A near-tragedy at a Fairs Cup game against AC Milan was common for football fans
16 February ~ We all know what happened at Hillsborough in 1989, at Burnden Park in 1946, at Ibrox in 1902 and 1971, at Valley Parade in 1985 and at Heysel, also in 1985. Terrible tragedies, but the surprise for me is that there have been so few of them, considering the huge number of football matches that are played and the masses that they often attract. And this has set me wondering whether many similar tragedies have only narrowly been averted. Here is why.
On February 16, 1966, Chelsea took on AC Milan at Stamford Bridge in the Fairs Cup. I have never been a Chelsea supporter, but just under three years earlier I had seen the then 19-year-old Gianni Rivera give a captivating performance in Milan’s 2-1 European Cup final win over Benfica at Wembley, and I really wanted to see him again.
So, I joined the 59,541 fans who packed Stamford Bridge for what was to prove a classic game. I positioned myself near the top of that massive terrace that dominated the ground at the time. Maybe I did it so that I could effect a quick getaway at the end. If so, it was to prove a very unwise decision. I placed myself behind a crush barrier and waited for the game to start.
Very soon it became obvious that latecomers were beginning to push from behind. At first it just seemed a bit uncomfortable, but nothing to worry about. Soon, though, it began to grow serious when we found that we could not move in any direction and those of us who were up against barriers were in danger of being crushed.
At this point I can say that I was more terrified and panic-stricken than I have ever been in my life, even more than I had been when I nearly drowned in a swimming pool when I was about seven. I could feel the breath being sucked out of me and I genuinely believed that I was going to die, and I was helpless to do anything about it.
Meanwhile, unaware of what was unfolding on the terrace, Chelsea went 2-0 up. The second was a magnificent strike from Peter Osgood which I have now seen on YouTube but did not witness at the time as I was convinced that I was fighting for my life.
And then, blessed relief. The police finally realised what was going on and to relieve the pressure they allowed about 2,000 of us to make our way down to the dog track, from where we watched the second half of Chelsea’s 2-1 win sitting on the grass.
I will never know how close we came to tragedy that evening, and I can find no reference to what happened on the web. I only know what I felt, and it was utterly terrifying. I could say that I have never stood behind a crush barrier since, but it would not be true. At The Valley, for instance, you were never in danger of being crushed.
My experience gives me an opinion on whether standing areas should be reintroduced. My answer would remain yes, but with their capacity such that even when “full” everybody would have plenty of breathing space. The problem back then was the "pack ’em in" mentality which meant that even when you were not in physical danger, a crowded terrace was not a comfortable experience, to say nothing of the fact that parts of the pitch were usually invisible.
I was back watching a game the following Saturday. I never told anyone in my family what nearly happened that night. My mother, for one, would have been terrified every time I went to a night game if I had. Richard Mason