A DAY billed as one to savour for Scarborough had, by its close, descended into a living nightmare.
Thirty years ago tomorrow, history was made in the seaside resort as Boro, the first club to be promoted automatically to the Football League just three months earlier following the abandonment of the re-election system, hosted Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening day of the new season.
But, where the pre-match talk had centred on how Neil Warnock’s side would handle the step up, all discussions in the wake of an afternoon when hooligans wreaked havoc in the town centred on law and order.
Fifty-six arrests and TV footage of one Wolves fan crashing 25 feet through a stand roof beamed around the world left Boro’s chairman labelling the thugs as “animals” and Warnock calling for a flying squad of police to deal with troublemakers.
Barclays, recently announced as the League’s flagship sponsor, also made noises about potentially walking away to underline just how serious the problems had been on the East coast. Even three decades on, the events of August 15, 1987, are still regarded as one of football’s darker days.
The weekend was supposed to have been very, very different. From the moment Boro had been handed a home game on the opening day with the release of the fixtures in mid-June, a sense of excitement and anticipation started to build.
Plenty of work was needed to bring Seamer Road up to speed, including new turnstiles, gates and a toilet block. Segregation also had to be installed to keep visiting supporters apart from their home counterparts.
All in all, the upgrade cost around £150,000 – which, together with the £100,000 share issue that the club had needed to join the League, meant a busy summer of fund-raising in the resort. To the people of Scarborough, however, it was a price worth paying and there was plenty of ambitious talk ahead of the club’s bow against one of the League’s founder members.
Terry Wood, the Boro chairman, told the Yorkshire Post: “If you make me talk about targets, the first one is to be for Scarborough to survive in our first year in the League. Then, who knows? It would be a dream come true to get this club as far as the Second Division.”
In that first year, Scarborough’s budget was based on the break-even of 3,000 crowds, but Wood saw this as only the start. “Our capacity is 11,500, but we are aiming to make that 17,500 some day,” added Wood.
Come the big day, a crowd of 7,314 squeezed into the Athletic Ground to witness a slice of history.
Those present were treated to an absorbing encounter, Boro claiming a point from a 2-2 draw thanks to a ferocious second-half equaliser from Ray McHale. It came after Stewart Mell’s ninth-minute opener had been cancelled out by Steve Bull and Steve Stoutt, who just three years earlier had been turning out for the Sun Inn, Lightcliffe, in the Brighouse Sunday League.
Boro almost won it, too, with only a fine save from Wolves’ goalkeeper Mark Kendall denying Mell late on following neat approach play from Ernie Moss and Stewart Hamill.
As the crowd made their way home, however, the talk was not of Mell or Bull or anyone else who had contributed to such an entertaining contest.
Instead, the violence that saw an exit gate battered down, a food kiosk in the away end ransacked and play held up for 10 minutes at the start of the second half amid clashes between the police and visiting fans was the only topic on anyone’s mind.
Trouble had begun in the resort early, but it was the sight of one 23-year-old Wolves fan crashing through the roof of the Hinderwell Road stand that came to symbolise a black day.
Incredibly, despite falling 25 feet and landing on the concrete terrace, he was able to check himself out of hospital later that night. The suspicion among the medical staff was he had been so drunk that his body had been limp on impact, meaning he avoided serious injury.
The violence continued even after the clearly fortunate fan was stretchered away, leading Wolves manager Graham Turner to make a plea over the PA system to his club’s supporters amid that delay at the start of the second half.
“We don’t want the game abandoned,” he said. “We don’t want to drag the name of Wolves and football through the mire. Please, gentlemen, behave yourselves.”
The game was able to restart but, even so, there was plenty of understandable anger at the final whistle. As Warnock implored the authorities to act against the hooligans, Boro chairman Wood said: “I would urge Fourth Division clubs to ban all Wolves fans this season. Ken Bates (then Chelsea chairman) had the right idea in wanting electric fences.
“If farmers can use electric fences to get their animals in check, football clubs should be allowed it to halt soccer violence.”
Scarborough were far from the only Yorkshire club to suffer at the hands of the hooligans on that opening weekend of the 1987-88 campaign.
Violent clashes were also seen in Hull, where around 100 fans clashed at the train station after Blackburn Rovers’ visit, and in Bradford, a minibus of Swindon Town fans being set upon when stopping at traffic lights on Manningham Lane near Valley Parade.
But it was the seaside resort that made all the headlines 30 years ago this week thanks to both the BBC and ITV having cameras at the club’s League bow.
Footage of the Wolves fan falling through the roof was beamed around the world as yet another depressing example of what had become known as the ‘English disease’.
For Scarborough, this newspaper’s headline the following Monday – ‘Baptism of fire for the newcomers’ – pretty much summed up the events of such a dark day.
Further trouble followed for the visits of Bolton Wanderers and Burnley, the latter a 1-0 triumph in early October that took Warnock’s men to the top of the table.
Alas, such an impressive start could not last and the Seadogs eventually finished 12th, the projected break-even attendance figure achieved thanks to an average of 3,003.
Scarborough would go on to compete in the League for 12 years, reaching the play-offs twice, before bowing out in dramatic fashion courtesy of goalkeeper Jimmy Glass’s stoppage-time strike for Carlisle United. Until Glass struck in the ‘94th’ minute against Plymouth Argyle, Boro were staying up and the Cumbrians heading down.
The club never truly recovered from such a hammer blow and was wound up in 2007, a sad end to a story that – barring the unfortunate day Wolves came to town – for so long had been a fairytale.