This article was originally published on 12 December 2016
IT WAS A pretty turbulent time for Manchester United.
The club had been crowned FA Cup winners in May 1977 under Tommy Docherty – their first piece of silverware since the 1968 European Cup.
But within two months, ‘The Doc’ was gone after it was sensationally revealed he had been having an affair with the wife of United’s physiotherapist.
During Docherty’s reign especially, a significant hooligan culture began to develop at Old Trafford. Previously, there had been some incidents, notably in 1971 when the club incurred a two-game ban for fan behaviour and had to play home games at Anfield and Stoke’s Victoria Ground.
But things increased dramatically when United were relegated to the second tier in 1974 (fans had infamously invaded the pitch after Denis Law’s back-heel effectively ensured their demotion during a derby with City) when violent scenes at a variety of grounds became commonplace. On the opening day of the season, there were clashes between United and Leyton Orient hooligans. It was something similar at Cardiff’s Ninian Park later in the season and at Hillsborough too.
Instant promotion didn’t help and United’s ‘Red Army’ continued to wreak havoc upon the club’s return to the top flight.
And as much as the FA Cup success in 1977 was something to enjoy, there was inevitable trepidation owing to the club’s pending European assignments.
For hooligans, the allure of instigating violence outside of British venues was intoxicating and there had already been examples of it during Tottenham’s Uefa Cup final second-leg clash with Feyenoord in Rotterdam in 1974.
So, when United were drawn to face French side Saint-Etienne in the first round of the Cup Winners’ Cup, it spelled trouble.
All mixed together, the convenience of a Dover ferry, the Anglo/French rivalry and United’s longed-for return to European competition proved a rather deadly cocktail.
Given United’s reputation at the time, the French police were prepared for trouble and after some clashes in the local square between fans and police earlier in the day, violence continued in the terraces between both sets of supporters as a small group of United’s hooligan element landed in the home section.
Things started off fairly timidly. There was a bakery workers strike taking place in the UK at the time so Saint-Etienne fans threw some stale bread at their visiting counterparts.
But then things escalated. There were fist-fights and bottles thrown and 33 people were taken to hospital as the police stepped in quickly and escorted the United troublemakers out of the ground.Source: Terrace Retro 2/YouTube
The game finished 1-1, Gordon Hill opening the scoring before the guests were pegged back. Saint-Etienne had been crowned French champions for three successive seasons and had narrowly lost the European Cup to Bayern Munich the year previous. So, the result gave United plenty of hope for the return leg.
Except for one, tiny issue: Uefa banned United from the competition in the aftermath of the fan violence and Saint-Etienne were given a bye to the next round. United’s dream return to European football had quickly turned into a nightmare.
The club had been punished for a continuous hooligan problem that been allowed simmer for years. But, they appealed the Uefa decision and the strategy worked – with one, slightly odd condition attached: United would have to play the second-leg 200km away from Old Trafford. Considering hooligans had travelled over 1300km to cause trouble in France initially, it seemed optimistic to think such a stipulation would have any effect.
In keeping with the rather baffling decision-making process, United selected Plymouth Argyle’s stadium, Home Park, as the venue for the second-leg.
So, on 5 October, over 31,000 crammed in to watch United conjure a 2-0 victory with goals from Stuart Pearson and Steve Coppell.
It remains the only European fixture to have been played at the ground.
For United, eliminating such a powerhouse didn’t provide the momentum it should have. In the next round, they lost 4-0 in their first-leg clash in Porto and despite winning the return game 5-2 at Old Trafford, it wasn’t enough and they were out.
It would be another three years before Europe beckoned again.