The Fiver: Do You Know the Fight Song? – Five Infamous British Football Riots

Millwall fans riot in 1985 after their team lost 1-0 at Luton Town in their FA Cup quarter-final

Football (or soccer as it’s known in the States) is a great past time. It brings families together, provides great stress relief, and instills a certain local pride. Some people, however, take this pride a little too far. “Hooligans” as they’re known represent the absolute worst of football supporters. Oftentimes they use intimidation, vandalism, and physical violence to support their local club. The problem became so large in the United Kingdom and so well-known throughout the world that other countries refer to it as the “English Disease.” Not surprisingly, over the decades they have been known to cause some of the worst riots in the history of the sport.

1. Luton v. Millwall (1985)

During a FA quarter-final between the two clubs, this infamous riot also known as the “Kenilworth Road Riot”, began before the match did and continued well after it was over. By the mid-80’s, the local hooligan firm, “The Bushwackers”, were well-known to cause violence with visiting fans. On the day of the match, a much greater than expected group of Millwall supporters showed up and gained entrance to the stadium. Before the match even began, police were already overwhelmed with acts of vandalism and violence. The match was paused for a time as Millwall supporters kept storming the pitch, but the real violence started after Luton’s vicitory, when visiting fans once again entered the field and began fighting with Luton supporters and police, ripping chairs out of the stands and throwing them. The rioting spread to the streets and thirty-one rioters were arrested. The repercussions of this riot brought a crackdown on hooliganism by Luton and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government.

2. The Red Army (1974-1975)

Typically a generic term to refer to Manchester United supporters, during the mid-70’s the Red Army was also synonymous with a notorious hooligan firm. After United had been relegated to the Second Division in 1973, the Red Army traveled to pitches up and down the country tearing up stadiums and fighting with local supporters. In many of these matches, the United hooligans outnumbered the local fans. The violence committed by these hooligans alone led many clubs to erect fences to keep local and visiting fans apart, though these measures did not always work.

3. Landsdowne Road (1995)

What was supposed to be a friendly match between England and the Republic of Ireland erupted in violence due in part to a neo-nazi group known as Combat 18. Originally part of the British National Party, they split from them feeling the party was “too soft”, and often used riots at football matches as recruiting tools. After an English goal was disallowed, fans began throwing cups and other items onto the pitch, which intensified twelve minutes later when the game was called off. English fans were kept in the stadium by the Garda (Irish national police) to prevent further violence against Irish supporters, but were not successful as the English began fighting with them instead. As the Garda attempted to quell the rioting that spilled into the streets, twenty people were injured and forty rioters were arrested. Ultimately, an investigation showed that the National Criminal Intelligence Service had attempted to warn the Garda of Combat 18’s plans to disrupt the match, but the Irish authorities had failed to act on the information.

4. Birmingham v. Leeds (1985)

Another of England’s infamous hooligan firms, the Birmingham Zulus are responsible for one of the worst acts of football violence in the 1980’s. One of the country’s only multi-ethnic hooligan firms, the Zulus began a wave of violence when Leeds fans jumped from their side and the Zulus ran out to meet them. One Leeds fan was killed when supporters caused one of the stadium’s walls to fall on him. Nearly fifty football supporters and 145 police officers were injured in the violence and 125 rioters were arrested. Lord Justice Popplewell, investigating football violence, stated that the scene was “more like Agincourt than a football match.”

5. 21st Century Violence

The 1989 Football Spectators Act did much to quell violence occurring in stadiums during a match, but did little to prevent violence in areas away from the pitch. The advent of such technologies as the internet, instant messaging, mobile phones, internet board, and chat rooms gave hooligan firms new methods of connecting and planning their attacks. In the 2010’s, hooliganism was on the rise, due in part to rising unemployment and discontent due to the economic recession, with a lead from 38 incidents from supporters under nineteen years old in 2008-2009 to 103 in the 2009-2010 season. While clubs and governments make further moves to stop violence before it begins, including preventative arrests and seizure of known hooligan’s passports in Euro Cup and World Cup years, it seems there is a certain violence that will always be present in football.

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  1. avatarMinerva says

    A grim 20 year period.
    Thankfully a considerable amount of control has been exacted by the British football authorities on hubs of trouble-making supporters, making this kind of behaviour extremely rare now.
    The ‘British Disease’ has since been taken up by other countries, & made their own.

    Racism appears to be the latest football nastiness………more the ‘European Disease’ from what I have observed personally.

    • avatarMinerva says

      …..I also notice in your article you keep referring to the fighting fans as ‘the English’….rather than the fact that the violence in every case being started by an antisocially aggressive cell, often with ulterior motives (which you do mention in a couple of instances) of an anti-establishment or political kind, & unrelated to the sport entirely……English fans generally are a peaceable group, but as with virtually every large group of people of any nationality, can be provoked into stupidity/taking offence.

      I include this extract from:

      ‘Although instances of football crowd violence and disorder have been a feature of association football throughout its history[9] (e.g. Millwall’s ground was reportedly closed in 1920, 1934 and 1950 after crowd disturbances), the phenomenon only started to gain the media’s attention in the late 1950s due to the re-emergence of violence in Latin American football.’


      ‘ In the 1980s and well into the 1990s the UK government led a major crackdown on football-related violence. While football hooliganism has been a growing concern in some other European countries in recent years, British football fans now tend to have a better reputation abroad. Although reports of British football hooliganism still surface, the instances now tend to occur at pre-arranged locations rather than at the matches themselves.’

      By no means do I wish to whitewash the allegations of violence & bad behaviour, but I wish it to be understood in context.
      If one reads the link I provide, it is obvious that this is a problem in many countries, which their authorities try to a lesser or greater degree to combat.

  2. avatarDave D says

    I always thought “the English disease” was going on strike.:-) I have absolutely no interest in football and living near the football ground in Portsmouth for some years only re-enforced that, you wouldn’t believe the neanderthal behavior that I witnessed from some “fans”. What still annoys me is that this sort of behavior still happens but is excused with “well it’s not as bad as it used to be”, one incident of it is still too much.

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