1985: The Summer Football Nearly Died

The mid 1980’s were a turbulent and taxing time for anyone that lived through them. Across the north of England, mines were closing. British industry was in massive decline, the recession of the early 1980’s was still having an effect, unemployment was up to 11.9% by 1984.

Football is often where the working class society expressed itself, and by the summer of 1985 your local football ground had virtually become a no-go area. Hooliganism was rife, the events at Heysel were merely a continuation of shocking scenes across the country. Millwall fans tore Kenilworth Road apart prior to the end of the season, Chelsea rioted at both legs of their Milk Cup semi-final with Sunderland and on the same day as the Bradford Fire Disaster a teenage Birmingham fan was murdered in clashes with Leeds fans.

Attendances were on the decline too. In 1984/85 league attendances were down to 18m for the first time since the Second World War, with the late 1940’s attracting over 40m fans. At City it was no different, our final home game of the 1981/82 season attracted 5489, in 1982/83 it was 2441. By the final home game of 1985, a 0-0 draw with Walsall, we had just 1473 home fans for a Division Three match.

The plummeting attendances meant potential financial peril for many clubs, even those in the top flight. There were few games on TV, in 1983 the league had agreed a deal to 10 games a season with ITV and the BBC. The deal ran until the summer of 1985 and was worth £5.2m. It seems small fry with today’s massive numbers, but back then TV coverage wasn’t favourably received. Nowadays you see Lincoln City in televised games more than you saw all 92 clubs combined in the mid eighties!

John McGinley in action for City v Newport, 1985

By the conclusion of the 1985 season a deal still had not been reached. ITV and the BBC wanted to show a total of 14 matches on television, but the club chairmen voted against it. Whilst the deal didn’t affect Lincoln City directly, it threatened to have severe repercussions throughout the English game.

The debate as to how to tackle the hooliganism problem raged on at the same time, and in July 1985 there was talk of banning the sale of alcohol in grounds completely, thus depriving even executive box holders the chance to buy a beer. Another important revenue stream was being threatened, and in addition the idea of ID cards was being discussed as well. With no TV money and other income being cut off, it did seem as if football in England was being slowly suffocated.

To raise money for top-flight clubs the FA introduced the ‘Full Members Cup’, with the intention of the top two divisions competing in a so-called ‘Super Cup’ that would provide valuable financial assistance to clubs. As it turned out that was as successful as the Watney Cup, and lurched from one poorly supported season to another before finishing in the early 1990’s.

As this rumbled on, Lincoln City were enduring a summer of trouble too. The tragedy of the Bradford Fire was fresh in everyone’s minds, and further tragedy was averted a few weeks later when players were forced to use emergency chutes to escape a plane to Majorca. It overshot the runway at the Leeds/Bradford airport and passengers had to essentially jump to safety.

Colin Murphy left the club too, and he was followed by Gordon Hobson, Steve Thompson and George Shipley to name but a few. John Pickering took over and with money tight hastily assembled a squad he hoped to keep Lincoln in Division Three.

Peter Daniel playing for City – he would be the unfortunate manager to take us into the GMVC

The television debate rumbled on. The TV companies were offering £17m for the rights, but media mogul Robert Maxwell, for all his faults, believed they were worth closer to £90m. Just seven years later Sky paid £305m for a five-year deal. In 1985 BBC and ITV came back with an improved offer. £18m. It was refused.

The main issue wasn’t money, but the fear of plummeting attendances. League Chairman Graham Kelly said at the time “What has been put forward by the TV companies does not represent the best chance of those club surviving. The more live games there are, the less likely people are to go through the turnstiles.”

On August 17th, 1985 the new league season kicked off, and TV cameras were not present at any of the games. Clubs needed TV coverage for their sponsors, but the chairman who were, at the time, mostly local boys done good simply didn’t see the need for reform. Only Maxwell could look far enough into the future to see what the product would be worth, and convincing the TV companies wasn’t straightforward.

2099 fans came to Sincil Bank to watch the season opener, as opposed to 4139 in 1984. Across the UK crowds were down despite the lack of TV coverage. There was no highlights programmes, nothing for the armchair fan to satisfy his lust for the beautiful game. In the top flight Manchester United went on a 10 game winning streak, but luckily for Liverpool fans, nobody could watch it at home on TV.

The hooliganism problem hadn’t gone away either. There was trouble at West Ham v Birmingham, a stabbing at Leicester and Everton and The Guardian reported chanting over prayers for the victims of Heysel at Anfield. There was no incentive for the TV companies to up their bids as it seemed football was still in the gutter.

The 10th win of the Man Utd run was against Graham Taylor’s Watford side, and he was forthright about the lack of TV coverage after the game. “If there are personality clashes involved in the dispute somebody should knock their heads together and make them realise people want to see football on the box. It’s bloody stupid.”

The furore didn’t seem to be affecting City, they sat proudly in 6th place come October 5th. Crowds were still poor though, just 1862 turned up to watch us beat Bournemouth 3-2 on the 2nd. Goals from Warren Ward, John McGinley and Neil Redfearn gave us the win.

Future Imp Trevor Hebberd scores for Oxford in the 1986 Milk Cup Final, one of the agreed televised games.

Weeks later the TV companies met again with the league, and still no deal was thrashed out. Top-flight clubs were losing up to £40,000 per game in advertising revenue, and it became apparent something had to give.

On December 5th the crisis was finally put to rest. A £1.3m deal was agreed to share six live matches, plus the semi-finals and final of the Milk Cup. Finally football was back on TV, and the short journey from total blackout to the Premier League had begun in earnest.

On December 14th City lost 4-0 at home to Cardiff, a 10th defeat in 11 games, and John Pickering was sacked. The re-emergence of the televised game didn’t affect crowds at the Bank as you imagined it might, but a 7-0 defeat at Derby would certainly have kept people away from the next home game. That good early season form was gone, and as the game began to improve at the highest level, for Lincoln City the decline was beginning to kick in.

In the summer of 1986 Liverpool completed the double, England were eliminated from the World Cup by the ‘Hand of God’, and Lincoln City were relegated to Division 4 after failing to register a much-needed win in their last two games of the season. 2174 turned up at Sincil Bank to watch already-relegated Wolves beat us 3-2, just two days after already-relegated Cardiff had beaten us 2-1. Four points from those two games would have ensured survival, instead we were relegated for the first time in what would be a turbulent and heartbreaking twelve months.

English Football almost died in the summer of 1985, but by the summer of 1986 it was back on its feet and beginning to show signs of becoming the powerhouse it is today. However, at Sincil Bank many feel that we never recovered from the tragic events at Bradford and the subsequent on field problems, and that perhaps it is only now, 27 years later, that we are in a position to really get back to where we belong.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Gary. Just read your blog on football nearly died with the picture of the city Newport game onlooking closer at this I spotted my farther in the crowd. Sadly he died on Saturday evening aged 92. He was a life long city fan as are all the family down to his great grandson aged 9. Would be great to be able to save this picture but don’t know here to get one. Any chance you can help. Steve.

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