New Shay, old shame

It promised to showcase the best the third division had to offer, but instead the game was a throwback to the darker days, as Paul Mullen explains

Hartlepool fans had looked forward to their team’s first appearance in a live televised match, at Halifax, ever since it was announced at the start of the season. It will now be remembered for all the wrong reasons. What should have been a night of celebration so very nearly turned into a disaster and, as usual, the fans got the blame.

The local papers and the club “strongly advised” fans to buy tickets, but the game was not all-ticket despite the high level of interest. The club even laid on free coaches to take season ticket-holders and supporters club members.

Older fans remembered The Shay from the days when the speedway track cut into the corners of the pitch, and you were all crammed into a poky corner of the ground on a shallow sloping terrace. The New Shay was different – there would be plenty of room for everyone.

We arrived early to savour the atmosphere, and watch fans being interviewed by Sky. The first warning sign came when a Halifax official asked if we knew when the official coaches would be arriving, as there were only 69 tickets left and he already had more people than that queuing. Exiled fans arrived from all over the country, and several hundred travelled from the town by car and mini-bus to pay at the gate.

Apparently, Halifax had not managed to obtain the necessary safety certificate for the new away terracing and we would all be in the paddock. About 700 fans were packed into the corner with the shallow sloping terrace. If you weren’t at the front, or over six feet tall, you weren’t going to see much of the game. Ticketless fans arriving were initially sold tickets to a stand they shared with home supporters, and later paid at the gate to enter a small area of terracing just the other side of the seated Halifax fans, missing the start of the game.

During the first half, the crowd packed into the paddock became increasingly restless at being penned in, and many climbed over a crush barrier to the area immediately in front, behind the advertising hoardings. At half time, one fan ran onto the pitch and teased a steward into pursuing him. He was eventually detained and rightly led away. This, however, was to be the turning point of the evening. The stewards summoned police help, who decided to push the fans back behind the crush barriers. They did this with raised batons. How they expected people stumbling backwards with a baton in their face to climb a three-foot-high fence at the same time and enter an already dangerously overcrowded area is unclear. Fans at the front were pushed back by those behind, who feared being crushed, which was the signal for the two leading police officers to immediately extend their batons and start hitting anyone within reach over the head. The rest of the police nearby soon joined in the mêlée.

Within seconds fans suffered gaping head wounds, some fell to the floor but were still repeatedly hit. Those holding their ground were dragged down to the front and unceremoniously thrown over the fence and arrested. Even when the initial violence had subsided, the police officer who had struck the first blows still found time to lean over and strike a fan several rows back. An eight-year-old boy caught up in the incident received similar treatment and was left severely distressed until he was helped by other members of the crowd.

Hartlepool director Harold Hornsey came to the front of the crowd to try to calm the situation, and fans tried to convey their anger at the treatment meted out by the police. The officer who lead the violence was cited by many fans, although he is likely to remain anonymous as all requests for officers’ identification numbers were met with silence and their badges were impossible to read from a safe distance.

The trouble subsided as the players came out for the second half, but the atmosphere lasted until the end of the game. A match which in itself was a good advertisement for Third Division football left a bad taste in the mouth. The over-zealous and indiscriminate actions of the police were a throw-back to the bad old days of the Seventies – policing obviously hasn’t moved on since then in West Yorkshire. 

From WSC 140 October 1998. What was happening this month