It was a white-hot atmosphere around the city of Hull as Boothferry Park was being prepared for the final home game of a tumultuous season, but on this occasion the Tigers were making up the numbers.
All the focus was on Millwall, visitors on the day who were going after the Division Two title. Victory would seal it. Anything else would leave the last day up in the air, as Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers were all in hot pursuit and any two from these five could make it on the final day, but only if the Lions lost.
That was the scenario for May 2nd 1988, the Mayday Bank Holiday, as a sporting occasion. The scenario as a public event was very different. This was Millwall in the 1980s. And with Millwall in the 1980s came Millwall supporters of the 1980s.
As a 14 year old on the day, all I can relate is my own experiences, as opposed to anything that may have been observed by anyone else, individually or as an authority, or gone generally into folklore. As I got off the 76 bus from Hedon and began to work out where I should catch another one to Boothferry Park, a small group of tattooed young men with London accents approached me on Ferensway and, despite their alarming exterior, not to mention their heavy collective smell of ale, were most friendly when asking this slight teenager “which way to the football ground”.
I pointed in the general direction but admitted that I had no idea how to get there by bus. This was true, as previously I’d been travelling to City games with my best friend and his parents, or had been dropped off on North Road by my dad. Millwall at home, of all games, was the first time neither was able to do this and so I relied on the buses. I had time to find out about the bus service along Hessle Road or Anlaby Road but these visiting fans had got in first.
“Taxi then,” they said to each other. They quickly hailed one and, for reasons I still don’t understand now (though it had just started to rain), I got in with them. We travelled together to Boothferry Park in a cab, with the driver choosing to take the piss out of my black and amber scarf (with red trim) rather than rile the Millwall fans owing to my age, size and presumed lack of reputation before me of throwing wooden implements at anyone in my way.
The ride took forever, such was the traffic snaking along Anlaby Road and the number of people deciding that the flyover should be temporarily pedestrianised for the day. Eventually, we got to the car park of the Three Tuns and this group of Millwall fans paid the fare, wished me luck (me, not my team) and disappeared towards the entrance. They were instantly turned away, and so instead walked across the dual carriageway towards the Grandways sign of Boothferry Park. I ambled round to North Road, and took my usual standing place in the Well. Upon arrival, the North Stand and the rarely-used North East Corner were already full to bursting with Millwall supporters, few of whom were in colours betraying their allegiance.
Above the Well was the (alleged) Best Stand, the most expensive seating area of Boothferry Park and famous for its dust showers each time a stray ball thumped against it. For most home games, there were enough empty seats to keep your counting eyes occupied for a whole half of football in the event of a dreary game. But today it was filling, and filling. And soon it was evident that Millwall fans were filling it.
As a 14 year old, a Best Stand seat felt like an ambition that I would one day achieve with a decent salary after working hard on my education for another seven years or so. And yet these Cockney visitors were sitting in these hallowed seats. Daft to think of it like that now, of course. But, as a patient police officer explained to one or two ageing occupants of the Well as I earwigged, the Millwall fans without tickets were being allowed in, with a hefty admission fee, in order to reduce the potential for bother outside, especially as loads and loads of them had turned up, way beyond the 3,000 allocated. On the front row of the Best Stand a trio of Millwall supporters wearing eau de Castlemaine XXXX took seats right behind the point of the Well where I stood, and they would dominate our immediate personal earshot for the whole game.
City’s season had been very promising until an infamous run of 13 games without a win from January 16th to April 12th had prompted the sacking, impetuous despite the chronic run, of Brian Horton as manager. Dennis Booth took over for the remainder of the season and, in his first two matches, had managed four points. Even an inconsistent run, rather than a dreadful one, during the winter and early spring might have given City hope for the play-offs, such was the tightness of the division, but instead a bottom half finish was now the most likely. Horton had made four new signings in the month leading up to his departure, suggesting his dismissal was even more unfair. Three of those new signings were selected by Booth to face Millwall – only youthful left back Wayne Jacobs missed out, due to injury.
Millwall, under the stewardship of John Docherty, had been a terrific watch all season. They were tough in midfield, creative out wide and lethal in front of goal. The bite in midfield of Terry Hurlock and Les Briley was easily countered by the grace of a 22 year old centre forward called Teddy Sheringham who, alongside Irish international Tony Cascarino, had been the scoring sensations of the division. Feeding them from the flanks were Jimmy Carter, a fresh arrival during that season, and former Ipswich and Portsmouth winger Kevin O’Callaghan. Three of these players made their names in 1987/88 and would go on to bigger clubs and – in some cases – bigger glories.
Few doubted that Millwall would win the game. The main topic of conversation was whether the city of Hull, as well as Hull City, would be the loser. Nobody knew if Millwall’s travelling contingent was the hardest or most evil of the 1980s as that era had its share of bad ‘uns following all clubs, but certainly they were the most notorious, more so given that their club was not of any great size or historical significance in football, and therefore gained national attention for things not related to displays on the pitch.
By the time the players came out of the tunnel, the atmosphere was atomic. But it was friendly too, at least in terms of where the priorities of both sets of supporters lay. There are always exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of football fans not unused to fending off batons or charging the opposition still want to see the match in question, and though the odd drunken berk was carted away during the game – including one of the three in that prestigious Best Stand front row – generally the game was played, and viewed, in the right spirit.
This was helped, in fact probably caused, by Millwall scoring in the first five minutes. A long throw was hurled into the City box, Cascarino got a flick and Sheringham dived in late to head goalwards. City keeper Tony Norman made a one-handed save to his right and the ball struck full back Nicky Brown on the arm as he guarded the goalline. A penalty without question, despite a few protests, and O’Callaghan thumped the ball to Norman’s left, with the great Welsh custodian going the other way.
The goal allowed us to see just where the Millwall fans had managed to scatter themselves. As well as the designated away areas and the handful in the Best Stand, one or two arms of celebration were raised in the Kempton though the South Stand, by no means close to full (City were on average gates of about 6,000 at the time) had no obvious infiltrators, which was probably just as well.
Millwall, with O’Callaghan absolutely supreme, ran the rest of the game. Sheringham hit the inside of the post with a close range header, and Cascarino forced a superb tip-over from Norman in the second half. Millwall were deserving of a far greater margin of victory than they got, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Fans invaded the pitch as the final whistle sounded as it meant they could not be caught by anyone else.
City, for their part, looked knackered and spaced out, as if the shock of Horton’s dismissal – a decision which angered senior players like Garreth Roberts and Pete Skipper so much that they went after the chairman to tell him he was wrong – had finished them off completely. In the side was youthful striker Andy Payton, inexplicably wearing the number 6 shirt vacated on deadline day by Garry Parker, but where he was meant to be playing was something of a mystery, with new signing Keith Edwards lining up alongside Andy Saville up front. On the left wing, meanwhile, was former England winger Peter Barnes, who memorably had a debut to die for against Barnsley when he joined on a short-term deal and then steadfastly failed to play a single decent game again. So abject was he in this one that he was replaced by Tim Hotte, a player who epitomised the reserve team trier whose first team hopes barely existed. Hotte even started the closing game of the season five days later at relegated Reading, the only League start he ever made for City. It ended 0-0.
Millwall lost at home to Blackburn on the final Saturday but the trophy was theirs. Aston Villa and Middlesbrough tied on points and goal difference behind them, but Villa went up on goals scored, and Boro won the play-offs, relegating Chelsea and preventing the spectacle of a Terry Dolan-led Bradford City reaching the top flight at the same time. After a roaring start to life in the top tier, when the likes of Carter and Sheringham were especially noticeable, Millwall finished a respectable tenth. They came back down the following year after selling Carter to Liverpool and Cascarino to Aston Villa and missed out in the play-offs on an immediate return, which prompted the sale of Sheringham.
City finished 15th, 20 points off a play-off place and Booth expected to be appointed as full-time manager, only to be restored as assistant when Don Robinson brought in Eddie Gray. Subsequent visits from Millwall have produced similar tensions but notably more dubious incidents – the FA Cup tie at the KC Stadium in 2009 leaps to mind, and there’s a reasonable chance of the odd Millwall-related incident this weekend when the current incarnation pitch up for our game. On the Mayday Bank Holiday of 1988, however, the Millwall fans in attendance at Boothferry Park just wanted to see their team win something. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The footage does not come from Tiger Tube but from a Millwall fan’s own youtube page, hence the lack of commentary and the use of unidentified music. The comments underneath disintegrate into daft arguments about how many were actually there; the truth, probably, is that of the 10,811 crowd (City’s third biggest of the season after the Yorkshire derbies with Bradford and Leeds), an extra thousand or so Millwall supporters, beyond their official allocation, got into the ground that day.