“Sealed Knot Society, let’s see you try and do this one: Luton Town – Millwall, 1985.”
Half Man Half Biscuit – Uffington Wassail.
HMHB have a good way with a lyric and eighties hooliganism is the first thing I associated with Kenilworth Road. But I didn’t expect this afternoon’s Conference play-off to attract a serious bout of trouble: it seems that Luton are struggling to come to terms with their own inadequacies – or to deal with the idiot contingent in their own fanbase.
For god’s sake, Esther Rantzen was sat watching from the directors’ box. Who riots in front of former presenters of light entertainment? It’s hardly a Buenos Aires derby.
With so much at stake it’s no suprise that there was a lot of passion around – and a few choice chants were swapped between the fans. Some York fans had been hit by missiles outside the ground before the game. But events took a turn during the second half when Richard Brodie went into a hoarding by the home fans at one of end of the Main Stand – the section nearest the away end. A few fans attempted to get to him before stewards intervened. They had been the most vocal and antagonistic all afternoon.
Towards the end of the match a few from this section tried to charge onto to the pitch but had no luck. There were plenty of police to push back. But while despondent Luton supporters started to leave the rest of the ground this section kept filling up. And they weren’t looking at the pitch.
At the final whistle there are about a dozen police and twenty stewards in the corner. We had been informed that we’d be locked in for our safety – no problem, time to celebrate with the players. We didn’t expect to be celebrating with the players – ie, in the stand and amongst us as everyone took cover.
Because Luton’s dugouts are on the opposite side to the changing rooms. At full-time the players started their celebrations, jumping around with a flag and lapping up the atmosphere. It’s not often that York have much to celebrate but we had twice outplayed the runners-up in the league. It was our moment – and we wanted enjoy it.
The Luton players knew better and legged it off the pitch. From all the home stands came a substantial stream of fans, ambling towards the away end but not posing much of a threat. It obviously wasn’t a celebratory pitch invasion but there was a line of policemen on the 6yd line to keep them away.
Then their numbers swelled. A few pushed the police line. Suddenly they charged, the police braced and resorted to their batons. We York fans were pelted with coins and any other rubbish the Luton fans could find. A few people got nasty cuts from coins. There was a crowd surge as people attempted to clear a large chunk of the stand.
These Luton fans were utter idiots; apart from the real unpleasantness I enjoyed the bloke who attempted to use a programme as a missile. It fluttered down without much impact. A couple of York fans started picking up some of the loose change scattered across the terrace.
Meanwhile our players had jumped over the hoardings and were amongst us – in itself quite a nice ending. But they were in a mixed state of euphoria and fear; to our front were an ever-approaching line of Luton fans and to our back a couple of small exits that we were (rightly) not allowed to use. Not a pleasant sensation. Another rain of coins came in on the players as stewards attempted to find a way of moving them on – our star striker Richard Brodie got hit, though without much damage. Danny Parslow and Ben Purkiss were bright enough to get a move on out of there fast but some were getting lost amongst the celebrations.
Jimmy Sangare, our utterly committed and permanently relaxed centre-back, just grinned. I got the feeling he’d seen much worse.
Sky Sports’ coverage shows our players fleeing under fire
Eventually the stewards decided that they had to do something and worked out a plan. York’s assistant manager Andy Porter, not the sort of bloke you’d want to face in a fight, barked orders and the players scarpered, jackets over heads, around the back of the stand and out of an emergency exit and into the police room – only a few feet from where stewards and police were bracing against another surge by Luton fans.
James Meredith, our brilliant Australian left-back, was slipping over chairs while edging away from the front. He was utterly bemused.
“Guess this is English football?” I ventured.
“Yeah, well they could do with some proper security.”
The York fans were eventually let out onto the sealed-off Oak Road. Most of them were on coaches and didn’t hang around. But as the first minibus made to leave it was met by a large group of Luton fans who proceeded to violently rock it side to side. The driver slammed into reverse and headed back up the road as fast as possible.
I was on my own and approached a policeman.
“Are there any places to avoid on the way back to the railway station?”
Reinforcements and riot police turned up and secured the positions. At which point events became farcical. The Luton fans were outside a hardware shop and started grabbing whatever weapons they could – potted plants, mops amd brooms. So the fans would charge and the police would step back under a hail of bristles and petunia before giving as good as they got. Repeat ad infinitum. Eventually a closedown of the area and a few pushes by riot police cleared the junction. Boredom and the lack of an enemy eventually dispersed the remnants but there were small scuffles elsewhere as the police helicopter circled overhead.
A small, tired looking Asian shopkeeper came out to survey the damage. He had a sad smile on his face as he attempted to rescue what he could while supporters coaches drove over the remnants of £100s of stock.
There’s a load of hypocrisy to the way that the media covers hooliganism: replaying the footage while talking in serious tones about its wrongs, overplaying minor incidents and pretending to be disgusted. This afternoon has made the headlines but amazingly no one seemed to be seriously injured and the worst thing was a few head wounds, some needless destruction and some very tearful kids. The police/stewards were woefully under prepared but reacted well to the situation.
As for Luton? Well, I know that the majority of fans weren’t involved – I’ve got good friends who support Luton and once had a long chat with the incredibly eloquent poet John Hegley about his support for them. And I know that every club has idiots. But there’s an old problem here – and I’ve got to hope that they get a hefty fine. Or even a points deductions which, for once in Luton’s torturous recent history, would actually be justified. But don’t issue any statement claiming “these were not real Luton fans” – you’ll lose a lot of respect. Confront the issue rather than ignoring it.
Full gallery – if you want to use any of these images then please get in touch.
UPDATE #1: I wrote this on my phone on the way home. Since then I’ve read Nick Owen’s statement to the press:
“…the York players were celebrating with their fans. It obviously wound up a certain number of our fans, and it led to fairly bitter verbal confrontations…”
Stylish. York fans chanting their team’s name and celebrating a rare shot at promotion are responsible for idiots on the pitch being wound up? Apparently “one or two” Luton fans caused the trouble. Christ.
And while there was no connection between the colour of the shopowner’s skin and the attack on the hardware shop it’s clear that Luton also have greater issues with racism than other clubs. There were various particulary unpleasant chants during our visit here earlier this season and there doesn’t seem to be much of a mixed population, either in the fan base or the town itself. Almost every house surrounding the ground is occupied by Asian families, many of whom peered out of their windows to watch the all-white fans attack the police and smash up their street. Our match at Kenilworth Road earlier in the season had been postponed due to a clash with an English Defence League march – and a few of the Luton guys at the end of Oak Road struck up ‘E-D-L’ chants.
NB: Since this might get an audience…it’s been fairly well reported that at the meeting of all four play-off clubs to decide Wembley arrangements, Luton’s chairman made a big deal of what “we’ll need when we get there” and the “demands of Luton Town at the final”. That dose of arrogant hubris has come back to bite you. Enjoy playing at Hayes & Yeading next year and get used to it – no club ever escapes this league with ease. And some of your fans just made the task a whole lot harder.
Goodness me. Nick Own, acting like some half-rate Malcolm Tucker, is attempting to spin the line that it was a very small number of people involved. I sympathise with the predicament: it’s near-impossible to slag off your fanbase and bow in to demands to ban a substantial proportion of them. But this line just won’t work nowadays. You can’t pretend not to have seen things. There is hours of camera phone footage, hundreds of photos and Sky Sports footage. And the media have yet to pick up on the substantial (~100 actively involved, others watching) trying to storm past the police and get at the York coaches.
As for Luton’s manager, Richard Money…well, show some media sense: