Never mind the danger: Why 1984/85 was the worst season to fall in love with football
- Credit: Archant
Norwich City struggling in the top flight but enjoying a gallant FA Cup run and a season ultimately defined by off-the-field affairs, the current football campaign feels just like 1984/85 for Nick Richards, who recalls the traumatic term in which he fell in love with the beautiful game
April 2020 will be remembered as the month without football. And we’re only four days into it. We’ve not had a Premier League match for 26 days. For seasoned fans, they’ve never known anything like it, but imagine being a 10-year-old fan, just getting caught up in this amazing game so full of drama, rivalry, heroes, villains, idols and egos.
I was that boy back in the 1984/85 season. So much happened to me and the sport I was obsessed with in those nine months. I thought it was normal, that this was football, but little did I know that this eventful season would never be topped.
With the help of an old football diary, magazines and a memory that can recall the events of 35 years ago like they were yesterday, this is the story of that season.
We start in the summer of 1984. I was nine and living in Hingham, 15 miles west of Norwich. I’d been into football for exactly two years since watching my dad punch the air in delight at Bryan Robson’s two goals against France in the opening game of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
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I was on holiday at Burgh Castle when the season started. The LA Olympics had been a major factor in my new love of sport for I’d spent most of that holiday sitting in front of the TV first thing in the morning filling in the results from the Radio Times. I had my heroes – Carl Lewis, Steve Cram, Ed Moses and 16-year-old US gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who I liked because she was the same height as me back then – 4ft 9ins.
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It was the first sporting event I’d really watched with any great interest and that Radio Times supplement gave me an important link between what was happening in the world and both printed media and a new love of sports results and statistics.
I can still remember staying up late on the first Saturday of the football season watching Manchester United v Watford on Match of the Day. At Carrow Road, Norwich had started the season with a spectacular 3-3 draw at home to Liverpool with new signing Steve Bruce managing to score an own goal on his debut.
Back to school and straight into class J3 at Hingham Primary School. As I got on the mini bus on the first day of school I told my friends we’d got a brand new red B-Reg Fiesta in August. None of them believed me. Ten minutes later the school bus had broken down and half the kids were being ferried to school in it by my mum. It was going to be a good year.
I had a growing confidence, suddenly my life wasn’t just going to school and being at home, there were things to do, places to go such as after school football matches, Saturday morning athletics club, days out birdwatching and as I would soon find out, going to Carrow Road.
I don’t know if it was school policy but the top two years seemed to make up the school football team and I proudly made my debut against Attleborough Middle School. We drew 3-3.
At one point it almost matched the incredible score in the First Division match at Loftus Road toward the end of the month: QPR 5-5 Newcastle.
Playing for the school team only ramped up my interest in the game and this was helped by getting my first copies of Match Weekly and Football Monthly this month.
I now had access to posters, news, results and tables and perhaps most importantly adverts. I could see the sort of products being aimed at football fans - Subbuteo was massive, football videos (around £25 a pop) were pretty cutting edge too.
These magazines were, for me, a blueprint for how a nine-year-old boy should behave and what he should be into and I lapped it up big time.
Breakfast TV had started early the previous year and I woke up on October 12, 1984 to discover there’d been a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where prime minister Maragaret Thatcher was staying.
I was only nine but already interested in news which back then wasn’t 24 hours a day. You often woke up to bad news.
On the morning of October 25 my Dad had heard on Radio Norfolk that a large section of the old City Stand had burnt down at Carrow Road.
Thankfully the blaze took place in the middle of the night and nobody was hurt. British football was riddled with these flammable old stands - before Norwich there were blazes at Nottingham Forest, Brighton, Bristol Rovers, Aldershot and Torquay. Sadly there would be one more devastating fire before the season was over.
We’d got wind at school that before the end of the year there would be a trip to Carrow Road to watch a game. You can imagine the excitement which grew on an almost daily basis. We all hoped the fire wouldn’t stop the trip happening.
“You’ll get duffed up if you wear that blue coat on Saturday,” a school pal told a couple of days before most of my class boarded a mini bus and drove to Carrow Road on November 24, 1984 for my first football match.
It was Norwich v Everton, and to my relief half the crowd wore blue coats - mostly fake fur-lined hooded parkas as this was the good old 80s.
So memories from that first game? Buying a programme from a hut in the corner of the River End and South Stand.
Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall wearing a fetching all white kit and somewhat incredibly, Norwich racing into a 3-0 lead inside 25 minutes with goals from John Deehan, Dale Gordon and Louie Donowa.
Everton were top of the league and, mainly due to Liverpool making a terrible start to the season, would end up as champions. They’d also lift the Cup Winners Cup and almost lifted an historic treble by narrowly losing the FA Cup Final.
Still, Donowa and Gordon tore them apart that afternoon and despite goals from Graeme Sharp and Kevin Sheedy either side of half-time, John Deehan’s second half strike made it 4-2 before a crowd of just under 17,000.
I treasured the programme. “Don’t cut it up,” my mum told me. “You’ll want to keep that.” I did and looking through it again this week I’m reminded that there columns inside it by manager Ken Brown, captain Dave Watson and Radio Norfolk’s Norwich City reporter Keith Skipper.
Everton were top of the table after that match and Norwich sat in 10th place, just above Sunderland.
Football was on the back burner. Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? was about to be Christmas number one (I got it that Christmas) and all the talk at school was about raising money for Ethiopia. We covered a large map of the country in our pocket money.
After Christmas we went to London to see some family and I spent most of that time trying to find toy shops were I could buy Subbuteo.
I got a set right at the end of 1984 with floodlights and I spent most of January and February flicking figures around on my bedroom floor.
There were three big topics at the start of the school year. The forthcoming trip to Wales in June, the newly released Panini Football 1985 sticker album and the news that a dozen or so of us were going to be selected to be ball boys for a Norwich City match.
The school went football mad. It was mentioned in assembly that we all needed to write our names in the books to avoid arguments and also the headteacher sounded out a warning that it was OK to swap them as we did at every spare moment. But it wasn’t OK to sell them. The playground dealers looked away but still carried on.
The football world was rocked by a nine inch piece of wood being thrown from the crowd during Burton Albion’s FA Cup tie against Leicester City. With the scores at 1-1 the missile hit keeper Paul Evans on the head and, concussed, he conceded five goals. The FA ordered the game to be replayed. It would set the tone for the rest of the season.
Heavy snow caused much of the football in the middle of the month to be postponed. Norwich City did negotiate a tricky Milk Cup fifth round tie at Grimsby on a snow-covered pitch with an orange ball to set up a semi-final with Ipswich Town.
I took part in the Norfolk school’s cross country run at the UEA which was a real sporting highlight.
My Saturdays consisted of Athletics Club at my school, trying to get hold of a Match Weekly, Football Focus, playing football in the garden or Subbuteo inside if it was raining and then watching Final Score.
I didn’t have the urge to go to more live games. Football was everywhere. I was happy enough to follow it on Radio 2, through magazines and newspapers and catch what I could on the telly.
Three days after the first ever EastEnders was shown on BBC1, Norwich lost the first leg of the Milk Cup semi-final, going down 1-0 to Ipswich.
On March 6 Norwich defeated Ipswich 2-0 at Carrow Road with that famous late Steve Bruce goal putting The Canaries at Wembley for the first time in 10 years. I’d love to say I was there but I was 15 miles away at home in bed.
Ten days later I turned 10 and it just so happened that it was the day I would be a ball boy at Carrow Road.
In between there’d been some shocking crowd violence in the FA Cup tie between Millwall and Luton. Seats were ripped out and thrown at rival fans, police on horses tried to control angry fans.
Being at a football stadium in 1985 had an inherent risk about it. But, eight days before they were to meet at Wembley, a dress rehearsal took place at Carrow Road and I’d be on the front line.
I was given a green autograph book that morning as a present and also unwrapped Norwich and Manchester United Subbuteo teams before arriving in Norwich for ball boy duties.
We wore our school football kit under some ill-fitting itchy old green tracksuits. Unbelievably we got changed into them amid the charred remains of the old City Stand. The fire five months earlier was still very much in evidence. Health and safety didn’t seem to matter.
A club official gave us all some super sweet and super hot tea in a plastic cup and spread out a Subbuteo pitch on a table and explained where we each needed to stand.
We all took a small green wooden stool and ran across the pitch at the start. I took up my position in front of the South Stand towards the River End. As luck would have it my parents and brother were sitting three rows behind me. “Go on Richards,” my brother shouted at me.
I’d love to say it was 90 minutes of non-stop action but it wasn’t. I touched the ball once in the warm up, throwing it back to Sunderland’s Barry Venison and at the start of the second half got about three feet onto the Carrow Road turf to kick the ball to Chris Woods. That was it!
I filled up my autograph book with signatures from Dave Watson, Louie Donowa and several Sunderland players.
After the game we used empty camera film cases left behind by press photographers and scooped up some of the cinders around the edge of the pitch. My pals in front of the Sunderland fans naively showed me how much money they’d made from the coins that had been pelted at them.
Despite growing football hooliganism and crowd trouble in the English game, Norwich and Sunderland were to prove a slight bit of respite. In a season that was to get horrifically worse, the behaviour of the two sets of fans at the Milk Cup Final on March 24 left a lasting legacy between the two clubs.
It really was the Friendly Final. Terrible game though, much of which has been well documented in this paper many, many times.
We had roast beef for Sunday lunch, watched the game at home (the first live televised Norwich City game) and were thrilled at the result. Norwich had won the Milk Cup, and would be playing in next season’s European Cup Winners Cup.
The school football games were flowing thick and fast with some crazy results. Hingham beat Caston 8-1 and lost 7-5 to Ellingham. Football was brilliant.
The football season was drawing to a close with Norwich struggling but looking set for mid-table safety.
My school had another trip to Carrow Road in mid-April to watch Norwich reserves beat Chelsea reserves. The football club were certainly good to us that season - three trips!
Norwich’s summer signing Gary Rowell was living in a house a couple of minutes away from the school so we wondered if that had something to do with it.
I was also a big birdwatcher and a member of the YOC. I made trips to Cley Marshes and Ranworth Broad on Saturdays towards the end of the season mixing up my Canaries with great-crested grebes and ruddy ducks.
Norwich ended the season five points above Coventry who bizarrely had two fixtures left to play. Only two wins for the Sky Blues would send Norwich down.
That they did seemed to matter little as two weeks before a devastating fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade killed 56 fans. Carrow Road’s October fire in the middle of the night suddenly took on new meaning. It could easily of happened in Norwich.
On the same day Ian Hambridge, 15, died when a wall collapsed before the Birmingham v Leeds game. His death was overshadowed by Bradford but struck more of a chord with me. He was only five years older than I was.
Norwich were relegated on Sunday, May 26 with Coventry thrashing a knackered Everton. But three days later nobody cared anymore.
“The news is very bad from Brussels. Hooliganism has struck again and I’m afraid the scenes are as bad as anything we’ve seen for a long time,” was how Jimmy Hill greeted the nation as we settled down for the European Cup Final.
My mum, dad and I all tutted as the BBC showed live pictures of the crowd trouble at the Heysel Stadium. Pictures of dead bodies being carried on stretchers filled TV screens across the nation.
This was raw, unedited footage straight into the heart and mind of a 10-year-old. How do you handle that?
Almost an hour of coverage of the unfolding tragedy was shown before somewhat farcically, they actually went ahead with the game.
I was devastated. The sport I was falling in love with was in the news again for the wrong reasons. Nobody was talking about teams, players, goals, stickers and kits, the sort of thing 10-year-old boys love about football.
I was growing up fast and absorbed in a game with out-of-date stadiums that could catch fire, fans could rip up seats and use as weapons, walls could collapse as fans ran from conflict and ultimately clubs could be kicked out of Europe.
The morning after Heysel, the FA banned English clubs for a season, ending Norwich City’s chance of playing in the Cup Winners Cup. Within a few days UEFA made the ban indefinite.
Football had changed before my eyes in nine months during a season never to forget.