England has hosted only a handful of senior competitive behind-closed-doors football fixtures and anyone who considers them a suitable and workable solution to the problems now facing sport could probably do with a reminder about how the previous ones went down, starting with the first. This, at least, is a chapter of British sporting history that anyone can be forgiven for forgetting, since it took place 105 years ago.
In March 1915 Bradford City, one of two Bradford clubs in the First Division at the time, met Norwich City of the Southern League in the third round of the FA Cup. They first played in Yorkshire, drawing 1-1 after extra time, and when the match was replayed the following weekend at The Nest, then Norwich’s home ground, it finished goalless. A second replay was thus required, and arranged for a neutral venue – Lincoln City volunteered – but with a caveat.
“There is a condition, made by the FA, that is not to be overlooked in connection with the Lincoln match – namely, that the public are not to be admitted,” reported the Lincolnshire Echo after the game had been arranged. “The obvious object of this is that workmen shall not be drawn away from their employment in war time, especially if engaged, as so many firms are, on government work. Wednesday’s match at Sincil Bank, therefore, will be played behind closed gates.”
A match held on a weekday afternoon between teams who had produced only two goals over four hours of effort, played between 75 and 100 miles from either of their home grounds and from which supporters were officially banned would not, you would think, prove much of a draw. But when matchday came, so did people. “Despite the prohibition of the public, the reserved stand was pretty well filled with spectators, though hundreds remained outside the gates and all entrances to the ground were guarded by police,” said the Echo. Journalists and club officials had been allowed in, along with several hundred off-duty and wounded soldiers but many more were locked outside.
The game started. It didn’t sound much fun. “The ground churned up a good deal, and the players presented black figures before the interval was reached,” reported the Echo. “It looked as though there was little prospect of a goal at either end.”
Goalless it remained as the players went in at half-time, which is when everything went wrong. “The main gates had been rocking somewhat ominously at different periods through the half,” wrote the Echo, while “the crowd outside had begun to tear down the boards near the main gates, and in three or four places on the Sincil Bank side, and would soon have broken through”.
Eventually the crush of people outside the ground, and the damage they were inflicting to it, was such that the gates were opened and “a human tide (including several ladies) poured in”.
The Yorkshire Evening Post reported “barriers were placed against the doors, and a few police guarded them with threatening mien, but eventually the obstacles were broken down … and the police contented themselves with taking the names of a few men who had declined to be overawed by the majesty of the law.”
Nobody was overawed by the majesty of the football, though the game was eventually brought to a scruffy conclusion. Jimmy McDonald put Bradford ahead “in the middle of a scrimmage” in the 78th minute, and Dickie Bond added a second from the penalty spot with the last kick of the game. Norwich were out of the Cup and behind-closed-doors matches were out of favour.
The lesson learned in Lincoln more than a century ago and reinforced much more recently in Paris, Valencia and elsewhere in the days before the complete shutdown of professional football – when thousands of fans gathered outside locked grounds to give their side some sightless support – is that when a significant match is on telling people they can’t come in will not keep them away.
The only way to manage that is to play it in secret, which is difficult to accomplish when televising it is a key part of the business plan. Many of us are more determined now to avoid large gatherings than we were a month or even a week ago but not everyone is so acquiescent and scheduling a significant football match anywhere before restrictions completely end, even if nobody manages to force the gates, would be an incitement to congregate and a nightmare to police.
There have only been a handful of behind-closed-doors games in England since 1915, including two FA Cup replays after the initial meeting was marred by a non-league side’s goalkeeper being struck on the head by an object thrown from the crowd.
The first of those came in 1985 when Leicester side featuring an attack of Gary Lineker and Alan Smith were drawing 1-1 with Burton Albion, then of England’s seventh tier, when Paul Evans, a solicitor, was knocked unconscious by a flying piece of wood.
They went on to win 6-1 but the FA ordered a fan-free replay, which was set for Derby on 14 January, rescheduled for Coventry two days later because of a frozen pitch, and finally played in front of an audience described in the Guardian as being composed of “FA and club officials, press, radio, television, ballboys, groundstaff, police and two members of the public who managed to find a way in”.
This time the Foxes won 1-0. “It might sound unprofessional but I’m glad Leicester won because none of this was their fault,” said the Burton manager, a then-obscure but already eminently quotable 36-year-old chiropodist by the name of Neil Warnock, who added that in a near-silent stadium the ability to clearly hear each other had helped his players: “We have to talk to each other on the pitch because when you’re part-timers you’re sometimes a little bit slower upstairs.”
His opposite number, Gordon Milne, was less pleased with how the affair was handled. “The crowd is part of the game and you can’t perform without them – they go together,” he snarled. “It’s unfair to ask teams to play in that environment and I wouldn’t like to think any professional side will be asked to do that again.”
It is a conclusion worth bearing in mind, lest in its desperation to find a way out of its predicament football makes Milnes of us all.