The flavour of football 1973: fights, bookings, and the end of civilisation

By Tony Attwood

I have been writing about Bertie Mee and his players – but there is another issue that I would like to cover.  Indeed I would say I have been rather remiss in not covering this in earlier eras that we have looked at, and I hope to go back and make up that omission shortly.

It is the issue of what was going on in football generally, not just at Arsenal, and not just in terms of who was top of the league.

I am taking the opening of the 1972/3 season as my key point, because in many ways it was a turning point in the history of football.

The season (named the Assault and Battery Season in the Guardian on the Monday after the first round of games) opened with one matter on every journalists’ minds.

Now in considering this today, we must remember that since, in those days, there were no blogs, since the fanzines were often under the control of the clubs and highly sanitized, and since there was precious little for fans on TV, the papers called the tune.  And the papers were united.  The story was…

  • Bad behaviour by players
  • Pitch invasions and rioting by fans

On the first day of the season 53 players were booked – a huge number compared with the past. These were the days before yellow and red cards (and indeed this was the season in which there was the first experiment with an automatic totting up of bookings, as well as three match bans for being sent off.

In Scotland the Celtic manager waded into the terracing (or what passes for it) at the Albion ground in Stirling to try and stop the fans singing pro-IRA songs.  The wonderfully named Willie Waddell (manager of Rangers) made a speech over the PA system about the need for restraint among fans at their game.  Rangers had been banned from European football for two years (reduced to one on appeal) after their fans took on Barca while winning the Cup Winners Cup.  “Rangers,” the top man said, “are declaring war on hooligans, tykes and drunkards”.  Yes, well…

At Arsenal’s opening match at Leicester 31 fans were arrested following a pitch invasion, as fans ran from one end of the ground, across the pitch to the other, to get at their rival numbers. Six people ended up in hospital.

But this just wasn’t a big match thing.  At Dumbarton (of all places) fans were arrested for fighting.  At York (yes York City) police dogs were used to clear the pitch.  Even at dear little Orient (that’s Leyton O. today) there were problems and cars outside the ground were seriously damaged.  The blame was put on visiting Oxford supporters.   Even at little Walsall there were arrests, arrests and more arrests.

In the Liverpool v Man City game two players were sent off just before half time  for having a full scale fight on the pitch.  Head buts and fists in the face were there for all to see, and it was shown on Match of the Day.  Yes, in 1973 fighting meant fighting.  Handbags at 30 paces was still some 20 years away.

At Chelsea the game was stopped three times as people ran onto the pitch and eight people were taken to hospital when a crush barrier gave way.

Even the pleasantries of the Football Combination (the reserve league of the day) were interrupted when Bobby Tambling of Palace was sent off.

Who was to blame – why was it happening?  No one knew, or maybe no one wanted to look at the reasons.  The old game of blaming the individual without looking at any social issues was played out in full by the press.

Within weeks it was clear that the whole thing was getting out of hand totally  as two trainers (the men in those days with the bucket and sponge whose mere appearance would have crippled players getting up, while claiming they were ok) were sent off for coming onto the pitch too quickly!

The multiple sendings off didn’t do anything – at least not at first, as 46 players were booked on the first Saturday in September.  Tottenham were the record holders with four men booked in one game.

Now that might seem nothing today when a couple of trips can get you a yellow  – but these bookings were for real wholesale violence, and they were new.  No one had seen anything like it before.

The press had something to get going on.  Shock, horror, …  the writers loved it.  Put them all in prison, they screamed.  Bring back national service.  Schools are too soft, they have it too easy.  There were even correspondents still blaming rock and roll, although by 1973 pop (at least that bit of it that was allowed on TV and Radio 1) was so sloppy and insipid that it was more likely to send people to sleep than get them rioting.  It was the Underground culture of Frank Zappa and the complete rejection of mainstream modes of thought among all the post-hippie musicians whose work would never appear on British radio or TV that were transforming thinking.

So the press ignored the background, and just knocked out their copy as quickly as possible, with solutions as simple as possible.  It was the end of civilisation as we knew it.   Except of course, it wasn’t.

Arsenal History

4 Replies to “The flavour of football 1973: fights, bookings, and the end of civilisation”

  1. Tony,
    I recall 1972 when my wife and I attended a boring illtempered draw Arsenal had with QPR. During our lunch at the Club, we were strongly advised to wait awhile after the game before leaving the ground for our hotel. We took the advice and luckily were able to avoid the subsequent mayhem on the underground.

  2. Hi Tony, I was present at the Leicester match that day 12 Aug 1972, 16 year old travelled up on football special from London. I can honestly say that day was the most violent football violence I have seen to this day. The supporters who ran across the pitch were Arsenal fans who had gained entry into the home end, and they ran to the away end to get with the majority.
    Fighting broke out the moment Arsenal fans got from the rail station on arrival, outside the ground before the match and the worst after the match. There was a building site outside the away end and bricks etc were used by both sets of ‘fans’ to harm each other. I can only describe the scene as reminisce of N. Ireland troubles that period. I was segregated from the main group in running battles and don’t know to this day how I survived unharmed. Me and another arsenal fan were lost in back streets and a large group of Leicester fans passed us, I still had my red and white scarf on, they looked astonished, I told one who approached me that I had stolen it from an Arsenal fan! Soon after another smaller group of L skinheads showed me and the other lad back to the rail station. They were obviously looking for other prey, grateful to them. That same era I was at many London derby games, but that day at Leicester is vivid in my memory. I’m sure it made front page headlines in most Sunday newspapers. Oh yes and Alan Ball scored!!!

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