Football behind closed doors? Anyone would think it’s 1980

West Ham have some experience of playing, and winning, in an empty ground

I haven’t been watching the German Bundesliga games currently being played behind closed doors because I have to admit I don’t have a German Team. 

Come to think of it I don’t have Spanish team or an Italian team. I have some English teams I look out for after living in various other parts of the country, or having close friends who support them. But I don’t have a German team.  Therefore the idea of watching a game played behind closed doors between two teams I don’t care about didn’t really appeal to me – unlike so many football fans across England who were tuning in to get their first taste of live football in months.

Besides, football behind closed doors holds bad memories for me, of that time in September 1980 when West Ham had to play a game behind closed doors as a punishment. Let me set the scene a little. I forget that not everyone is as old as me and might not remember it. 

We’ve just had the 40th anniversary of West Ham winning the FA Cup – which is 40 years since our last major trophy, and a trophy we won as a second division team.  The record still stands after 40 years – we remain the last side from outside the top flight to win the FA Cup. 

Forty years. Let that sink in for a moment. At that time the various winners of the various domestic cups across Europe played in the European Cup winners’ Cup – a competition West Ham had already won in 1965. Meanwhile in Spain, Castilla, Real Madrid’s ‘B’ team were soundly thrashed 6-1 in the Copa del Rey, but qualified on the basis that Real had won the league and thereby already qualified for the European Cup.

In September 1980 we played Castilla in Madrid. This was not a great time to be a football supporter.  I do not want to go into the whys and wherefores, or the rights or wrongs about what happened that night in Madrid – but there was a lot of fighting and a West Ham fan was killed outside the stadium as he was run over by a bus. 

A tragic night. We lost 3-1 so to add insult to injury it seemed that we would be leaving the competition early. UEFA looked to punish us and decreed – after appeal – that the return leg at Upton Park should be played behind closed doors.  The original punishment had been a fine of £7,750 and the next two European home matches to be played at least 187 miles away from Upton Park. 

Sunderland’s offer to host the return leg had already been accepted when the appeal was heard and the punishment was revised. The loss of gate receipts from a 30,000+ crowd would be significantly higher than the original fine, but at least it would all be over with – and we would still be at home. 

Plans to screen the game in local pubs and cinemas were quickly squashed by UEFA so if you were among the official crowd of 262 on Wednesday 1 October 1980 (And I know a few who were) then hold your hand up and I’ll tell you how lucky you were. Or what a big liar you are.

An eerie atmosphere – you could hear every shout from the dugout. In the end, a hat-trick from David Cross meant that after extra time, the tie was won 5-1 (6-4) on aggregate. After beating Poli Timisoara of Romania in the next round, we were knocked out of the competition in front of a heaving crowd of 34,957 by Dinamo Tblisi, the eventual winners, with a breathtaking display of football.

As some of you will know, I am a bit of a nostalgia buff, and I’ve got a lot of videos which I’ve digitised and keep on my laptop – including every single season review from 1985-86 onwards.  I do share clips from these occasionally on Facebook but given the lack of football recently I thought it was time to share a bit more widely and it would appear in dark days, such as the ones we’ve experienced, people really appreciate a bit of nostalgia, even if it makes you realise things were not always better back in the day.

As another result of the lockdown and the difficulties we have all been facing I have decided to donate all my future book royalties to NHS Charities. So if you don’t have a copy yet, contact me directly and I will ensure my cut goes in the right direction. I really hope you are all keeping safe and well and cannot wait for the season to start again, even if it is in an empty stadium. 

It has to be better than the Bundesliga. And we have a 100% record in empty stadia.

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