There are some football matches from the distant past that still leave you breathless when you watch them on YouTube. Matches played out in front of packed terraces, the atmosphere incomprehensible in relation to the sanitised experience of today, with both sets of players flying into tackles, as if their lives depended on it.
The 1985 FA Cup semi-final clashes between Manchester United and Liverpool are a prime example of this. Another is the Old Firm derby of October 17, 1987. An afternoon dripping in tension, the match alone was full of drama, passion, and controversy. Yet for four men involved, the consequences of their actions on that famous Saturday would rumble on for months to come.
Having pipped Hearts to the title in 1986, Celtic were determined to regain their crown after the start of the Graeme Souness revolution had seen Rangers win the league for the first time in nine years. Hearts were top of the table in October 1987, but with Celtic four points ahead of Rangers and in the days of two points for a win, Souness’ men were in desperate need of a victory as the two prepared to meet at Ibrox.
Naturally there was history between the teams. Souness had been sent off and banned for five matches after a. For the first 15 minutes or so, there was the usual array of snappy tackles. But after 17 minutes, the pressure cooker blew.
It had all seemed so innocuous when Rangers keeper Chris Woods collected the ball in his six-yard box. But as soon as Frank McAvennie arrived on the scene, the situation escalated quickly. Both raised their hands at each other, with Woods grabbing the Celtic forward by his throat. Soon the Rangers pair of Terry Butcher and Graham Roberts appeared to add more fuel to the fire.
At first Butcher pushed McAvennie away, and as Roberts got involved, the Celtic man fell to the floor, holding his face. Referee Jim Duncan, officiating in his first Old Firm match, now had to pick the bones out of the fracas. Pulling Woods and McAvennie aside, Duncan took his time before brandishing red cards to the pair.
Both looked shocked as they made their way off, Woods bare-chested after handing his goalkeeper jersey to Roberts, who had himself escaped any punishment. As Butcher vehemently protested Woods’ dismissal in front of the jubilant travelling support, his name was also added to the referee’s notebook, a decision that would come back to haunt the England defender later.
Without Woods in goal, Rangers were vulnerable, and a strike from Andy Walker and a Butcher own goal looked to have settled proceedings as the first half ended. Butcher’s afternoon went from bad to worse, as a needless clash with Celtic keeper Allen McKnight saw him dismissed just after the hour. Two goals down and reduced to nine men, surely there was no way back for the home team.
But on the afternoon that kept on giving, and as the tackles continued to fly in, somehow Rangers earned a point. Inevitably Ally McCoist scored, before a dramatic last-minute equaliser from Richard Gough sent the majority of Ibrox into ecstasy.
There was still time for some histrionics from Roberts, and for the stand-in keeper to become embroiled in more controversy. Waving his hands and conducting the Rangers’ fans’, Roberts would later claim that he was unaware of the sectarian nature of the song coming from the terraces. A fittingly messy end to an afternoon of chaos.
Except this was not the last we would hear about this match. Within days, the press began to report that the Procurator Fiscal, Scotland’s Director of Public Prosecutions, had ordered a police investigation into the events at Ibrox. On November 1 it was announced that the four players involved had been charged with a breach of the peace.
Things went from bad to worse for Butcher. He might not have been able to catch a break, but suffered one to his leg in a match against Aberdeen in November, an injury that had implications for his own career – he had been linked to Manchester United, but Alex Ferguson turned his attentions to Steve Bruce – and to England’s Euro 88 campaign.
The trial started on April 12, 1988, and those present in Glasgow Sheriff Court heard arguments for and against the case. Many, including referee Duncan, thought that police intervention in refereeing matters was unwelcome. “Football has gone on for hundreds of years with no interference from the law and I would like to see it continue that way,” Duncan declared.
Assistant Chief Constable John Dickson was adamant, however, that there was a “direct relationship between the anger and the venom of the crowd to the incident on the field.” Indicating that his 500 officers on duty had to be reinforced with 100 reserves, Dickson expressed his concerns. “I thought there was a very real possibility that there would be a pitch invasion had the fence not been in place.”
The trial would last four days before a verdict was reached. Woods was fined £500, Butcher £250, McAvennie found not guilty, and the charges against Roberts were not proven. Two days before, Chris Kamara had been fined £1,200 in the first English Football League case that had gone to court, charged with grievous bodily harm after breaking Jim Melrose’s cheekbone. It was an important few days in British football history.
“Two large crowds of partisan spectators could have been converted into rival mobs,” Sheriff McKay informed Woods and Butcher. “That the spectators were not so transformed is no credit to you.” In the fallout it was rumoured that all three Rangers players made threats to quit the Scottish game. Roberts did return to England in the following summer, but Woods and Butcher remained for the start of Rangers’ run of nine titles in a row.
A little over a month after trial, McAvennie was making headline news for the right reasons, as tackle on McAvennie put the Scot out of the game for seven months, and it was reported that another court case would follow.clinched the double for Celtic in their centenary season. A less than successful return to West Ham followed a year later, with Kamara entering the story again. His
McAvennie and Kamara would not end up in court for a second time, though. Perhaps McAvennie had gone through enough during the 87/88 season, judging by his comments in 2007. “Chris and Terry were given criminal records because we four players were exploited to further the ambitions of others in legal circles. We were a test case.”
Butcher certainly agrees. “I have no doubt that there was government interference and pressure applied from the highest level to bring convictions against us. We were convenient scapegoats, we were the role models who had to be slapped down and told how to behave so that the supporters would get the message. It was pathetic, but made for a nightmare time as the legal wheels turned.”