Eddie Baily, West Ham’s chief scout, kept up a constant chorus of insistent instructions from the touchline. Everyone in the stadium heard every word. Unfortunately, every second word was an expletive. But, as the attendance was less than 300, Baily’s bawling didn’t offend too many.
It was Wednesday, October 1st, 1980. West Ham’s European Cup Winners’ Cup game against Castilla of Spain was played behind closed doors.
Two years later, on Wednesday, 15 September, 1982, Aston Villa also had to play a European game behind closed doors. Spectators were banned from the two bizarre, eerie matches because of hooliganism and they became known as “the ghost games”.
Now games could be played behind closed doors again if football resumes before we are completely clear of this execrable virus. And I am well-placed to talk about banning spectators. I believe I am the only person alive who attended both the West Ham and Aston Villa matches.
The official attendances were 262 at the Boleyn Ground (Upton Park) and 167 at Villa Park. The only people watching inside the stadiums were key club personnel and the media. There were no tickets even for wives, girlfriends or families of the players. A handful of police were on duty inside the stadiums at both games, but nobody can remember now whether they were included in the attendance. Steve Stride, Villa’s secretary at the time and later a club director, admits the figure he declared was largely guesswork.
One, youngish reporter from a Fleet Street sports news agency was definitely at both matches, equipped with the accoutrements of the era: reporter’s notebook, two soft-lead pencils, a pencil-sharpener, copy of Rothmans Football Year Book, moustache and mullet. Me.
I am fairly certain the only other written press journalist at both was Reg Drury of the News Of The World. I know he was at both because we joked about it at the second game, in the Villa Park press room. Reg, as lovely as a bloke as he was formidable at getting stories, was killed crossing the road in 2003.
Martin Tyler, now of Sky but then of ITV, commentated on the West Ham game, but I checked with him when writing this and, no, he wasn’t at Villa two years later and was pretty sure no camera crew or other television personnel would have been at both.
In 1980, West Ham were in what is now the Championship and was then the plain old Second Division. But they were the FA Cup holders, and their first-round opponents in the European Cup Winners Cup were Real Madrid’s reserve team, who played as Castilla in Spain’s Segunda División.
It was an oddity that two teams from outside their top divisions meeting in a European competition. But it was also a fixture with a potential for trouble because, in the warped logic of 80s football fans, you could compensate for your club’s football failings by being higher up the ranks of notoriety.
So West Ham’s manager, John Lyall, appealed for good behaviour by those going to Spain. Club captain Billy Bonds wrote an open letter begging fans to behave. But their appeals tell you what their fears were, and the London club’s “firms” went to Madrid on a mission.
Those not in the club’s official tour parties simply bought tickets at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on the night. Spanish fans were not entirely innocent in what ensued, but they took their lead from the English lads on tour, who arrived in Madrid early enough to get stuck into the cheap lager.
David Cross (ex-Norwich City, of course), headed West Ham into a first half lead but when Castilla grabbed three goals in 12 second-half minutes the away end erupted. Unimpeded by any segregation, West Ham fans waded in. A “disturbance” kicked off. Spanish police threw out 50 or so Londoners, who then stood around outside. Once the match finished (with Castilla 3-1 ahead in the tie) there were violent melees in the streets. A West Ham fan was hit by a bus and killed.
UEFA, weary of English yobs, promised to come down hard. They made that vow before even convening a disciplinary panel, and five days after the match the panel duly ordered West Ham to play their next two home European fixtures at least 300 kilometres (186 miles) from their own ground and pay a fine of £7,750 (about £33,500 in today’s money).
Sunderland offered to provide Roker Park. West Ham accepted, but lodged an appeal against the UEFA penalties and won a Pyrrhic victory.
The fine was scrapped and the two-game ban on playing at the Boleyn Ground was changed to playing one game there behind closed doors. The loss of gate money from a capacity crowd was more than five times greater than the fine.
West Ham investigated the possibility of screening the game live at nearby Leyton Orient, or at cinemas. But UEFA said that would undermine a punishment designed to punish supporters.
Yet, on the night of the game, thousands of supporters clogged the area around the ground. They filled pubs, milled about in Green Street and the Barking Road, and some found their way to balconies of flats in tower blocks nearby.
The match was not televised live. Nor were TV highlights permitted. Just three minutes of footage was allowed on ITV news, with Tyler’s peerless commentary. BBC radio and Radio London were allowed to relay news of the first half and to broadcast the entire second half live, and it seemed that every supporter in the area around the stadium had a transistor radio.
Inside the stadium, the shouts of players echoed off the empty terraces, as they do when practice matches are played. And the coaches on the touchline (no restrictive technical areas then) yelled complaints and exhortations, as they do, with Baily effing away particularly stridently.
Years later, Trevor Brooking talked to the BBC about the game and recalled: “It was very odd from the moment we ran out to warm up. Normally you would have the noise of the crowd lifting you before the game and during it. But that night was very eerie.
“In fact, that was the only game in my whole career that I could hear everything that was said from the bench. One voice stood out above the others – Eddie Baily, a man who definitely liked to see commitment from his players. Let’s just say he was very vocal about it, and pretty volatile. He was a World War Two veteran. Lots of his encouragement was related to the use of a bayonet.”
There were other sounds too: unexpected sounds. Away to our left as we looked out from the Press box, somebody on one of those balconies in the flats had a gramophone player and repeatedly played “I’m forever blowing bubbles”, West Ham’s own theme tune. The first time he did so, everyone laughed – media, ball-boys, the handful of police on the terraces, the players … even bellicose Baily.
The second time the music started, we chuckled again. The third time we smiled. The fourth time, it was still quite funny. The fifth time, not so much. Fortunately, after a while, the unpaid DJ got as bored by the repetitive music as everyone else and stopped.
At half-time, West Ham chairman Len Cairns – “Mr Len”, as he was referred to at the club – went into the home changing room to ask Baily to moderate his language. Mr Len had never before deigned to visit the chaps below stairs, so this was another extraordinary ingredient for the night. But I don’t remember any significant reduction in Baily’s incitements.
For years afterwards it was claimed that West Ham goalkeeper Phil Parkes could hear the second half radio commentary drifting over the quiet air. Sadly, that is a myth. He did talk to ball-boys quite a lot, though. West Ham used apprentice players as ball-boys and dotted quite a few around the ground.
Parkes could have talked to a cameraman too, had he wished. The ITV crew were on the North Bank terrace. There was one cameraman, using kit belonging to Southern TV, and five technicians leaning forwards on a crush barrier immediately behind him.
But mostly, there was emptiness and a stillness all around the stadium. It was so unlike any other European tie I’d been too, so … inappropriate, so not football.
In the Press box, I kept my telephone line open to my employers, The Exchange Telegraph (known as “ExTel”) so that I could dictate my words to a copytaker sitting at a typewriter in our office. My prime task was to get any “flashes” (news of goals, bookings etc) “on the wires” before the Press Association. Speed was everything.
My first message on that long-ago night was: “West Ham goal flash. 19 mins. Pike (West Ham). 1-0. Agg 2-3.”
The players celebrated Geoff Pike’s goal, of course, but the absence of fans was most marked at that moment, because there was no exultant roar from a crowd. It wasn’t exactly silent night, though. The policemen applauded.
Even without fans to gee them on, West Ham cruised into an aggregate lead before half time, with goals from Cross and Paul Goddard. But 11 minutes into the second half, Castilla captain Miguel Bernal drilled in a shot from distance and the teams were level again on aggregate.
In extra-time, Cross collected two more goals. The final one, which completed his hat-trick, was greeted, like the rest, with the very strange lack of any response from the empty terraces. Cross, momentarily thrown, ran to the referee, Heinz Fahnler from Austria, and asked for confirmation that he’d awarded the goal.
Herr Fahnler concluded the match soon afterwards and the guy with the gramophone cranked out another rendition of the West Ham song. Brian Woolnough, sitting near me in the Press box, referenced the song in The Sun. Under the headline, “CROSS GHOSTS IN”, his report began: “Thousands of fans held their own bubbles party outside Upton Park last night the moment they heard David Cross had completed West Ham’s magnificent European comeback.”
The celebrations outside the ground were a snook cocked at UEFA, who had not foreseen that football fans would be drawn to their spiritual home when it was staging a big game, even if they knew they could not get in.
Two years on, UEFA did not make the same mistake again. They made different ones.
Aston Villa won the European Cup (which was to become the Champions League) in 1982, but only after mayhem in the semi-final second leg, away to Anderlecht, in Belgium.
Many Villa followers went to Anderlecht a week before the game to buy tickets more or less anywhere in the ground and the match was played with a backdrop of wave after wave of skirmishing fans spilling around the terraces.
At one point in the first half, a well-lubricated young charmer clambered onto the pitch from the heaving terrace behind the goal Villa were defending. He stood on the six-yard line and, after an Anderlecht shot had sailed over his head and over the bar, promptly lay down on his back where he was. Riot police frog-marched him away, but the game was temporarily halted as Villa goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer tried in vain to appeal for calm. If you’ve ever seen one man making sit-down gestures in front of a full-scale mob battle, you’ll be able to guess how his efforts went.
The game ended goal-less, which meant Tony Morley’s solitary first leg goal was had won the tie. But the second leg disturbances were so serious that many decent people believed Anderlecht had a good case when they asked UEFA to have the result overturned.
Instead they ruled that Villa would have to play their next home tie behind closed doors – and that finding was enforced the following September when Villa began their defence of the European Cup against Besiktas, the Turkish champions.
This time, UEFA were determined to keep fans away from the area. This time, they said the game could not be played in the evening. It had to be played in the afternoon – when, as UEFA discovered, English fans with jobs simply took time off to gather on the grassy banks of Aston Park across the road from Villa’s stadium. The 2.30 kick-off allowed time for a bite to eat and a pint or five before going to the park.
This time, UEFA decided that the Villa attendance could not exceed 200. So secretary Stride declared a figure of 167 – but didn’t actually count who was present.
The word most of us kept using again at Villa Park was “eerie”. The emptiness was even more apparent in bright daylight. Once more players’ shouts bounced back off the silent terraces and the coaches’ calls were heard by all. But nobody had invited Eddie Baily.
In the Press box at Villa, I sat next to Jeff Farmer, sports editor of Central Television. About 10 minutes into the game, he began craning his neck awkwardly to look up at the afternoon sky. He repeated this every few minutes, interspersing this strange obsession with anxious glances at his watch.
I had concerns of my own. I had dictated the team line-ups to ExTel before kick-off but, once play started, worked out that I had only given forenames instead of only surnames. They’d been listed on the team sheet with their surnames first. This was long before detailed coverage of foreign football, and I didn’t know my Akbulut from my Engin.
I told the office about my mistake, which meant they’d sent the wrong names to newspapers and broadcasters. I was called something that wasn’t my forename or my surname. Hurriedly I began dictating the correct list of surnames, using the phonetic alphabet. It wasn’t a great phone line, and the copytaker kept asking me to repeat entire names. I resolved that I wouldn’t mention these names much in my subsequent dispatches. I would only give Adem İbrahimoğlu a name-check, for instance, if he scored four goals (unlikely, as he was the goalkeeper). As for Ulvi Güveneroglu, he’d have to score four, and headbutt the ref to get a mention.
What was Jeff from Central TV up to though, with his glances to the heavens? The answer came from on high when the autumnal stillness was ruptured by the very, very loud bah-bah-bah-bah-bah of a low-flying helicopter. Jeff had arranged to get around UEFA’s ban on all filming – or, rather, get over it – by hiring a chopper with a cameraman on board. It hovered very, very low and very noisily over the stadium for several minutes. Players miss-kicked because they were looking at the helicopter. Jeff turned to me and winked.
Villa won 3-0. All the goals were scored at the Holte End, and to this day you can find Villa fans who insist they glimpsed them all from the park, through the gap which existed then between the Holt End and Trinity Road stands. I drove home later, fretting about my mistake about the names.
Are there lessons to be drawn from the two Ghost Games? Well, one is that playing games behind closed doors does not, cannot, keep fans away. They will still come, and interact in close, virus-spreading proximity.
I have another, more personal conclusion. Thirty-eight years on I realise I spent too much of my working life concentrating on the job I was attempting on any given day instead of relishing being at historic events. I didn’t look often enough at the bigger picture.
So, as we wonder whether games will be played behind closed doors sometime this year, I have something to say about this and other issues concerning football. It is this: It is only a game.
Keep safe. Stay well. See you on the other side of this pause in proceedings.