to pay the builders; Wimbledon said farewell to ramshackle Plough Lane and moved in with Crystal Palace.

Football was fashionable. Next came greed. The richest English clubs had long agitated for a ‘super league’, which would essentially see their income ringfenced from the rest of the football league, and in 1992 they got their wish: the Premier League was financed by an astonishing £190m broadcasting deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky that saw an unprecedented 60 fixtures screened live each season. Games would be live on Monday evenings as well as Sundays and several hours would be devoted to each televised fixture. Pundits would even talk about alien concepts like tactics and formations. Inside the ground, fans were treated to entertainment in the form of giant inflatable sumo wrestling and the occasional pop band. Pundits were flabbergasted. Andrew Shields, Time Out‘s Sports Editor, predicted disaster, arguing that an elite league would ‘last two seasons, three at most’ and that fans would refuse to pay ever-increasing ticket prices.

That’s not quite how it worked out.

In fairness, few people anticipated the explosion of interest and wealth that came with the Premier League, as more games were televised each season and clubs’ revenue increased accordingly. Demand began to exceed supply: clubs had to reduce capacity when they converted terracing into seats, but as attendances were rising were able to charge more for entry. With TV revenue also rising, clubs were suddenly rich and could compete with the Italian and Spanish leagues for the best, most exciting players, increasing demand, feeding the whale. The smaller clubs struggled to compete, while others spent rashly to keep up with the giants, now led by Manchester United, a commercial juggernaut masquerading as a football club.

The football-going experience was much changed as ticket prices forced out young and poorer supporters, diluting the atmosphere and deadening the camaraderie. In 1972, Chris Lightbown had said that Chelsea’s Shed ‘sounded like London’s answer to the Kop’, but by 2002 Stamford Bridge was more regularly likened to the nearby cemetery. The same was happening in every Premier League ground but as ever the changes seemed more dramatic at Chelsea. Under Ken Bates, the club charged the highest prices in the country, but the new money paid for superstars such as Marcel Desailly, Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola, who brought unexpected success to the club making them fashionable once more. At Chelsea, as elsewhere, it was hard to get a seat. Tickets were even more expensive on the black market as tourists to London flocked to Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal to experience the famous English atmosphere they had heard and read so much about, but which had now all but vanished.

Arsenal, London’s traditional powerhouse, were also in the ascendancy. French manager Arsene Wenger transformed the culture of this previously most English of clubs, embracing a cosmopolitan recruiting policy and producing teams of mesmeric beauty. That allowed Arsenal, who had attracted barely 18,000 for a game at the start of the 90s, to build a stadium for 60,000 a decade later. The smaller London clubs could not compete. QPR had been runners-up in the First Division in 1976, Watford came second in 1983 and Crystal Palace third in 1991, but those days were over, as the behemoths of English football began to flex their financial muscle.

Wimbledon suffered most of all when the Football League shamefully allowed their owners to move the club wholesale to Milton Keynes. Wimbledon supporters, rightfully outraged and emboldened, promptly formed their own club, AFC Wimbledon, with a policy of fan ownership and an adherence to what were seen as  pre-Premier League proposals.

Modern football’s alternative model to AFC Wimbledon began close by in London. Fulham had started the trend of rich benefactors bankrolling astonishing success when Mohamed Al Fayed bought Fourth Division Fulham in 1997 and had them in the Premier League by 2001. The ante was upped by neighbours Chelsea in 2003, when Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich pounced on a club that had overspent their way to becoming one of the success stories of the Premier League and were in dire need of refinancing. Over five years, Abramovich, said to be worth £11.7b, invested £500m on players, wages and facilities, and Chelsea joined the European elite. If Peter Ball’s ‘kids’ were alienated from players in 1974, they were living on a different planet in 2008, as ticket prices nudge £50, the amount some players earn in five minutes.

Few think such levels of expenditure are healthy and many question whether they are sustainable, as football threatens to become the game that ate itself. Football has faced bigger crises over the past four decades and survived, but the time may come when individuals have to decide what they want for the future of their sport – supporter-owned clubs like AFC Wimbledon, or oligarch-owned ones like what wits now call Chelski FC.

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8 responses to “Forty years of London football

  1. Great stuff.
    There must be a book in there?

  2. I thought ‘Bloody Casuals’ was the first book published about hooliganism?

  3. Strictly speaking, Wimbledon currently play in Norbiton. As one of the founders of the Chelsea Independent, with Nick, Mike Ticher and Mick Allpress, I’d like to send a hello to little Nick and hope he’s ok. I like your analysis. To be fair to the club I support and its fans… first, the atmosphere at the Bridge can be fantastic, as witness the league cup semi recently against Liverpool and some of the big European nights. And I don’t think, though ticket prices are insanely high, that we’re the most expensive club around any more – you certainly pay a lot at Arsenal, Spurs and even West Ham, and my season ticket price has been frozen for much of the past decade. It’s worth pointing out that a little remembered conclusion of the Taylor Report after Hillsborough, which recommended all-seater stadia, was that the upgrading of football grounds this necessitated should not be an excuse for clubs to push up ticket prices beyond the pockets of many existing supporters – unsurprisingly, the clubs and the governing authorities paid no attention to that one.

  4. Aw, shucks.

  5. Pete the Thirst

    Cracking read my boy. As an Arsenal fan I can say the Gooner is teetering on the edge. Mike Francis is still involved almost 30 years later!

  6. Hello Peter! Im fine! Hope you, Mike and Mick are well too! Still paying the silly prices to watch Chelsea these days, tho having a sprog, makes it a little bit cheaper, unfortunately, he’ll be too old for the family section in the next year 🙂

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