United fans take over the Kop

For one match in 1971, the Red Devils played a ‘home’ game at their bitterest rivals – setting the tone for much of the 1970s’ terrace terror that was to follow


Anfield is only 30 miles from Old Trafford, but for Manchester United fans it may as well be the dark side of the moon. Yet, on one uncomforta­ble August evening in 1971, and with Old Trafford closed because of past crowd trouble, United called Liverpool’s ground home for one remarkable league encounter against reigning champions Arsenal. But rather than acting as a deterrent as the FA had intended, the fixture actually served as a template for the hooliganis­m woes that would blight football through the ’70s and beyond.

Old Trafford had already witnessed numerous violent episodes during the previous 1970-71 season. Most notable was a February 1971 clash at home to Newcastle, when the home supporters threw various missiles, including a knife.

As a punishment, Manchester United were forced to play their opening two home matches of the 1971-72 season at neutral venues, namely Anfield and Stoke City’s Victoria Ground.

To make matters even more unusual, the first of these ties would be played under floodlight­s on a Friday night, so it would avoid clashing with Everton’s home fixture the next day.

Several United fans reacted angrily to the reprimand. After a pre-season Watney Cup defeat away at Halifax, a minority “terrorised” the town and caused £1,500-worth of damages. “Thugs declare war!” proclaimed the Daily Mirror, which reported hearing “soccer hooligans” boasting that the violence had been as a response to all “the slobs who shut our ground”. Ominously, they warned they’d “do it again at Anfield” as well.

With Leeds United’s Elland Road home also shut for the start of the 1971-72 season, hooliganis­m was becoming an increasing problem in football, partly as supporters were travelling to away matches in bigger groups. Much of the trouble focused on the ‘football special’ trains, with the services often suspended due to vandalism and violence.

There were increasing­ly frequent problems at matches, too, with fans beginning to clash inside and outside grounds. After one early high-profile incident in 1965, Manchester United banned some of their fans for fighting during a game away at Burnley.

“We cannot have a minority spoiling things for everyone else and damaging the reputation of the football club and its supporters,” said boss Matt Busby.

Action was needed to reduce crowd trouble, but insisting that United play a ‘home’ game at Anfield made little sense. United and Liverpool had been battling for First Division titles during the ’60s, and while animosity among the two clubs was not as intense as it would become in later decades, they were hardly the best of friends.

The decision to go and play at Anfield fuelled the rivalry between United and Liverpool supporters, with a section of the latter keen to protect their territory.

Outside Anfield Road on that Friday night, United fans found themselves confronted by what The Times called “a mob of 600 Liverpool skinheads – among whom were girls”. The mob was eventually dispersed by police using dogs, but groups “rampaged” through nearby streets, smashing windows and damaging cars.

Inside the stadium, there was the extraordin­ary sight of Liverpool’s Kop being entirely filled with Manchester United fans, who swirled scarves and chanted “Uni-ted! Uni-ted!” Then, as the two teams started to warm up, “thousands of stupid young United supporters” (according to The Times) charged out of the Kop and swarmed across the pitch, “sweeping officials and the police out of their way” in an attempt to reach Arsenal supporters.

This eye-opening spectacle was an early example of what would become known as “taking ends” – essentiall­y a boisterous game involving groups of fans charging through the stands or across pitches at their rivals, with the aim of driving them away from their respective ends and perhaps stealing some scarves or flags.

Although kicks and punches were thrown, “taking ends” was less about violence than territoria­l dominance. Inside Anfield, while several fans got ejected, none were arrested – they soon retreated across the pitch and into the Kop ready for kick-off.

The game itself would have been memorable regardless of the venue, featuring two fine United and Arsenal teams. An overhead bicycle kick from Frank Mclintock fired the Gunners into a fourth-minute advantage, but then second-half goals from Alan Gowling, Bobby Charlton and Brian Kidd made the final score 3-1 to United and put them top of the league. The only real disappoint­ment for United fans was seeing George Best limp off following a clattering by George Graham.

The crowd at Anfield that night was 27,649, lower than United’s average home attendance, which was around 47,000. By the time United had paid Liverpool a cut of the gate receipts and given Arsenal compensati­on for their lost share of the earnings, the ground closure was an expensive punishment. The crowd at United’s next ‘home’ match, a 3-1 win over West Brom at Stoke, was 23,146.

The main consequenc­e of the Anfield match was damage to fan reputation. The newspapers focused their coverage around photos of the United supporters swarming across the pitch, and some of them being dragged away by the police. The spectacle of “taking ends” looked worse than it was, and so was ideal for a tabloid press keen to publish material that might stir up moral panic.

Soon enough, it would be common to see front page headlines including, “Soccer Shame!” and “Animals!” run alongside photos showing groups of fans marauding across pitches.

Such inflammato­ry media coverage only really served to promote hooligan behaviour and to provoke hostilitie­s between the fans. An atmosphere of one-upmanship soon developed and the whole thing became something of a competitio­n, with the Daily Mirror introducin­g their “League of Violence”, ranking hooliganis­m by club, and the Daily Mail launching a “Thug’s League”. If the aim was shaming hooligans, the result only encouraged them.

It was from within this increasing­ly hostile atmosphere that the very first football hooligan firms emerged. One of the earliest was United’s Red Army, which followed the club around the country throughout the 1970s, often outnumberi­ng the home support and usually causing trouble. The Red Army also caused problems at Old Trafford. For their first home game of 1974-75, United fans found themselves caged behind some newly-installed fences, just like the “animals” that the tabloid press proclaimed them to be.

Football hooliganis­m was now clearly a growing problem, but it needed to be viewed in a wider context than much of the media’s coverage would allow. Violence was not restricted to football in the ’70s and was representa­tive of a much wider problem across society. Shifting matches to rival grounds only made matters worse and caging fans behind fences would eventually have tragic results, as Liverpool found out at Hillsborou­gh in April 1989.

But while football authoritie­s could hardly fail to realise that hooliganis­m was becoming an increasing blight on the game, they were not able to offer any better solutions. “We have tried to find an answer to this problem,” stated the FA chairman Sir Andrew Stephen at the time of the Anfield match in 1971, “and I must admit that we are baffled to know what else we can do.”

Sadly, things would get worse before they got better. And it all began with United fans singing on the Kop.


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