John Hawley: a life saver who played for Arsenal at a most difficult time

John East Hawley is one of those players who when he gets mentioned in reports linking him with Arsenal is described as one of the men who never really made it in an Arsenal shirt.

Such an attitude, in my opinion, is mistaken – he was brought to Arsenal by a management that was in desperation, a management who simply could not attract to the club the players they wanted and who were needed.

What John Hawley did or didn’t do as a player for Arsenal is however irrelevant in the broader scheme of things for his life is defined by what happened when he was playing for Bradford City on the day when the stand caught fire and 56 people lost their lives.

A ludicrous barrier that should never have been there stopped people getting away from the fire onto the pitch.  John saved many lives by putting his own life in danger and hauling people out of the fire.

As the Yorkshire Post put it afterwards, but for his bravery and the similar actions of others, the death toll on May 11, 1985, would have been much higher.

Interestingly in his comments on the fire John said, “I didn’t think it was anything major.  It just looked like some idiot had let off a smoke bomb. Even when the referee stopped things, it still looked to be innocuous. I even went to the crowd and said, ‘Calm down, calm down’. But just 30 seconds later, I was picking the first person up and throwing him over my shoulder.”

If you are a reader of Untold Arsenal you’ll know what I think of smoke bombs.  And I’ve written before on how appalling it was that the book I had back in the 70s which reviewed football grounds spoke of the rubbish that had piled up under the stand, which was itself a fire hazard.

John however has never claimed that he was brave in that incident, he says it “was just a natural thing to do.”

He added, “I got a few letters afterwards saying ‘thank you’.  But I was reading them and thinking, ‘I just don’t remember that’. All I have is bits of memories. One of those is a guy who walked across the stand on fire. I tried to shout at him to come towards the pitch. A policeman, who could get a bit closer by this stage because he had a big coat on, was doing the same. But this guy was walking down the middle of the stand, obviously disorientated. We couldn’t get him.

“All I had on was my kit and it was just so hot. The shirt melted a bit on to me. And a lot of tar also dropped on to me from the roof.   I remained in shock for days afterwards, even as we visited the injured in hospital and did loads of fund-raising. Now, there would be counselling, I’m sure. But that wasn’t the way then. People just got on with things.”

John was born 8 May 1954 in Patrington, in the East Riding of Yorkshire and played 287 league games in the football league, scoring 89 goals. He also had a brief spell playing in the United States.

Years Team Lge games Lge Goals
1972/8 Hull City 114 22
1975/6 St. Louis Stars (loan) 20 11
1978/9 Leeds United 33 16
1979/81 Sunderland 25 11
1981/3 Arsenal 20 3
1982 Leyton Orient (loan) 4 1
1982 Hull City (loan) 3 1
1983 Happy Valley Hong Kong
1983/5 Bradford City 67 28
1985/6 Scunthorpe United 21 7
Total 307 100

John started at Sunderland as an amateur and it is said he was the last ever amateur to play for a professional club.  One of his moments in football came when playing for Hull against Sunderland in 1974, a goal which became Yorkshire and Tyne Tees television’s goal of the season award.

He made his Leeds debut against Arsenal on 19 August 1978 – a 2-2 draw at Highbury in which Brady scored both Arsenal goals, one a penalty.

John was in fact Jimmy Armfield’s last Leeds signing, buying him for £81,000 in May 1978. and he turned out to be a consistent scorer in his one season at the club as Leeds finished fifth, and above Arsenal.

When Jimmy Adamson became manager he sold the player for a considerable profit – £200,000 to Sunderland in September 1979.   John scored a hattrick in his second game and despite injuries during the season helped Sunderland to win promotion in 1980.

By 1981 however, aged 27, his price had dropped and he signed for Arsenal for £50,000.  To put this in perspective, Arsenal had paid £333,333 for Macdonald five years earlier, and during the late 70s the £1m barrier for a player was broken.  £50k was a very modest sum by 1981.

Arsenal’s needs at this time were significant.  Macdonald had been injured at the start of the 1978/9 season, a season which had started with the Sunderland / Macdonald / Stapleton strike force.  Rix joined the attack as a winger but there was no proper replacement for Macdonald.

In 1979/80 Stapleton scored 14 in 39 games, Sunderland 14 in 36.  There is more on this in the review of Arsenal in the 70s…

By 1980/1 Stapleton was playing as a lone striker and scored 14 in 40 league games.   Sunderland got seven in 34.  And in the summer of 1981 Stapleton left.

No one imagined that a £50,000 player was going to be the answer, but the problem was Neil couldn’t find anyone else.  In 1981/2 Sunderland was the only goalscorer in double figures  – he got 11.  Rix playing on the wing got nine.

John Hawley made his debut on 26th September 1981 in a 0-0 draw with Manchester United at Highbury.  He scored in his second game – a 1-2 away defeat to Notts County.  In the first ten league games of the season Arsenal scored six, winning three, drawing three, losing four.

To make out any of this was John Hawley’s fault would be ludicrous – Neill knew the sort of player he was – an honest, hard working journeyman player who he had picked up on the cheap.  But by the autumn of 1981 Neill had lost the plot – he needed another Stapleton and Macdonald (not to mention another Brady) and he had none of them.

Ultimately John scored three League goals in twenty League games, including six games as a substitute, during his eighteen months at the club.   He played his final game on 7 May 1983 against his former club, Sunderland, who won 1-0 at Highbury.

By then Arsenal had finally bought a new forward – Tony Woodcock who scored 14 in 34 games.  Arsenal finished the season in 10th

In his time with Bradford City John Hawley started to play alongside Bobby Campbell and this combination worked as the club having been at the foot of the table then won ten consecutive games with Hawley as the club’s leading scorer with 22 goals from 42 games. The following season Hawley and Bradford won the league.

After that John moved on to Scunthorpe United in July 1985, but by then injuries and the fact he was now in his 30s were catching up with him and that was to be his last club.

After this John worked in the family antique business and worked was an Academy coach under Paul Hart at Nottingham Forest.

Here’s his Arsenal record.

Season Lge games Lge Goals
1981/2 12 (2 sub) 3
1982/3 2 (4 sub) 0
Total 14 (6 sub) 3


The Arsenal History Society series indexes

The index to the anniversary files.

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