British Football Disasters

Time and time again, old stadiums, inadequate safety proceedures and policing have led to disasters at British football grounds, time and again the fans get the blame.

Bolton 1946

On 9 March 1946 Bolton Wanderers were hosting Stoke City in the second-leg of a Football Association Cup Sixth Round tie. Shortly before the 3.00pm kick-off, a section of the densely packed crowd on the terraces in the north west corner of Burnden Park swayed uncontrollably, two crush barriers collapsed and many spectators fell forward on top of those in front of them. Under the pile of humanity, thirty three people asphyxiated and around them hundreds of others were injured.

After enquiries and hostile media reports the fans got blamed, particularly as many had gained entry illegaly. However...

The stadium had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Supply during the war the Burnden Stand as storage space during the War and the facility had not yet been returned to its normal usage. The Stand with its 2,789 seats was not available for spectators. Secondly the turnstiles at the east end of the Railway Embankment which adjoined that stand had been closed since 1940. Thus all the 28,000+ Embankment spectators had to enter from the Manchester Road (west) end. Thirdly, the 9,000 who held tickets to the paddock in front of the Burnden Stand had to be admitted through the entrances to the Main Stand paddock and then escorted by police around the north end of the playing surface to their assigned area. They were thus using entrances immediately adjacent to the turnstiles admitting the Embankment spectators. The combination of a bigger than expected crowd, and the numbers obliged to come in at the north-west corner led to acute congestion inside the ground and outside where much of the space between the turnstiles and the main road was used as a car park. Ultimately, the turnstiles in this area were closed. Subsequent to that action, an undetermined number of spectators gained improper entry by one of three means. Some simply climbed over the turnstiles, others climbed up onto the railway line atop the embankment and broke into the ground by removing sections of fencing, and yet others entered by way of an exit gate opened from the inside by a spectator seeking escape for himself and his son from the intensifying crush.

The authorities hadn't been prepared, despite the post war boom interest in football. On 13 February a record crowd of 51,612 included "hundreds sitting on the roof of a shelter behind one of the goals" at Burnden Park. Add to this the fact that this was a FA cup quarter final and the fact that a certain Stanley Mathews was playing for Stoke should have led to better preperation from the authorities... it didn't and the pattern was to be tragically repeated.

Ibrox 1971

Glasgow 1971

January 2nd 1971, at the Old Firm game, Rangers v Celtic at Ibrox, a goal celebration on the East terrace staircase end in tragedy.

The crowd surged forward on the steps. Some fans stumbled and fell down the steps, another surge and the steel barriers collapsed sending row upon row of supporters falling on top of one another. Those underneath who'd fallen were crushed to death.A total of 66 people lost their lives and more than 140 lay injured. It wasn't the first time. Two fans had died previously on the same staircase.

Eye-witness John Dawson was among the injured. "When the barrier gave way I was carried along a passageway for 20 yards with three people on top of me and at least three underneath."

Another survivor of Staircase 13, Robert Black, recalls, "There was so much pressure from behind me that I was tossed down on top of others. People were on the ground and I was tossed over them. I was just carried forward by the surge."

The Safety at Sports Grounds Act followed in 1975, leading to compulsory licensing of grounds. However most of the recommendations were voluntary. Most were voluntarily ignoredů

Bradford 1985

On Saturday 11 May 1985, as Bradford City Football Club captured the Third Division title a devastating fire engulfed the Main Stand at their Valley Parade ground killing 56 supporters.

Valley Parade 1985

Late in the first half smoke was spotted in the old stand and the fire brigade called. Evacuations began within four minutes and the match abandoned. Over 11,000 fans then witnessed within minutes the entire stand go up in flames.

The cause of the fire was put down to the accidental dropping of a match or cigarette stubbed out in a polystyrene cup, reminiscent of the tube disaster in London, where old wooden structures, rubbish and dust burnt very rapidly.

Mr Justice Popplewell's Official Enquiry report was supposed to bring about new legislation governing safety at the nation's sports grounds and stadia, especially lower divisions' antiquated wooden stands that had been in use for decades. He also stated that, "The importance of allowing full access to the pitch where this is likely to be used as a place of safety in an emergency should be made plain." A recommendation clearly ignored by the authorities as was to be so tragically exposed four years later at Hillsborough...

Exeter 1999 Close Shave

It should have been their proudest day for seven years. Instead, Aldershot Town supporters who attended Saturday's FA Cup second round tie at Exeter have been left with bitter and frightening memories. Bitterness at being treated like second-class fans and alarm that they were only moments away from a tragedy of Hillsborough proportions at the start of the game.

As the exit gates on the away terrace bulged under the pressure of bodies and briefly gave way, men feared for their lives, while women and children were passed forward to avoid the crush. Elderly supporters wept in fright and shock as they realised how close they had come to serious injury, even death.

When the smoke from flares had dissipated into the Devon air and their side had lost what, by the, had become a meaningless game, they found the finger of guilt pointing their way. 'I believe we were a whisker away from a disaster,' said Barry Underwood, president of the Aldershot Supporters Club, who took his 11-year-old son Matthew onto the terrace. He was the club's safety representative during their Football League days.

'I was on one of the supporters club coaches which arrived outside St James' Park at 2.15pm. We joined the queue which was already about 70 yards long and four deep. There were people 10 or 20 yards further in who were pointing to stewards and waving their arms to indicate the place was full up and they shouldn't let any more fans in. At about 10 to three, the stewards saw sense and shut the turnstiles, but there was a lot of concern among the fans. When the teams ran out, people couldn't believe it because we assumed the kick-off would be delayed. Our worst fears were confirmed when the whistle went for the kick-off. That's when people outside panicked about having not gained entry. I could see from my position that the exit gate was being pushed from the outside and was buckling in. There was one person, maybe a steward, trying to hold them. The gates gave and about a dozen people burst through them. I thought it was curtains. I knew that there was a substantial queue of people still outside and if they had followed we would have been flattened. Thankfully the others didn't follow them in. The old people and children were terrified because they were being pushed. If someone had fallen they would have been trampled. Our reaction was to shout to the kids "Get on the pitch." I was concerned for my son and managed to get him onto the pitchside. Then somebody released a flare. It was obviously a stupid thing to do. It landed in the face of someone standing next to me and fell to the floor. It caused a lot of smoke which caused a lot more panic and confusion.

Once my son was on the pitch, I quickly got out and went with him. The terrace was packed. Once we got onto the pitch perimeter, we walked to the terracing at the far end, but my son didn't want to go in there. He was in tears. He'd had enough and said: "I'm not going in there." So we stood next to the seats at the end. The match was secondary by then. The first half passed in a blur. We knew in out hearts that football wasn't the main factor in the day. We had come very close to something very nasty. How were we to know when those 12 people burst through the exit gates that there weren't several hundred trying to follow them?' The supporters who spilled onto the pitchside pleaded with referee Clive Wilkes and Aldershot players to halt the game. Wilkes eventually led the players off and suspended the game. Aldershot chairman Karl Prentice had been able to see the situation developing from his seat in the grandstand and alerted home directors. Prentice said: 'The Exeter chairman said kick-off couldn't be delayed but agreed to take me down to the referee's room. The referee said he had received no report from the police or the safety officer, so he would start on time. We had told the Exter people on several occasions that we would be bringing a minimum of 1,500, so why were our supporters, who had arrived early, still queuing at 3 o'clock?'

The police reported no arrests in the ground and only three in Exeter city centre before the game.

The police say the queues outside the ground were behaved and arrived early - a different view from that of Exeter secretary Stuart Brailey, who blamed away fans for the chaos.

'A lot of Aldershot fans turned up in the last 15 minutes having been kicked out of pubs in the town. As soon as he blew the whistle, people outside decided they wanted to climb over the fences so they didn't miss anything. It was the influx of the last-minute fans that created a bottleneck behind the turnstiles and caused the problem. There was plenty of room for Aldershot supporters. The whole thing was blown out of proportion.'

If Brailey's words cause anger in Aldershot, think about the anxiety of Everton supporters - the next visitors to Exeter in the FA Cup. The football fans of Merseyside know all about tragedy.

Daily Mail, Tuesday November 23 1999.