I was desperate to watch my local football team, Aston Villa play live, but my parents wouldn’t let me because in the mid-70s, football grounds in England attracted drunken hooligans looking for a fight with the opposition fans, the police or anyone who got in their way.
By the time I had started high school, my friends and I began sneaking off to Villa Park to watch games without our parents knowing. This stadium was only a short bus ride away followed by a 15-minute walk; and in those days, tickets were only about £1 each.
My friends and I used to meet near the back of the Holte End, which at the time was the largest single stand in British football grounds. We had to make sure we got there early enough, so that no-one else took our spot, which was right behind an upper exit meaning we had a clear view of the whole field.
I loved singing, swearing and cheering with the fans. When our team scored, we went berserk jumping up and down, hugging each other or punching the air. And if we moved to the side, we could join a crowd surge that could carry us 20 or 30 meters down the terrace if I could stop myself from falling and being trampled on!
On Saturday 9 October in 1976, the Scottish Champions, Glasgow Rangers, were coming to Birmingham for a friendly game against the Villa. It was going to sell out because Scottish teams didn’t get to play English teams that often: it was 90 years since these great clubs had last played each other. My friends and I were 12 years old by then and knew it would be a great atmosphere, so had to get tickets.
On the morning of the game, scores of tartan-clad Rangers fans arrived on the overnight sleeper train from Glasgow, which itself was delayed because of trouble at Wigan, when some fans worse for drink were thrown off. And the supporters’ coaches arrived nine hours before the game, so all the inebriated fans went on a rampage through the city centre smashing shop windows and terrorising hundreds of people causing public transport to be halted for thousands.
Four hours before the kick-off, two teenage Rangers fans had already appeared in Birmingham Magistrates Court and were fined for using threatening words and behaviour.
The police ushered thousands of Rangers supporters into the away end of the ground early to get them off the streets; however, once inside, the fans ran across the field into the empty Holte End.
My friends and I arrived at Villa Park on time, but the police shepherded us to the away end. From the other side of the stadium, we watched drunken Rangers fans causing trouble in our home end but were far enough away to remain safe.
The atmosphere was electric when the teams came onto the field. The game kicked off and Villa started well. After only ten minutes, we were jumping up and down as our captain Dennis Mortimer scored. The Rangers fans went quiet but then started throwing stones and bottles around.
Soon after the players had left the field for their half-time break, wasted Rangers fans at the back of the stand surged forwards causing hundreds of supporters behind the goal to spill onto the pitch. The police and stewards worked hard: they had to get the Rangers fans back on the terraces, while organising for the injured ones to be carried away on stretchers.
My parents were at home listening to all the news stories coming in about the trouble and were probably congratulating themselves on their strict policy of not letting me go to watch football matches. They thought I was safe, playing at a friend’s house.
Back at the stadium, when second half finally began, Villa continued to attack, and after about seven minutes, Frank Carrodus scored to put us 2-0 up in front of the Rangers fans.
That was the turning point: another big crowd surge from the back propagated down the terrace causing hundreds of fans at the front to spill through the cordon of stewards and police onto the pitch, where violent battles broke out.
The ref and players ran for their lives towards the safety of the tunnel. The Rangers fans came charging across the field towards us Villa fans in the away end. I was surrounded by adults grabbing their children and by old-age pensioners scrambling towards the exits. However, cries for help revealed that we were all trapped because the exit gates were locked.
Eventually police used their emergency powers to open them, and I heard a loudspeaker ordering us to leave the stadium and move away from the vicinity. As thousands of Villa fans of all ages rushed to escape, I was separated from my friends.
Once through the gate, I didn’t look back and ran as fast as I could away from the stadium. There were paralytic Rangers fans coming from all directions. It was total mayhem. I saw mounted police chasing troublemakers down a dead-end street, who threw beer glasses and bottles back at them.
I paused for breath about 100 metres before my bus stop. I had outrun the Rangers fans but was still shaking. I needed to cross the main road, so went down some steps into an underpass, but halfway across, noticed two teenage Rangers fans running towards me. I turned to go back, but it was too late, and they grabbed me.
The taller boy demanded in a thick Glaswegian accent, ‘Give me your scarf, you little shit.’
I froze, not able to think straight. The other boy pulled a knife from his pocket. I burst into tears. He swung back his arm that was holding the knife. I quickly removed my scarf and shoved it at the knife to prevent it from striking me. This unbalanced them enough for me to squeeze past and run.
I flew up the stairs on the opposite side and then looked back. I saw one had tripped and fallen on the first step but the other was right behind me. I turned right onto the street and sprinted. He wasn’t going to catch me because I was too fast, and he was too drunk, but I didn’t stop running until I reached the pub just before my bus stop.
I knew they wouldn’t follow me in because it was full of Villa fans. I frantically looked around the packed rooms for someone I recognised, until I finally found an older boy I vaguely knew from my school. I told him what had happened, and he rang my parents to tell them where I was.
They drove out and collected me from the pub. On the way home, I wasn’t punished, it was more of an ‘I told you so’ talk, and ‘you were lucky to get out of there alive!’
Later, I found out that 70 fans were injured at the match with 35 needing hospital treatment, and that the two fans stabbed in the melee were ironically both Rangers fans who were wearing Villa scarfs they had stolen!
You would think this would put me off going to any more football games, but it had the opposite effect. I knew if I could survive that, I could survive any game. I was hooked on the adrenaline rush, so went back to more games … many more games.