When Northern Premier League Burton Albion were drawn against Division One Leicester City in the 1985 FA Cup third round, on paper it appeared to be a romantic tie. The typical David v Goliath clash, the outside chance of a shock, and a day in the spotlight for the part-timers of Burton, provided all the classic ingredients required for this stage of the FA Cup. Sadly, the fixture ended up making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Although the tie was moved to Derby's Baseball Ground for safety reasons, Leicester's 1980 experience against Harlow Town was used as an example that Neil Warnock's team could run the Division One team close. Back in 1980, Leicester drew with Athenian Premier League Harlow Town at Filbert Street, before suffering an embarrassment in Essex in the replay. Leicester defender Tommy Williams, one of the survivors of that night, highlighted the potential dangers ahead.
"We realise we are on a hiding to nothing," Williams stated before the Burton match. "We were terrible that night at Harlow and it would have been no injustice if they had won by three or four clear goals. So some of us know what to expect. That's why we are going out against Burton determined not to let it happen again."
Burton had already disposed of Wootton Blue Cross, Stevenage Borough, Willenhall Town, Wycombe Wanderers, Staines Town, and Aldershot, on their way to reaching the third round for the first time since 1956. But the adventure was expected to end against Leicester. Twenty-nine years before, Burton were hammered 7-0 by Charlton at this stage; in 1985, Burton suffered another thrashing. However, this time there would be outside influences to take into account.
Midlands brewery company Ind Coope, sponsors of both teams, provided both sets of players with an even greater incentive to progress to the fourth round; a barrel of best bitter, containing 36 gallons/288 pints of beer. Come the end of the match on Saturday January 5, Burton keeper Paul Evans must have felt like he had drunk the lot.
Burton had been holding their own prior to the incident that handed the match notoriety. Gary Lineker opened the scoring after 16 minutes, yet a David Vaughan equaliser sent the Burton fans amongst the 22,492 crowd into raptures. Things were about to take a turn for the worse, though.
Throughout the match, Evans had been showered with missiles whilst patrolling his area. "Someone threw a can in the goalmouth just after the start," Evans recalled after the match. "So I picked it up. It was full of sand." There was more to come unfortunately. "There were a lot of coins being thrown, and one of them hit me. Then I was hit by something else, and I went down."
Evans was struck by a block of wood thrown from the stands, believed to be a part of the seating, players gathering around the stricken keeper with concerned looks on their faces. "I didn't quite pass out," Evans said. "And eventually I managed to get up. I felt very nauseated, and kept trying to throw up." In fact, Evans was sick on the pitch, and continued to vomit at half-time.
Eventually struggling to his feet, Evans then conceded two goals, not that he knew much about them. "I can't remember the second and third goals at all. Someone told me they were headers." Having already used their one substitute, Burton were reluctant to go down to ten men, but they had a big decision to make at half-time.
Referee Brian Hill extended the break by five minutes, to give Evans time to recover. "I was weak at the knees," Evans said. "A doctor told me not to go out for the second half, but by then I was beginning to feel a little better. I didn't want to miss anything." Evans did make it out for the second half, but three more goals gave Leicester a 6-1 win, Lineker's hat-trick apparently putting Gordon Milne's team into the fourth round.
"It should have been a gala occasion. Instead, it was a rather unpleasant day out," Simon Barnes wrote in The Times, as rumours began to circulate that Burton may lodge a protest with the Football Association to get the match replayed. "We know we are only little Burton but the principle is important," Warnock commented. "Whoever is playing, hooligans must not be allowed the opportunity of altering the course of a match."
After a two hour meeting, Burton decided to appeal to the FA, with Chairman Bill Royall making the 200-mile round trip through snow to deliver the protest letter to Lancaster Gate. In 1974, the FA ordered the Newcastle v Nottingham Forest fifth round match to be replayed after crowd trouble, and UEFA had recently ruled that the Celtic-Rapid Vienna European Cup Winners' Cup tie should be played again, due to a missile allegedly striking a Rapid player. So there was hope for the non-league team. Six days after the original match, Burton's case was heard.
Leicester secretary Alan Bennett made his feelings clear on the matter. "Of the 6,000 tickets sold behind the goal, only 1,828 were issued by Leicester. The rest were sold at the gate on the day to anyone. There were incidents earlier in the match when Leicester fans behind the goal were hit by missiles from the stand above. The feeling was that the culprits were Derby people." Derby officials hit back at this accusation, but the most important opinion would be that of the FA committee.
The FA came down in favour of Burton, ordering a replay to be played at the Baseball Ground behind closed doors. "The clear message from the decision is that the Football Association will not draw back from actions strong enough to prove that crowd trouble must not pay," FA secretary Ted Croker announced after the hearing. Leicester were less than happy, but had to accept the decision. "The team and our genuine supporters are victims of idiots and to call them only idiots is to treat them kindly," Milne complained. "Don't call them fans."
The Foxes found an unlikely ally in Evans. "My sympathies are with Leicester. I think they deserve the tie on the basis of the first result," Evans admirably stated after the hearing. Despite having a second bite of the cherry, Evans, his manager, and team mates, now faced another headache; could they get time off work to play in the replay?
"I've got lorry drivers, shopkeepers, solicitors and all sorts of working lads who will have to get the day off," Warnock said. "But we'll have 11 out there and that's the important thing." Warnock, a chiropodist in Sheffield, had to cancel a number of bookings, and the situation was hardly helped when the replay scheduled for Monday January 14 was called off due to snow.
The £35 a week part-timers were now faced with the issue of sorting leave from work for a second time, as the fixture was moved to the Wednesday afternoon at Highfield Road, Coventry, due to the unavailability of the Baseball Ground. Finally, the replay went ahead, in front of roughly 200 people, made up of club representatives, journalists, and a few ball boys forced to stand and shiver on the empty snow-covered terraces.
A Paul Ramsey goal after four minutes would settle the tie, although Burton went close through 23-goal striker Stewart Mell, and grazed the fingertips of Leicester keeper Ian Andrews, and the post, in the final minute after a Doug Newton effort. Overall, though, the match was a strange affair, naturally played out in an eerie atmosphere.
"It is unfair to ask teams to play in that environment and I wouldn't like to think that any professional side will be asked to do that again," Milne noted after his team had progressed to a fourth round date with Carlisle. "The crowd is part of the game and you can't perform without them."
Very true, although Simon Barnes did question the minority element of these crowds that seemed intent on destruction. "It is not a question of football reflecting the ills of the society in the eighties, or any nonsense like that. There have been destructive morons in every society, in every age. The pity of it is that in the eighties, they go to football matches."
"We did ourselves justice," Warnock said as the saga came to a conclusion. "Without outside interference we got on with the game and showed a lot of guts and determination and quite a lot of skill. We are disappointed we lost but we were happy to prove that it would have been closer in the first match without intimidation."
But the final word should come from Evans. "We went to the game to enjoy ourselves. But I was deprived of half an hour of a game I had been looking forward to." And that is the saddest part of this sorry tale. A chapter that unfortunately could be added to many others in a season of violence that sent football in Britain hurtling to rock bottom.