Crossbars and bedsheets

The late 70s were a good time for Exeter football. After a decade in the basement division, Bobby Saxton’s team were promoted to Division 3 in 1977, flirted with promotion in 1979-80 and reached the 6th round of the Cup in 1980-81. For three years the talk of the city’s schoolyards was all of Tony Kellow, John Delve and Dave Pullar. Oh, and of one more thing. Like it or not, going to games in the 70s could be – it wasn’t always by any means, but it could be – a dangerous business.

This clip, with thanks to Britain On Film, shows the particular ambience of the facilities at St James’ Park in those days, plus just how brutal some of the fans could be. The railway sleepers in the Cowshed were much beloved: replaced with concrete terracing post-Bradford, held together by discarded ring-pulls and the dust of decades, they dated from 1926 when their construction had been delayed by the General Strike.

Click on this picture to view the clip:

Despite the description, the film is actually of City’s League Cup tie against much-disliked rivals Plymouth on 13 August 1977. That season, both clubs departed from tradition and wore white home kits: Argyle here are in their yellow change strip, and the unfortunate fan getting a post-match battering is wearing the previous year’s Exeter shirt – possibly the first ever sighting of a replica top at the Park, and one that seems to have attracted unwelcome attention. The highlight is Alan Rogers’ neat ankle-tap on the pitch invader.

This game – from an era when League Cup games started before the season proper – finished 2-2, and the second leg at Home Park the following Tuesday ended goalless. Penalty shootouts and the away goals rule hadn’t been invented, so back they went to Plymouth for a replay on the second Tuesday, and this time Exeter triumphed 1-0. The footage of Plymouth playing Exeter at Home Park below, again courtesy of Britain On Film, is from the 1976-77 season; on that occasion Exeter won both legs 1-0.

Click on this picture to view the clip:

Teams (from programme): Exeter: Baugh, Templeman, Hore, Weeks, Saxton, Hatch, Hodge, Kellow, Robertson, Beer, Jennings. Plymouth: Barron, Smart, Uzzell, Horswill, Peddelty, Craven, Johnson, Delve, Austin, Trusson, Rogers.

Notable in these films is the lack of both organised policing and segregation. This was a time when designated “away” areas were more aspirational than enforced, and when neither set of fans took much notice anyway. As a visiting supporter, your choice was to keep quiet and try to avoid attention, or to stay together – whether “for safety” or for rather more aggressive reasons. Travelling numbers were often small (although Argyle’s “mental” turnout at Exeter on a summer Saturday would be anything but); the potential for violence, in a decade where petrol was fully leaded and violence was a cultural norm, was always there. Not all football fans were violent. But many violent people saw the potential for amusement at football matches, and many many more got caught up in the excitement.

Hence the chant, often heard in Exeter playgrounds, of “You’ll never take the Cowshed”. One consequence of being able to move freely around grounds was the potential for the livelier away fans to try and occupy the bits favoured by the more passionate home support. The Cowshed, being linear and entered from one end rather from the back (where it looked down on a school playground) wasn’t easy territory, even for the assembled Garys and Waynes from Plymouth’s dystopian 60s council estates. Approach from the front was akin to storming a fortress, due to its being six feet above pitch level and fronted by a grass bank. The point where it met the nominal away end at St James’ Road was narrow and easy to defend. There were no gangways. It wasn’t easy to get in and it was even harder to get out.

1977 and all that (

Which brings us to the FA Cup-tie which four months later pitched Saxton’s nascent Exeter team against Sammy Chung’s First Division Wolves side. This game has, as they say, gone down in the annals. The enduring facts are these:

  • An Exeter side of Key, Templeman, Hatch, Bowker, Giles, Saxton, Randall, Kellow, Holman, Roberts and Hore drew 2-2 before losing the replay 3 days later, 3-1.
  • A crowd of 14,000 turned up. Estimates of the number of Wolves fan vary from 3,000 to 5,000.
  • Willie Carr gave Wolves the lead with a free kick before Exeter fought back to lead 2-1 with a goal from their talented youngster Harry Holman, Maurice Daly equalising late on with a spectacular long-range effort.
  • If accounts are to be believed, both Wolves AND Exeter fans managed to spell “Wolves” as “Wovles” in separate pieces of graffiti near the ground.
  • Some Wolves fans came dressed as the Ku Klux Klan.
  • It was the worst football hooliganism ever seen in Exeter.

Here are the memories of some of the home fans present, by kind permission of :

(Exe Archive)

“I was 12. As I walked to the ground I was threatened by a Wolves hoolie (‘****ing little Exeter w*nker’).

In the Big Bank close to the goal, remember the old fellas around me shaking their fists at the Wolves scum who had run the length of the pitch to jump into our end…they jumped in anyway…

Fences going over at the away end, late equaliser for Wolves. Looked back as I headed down the jungle path to see the crossbar snap.

So wish we’d done ’em that day.”

“I was in on the Big Bank with the Wolves ‘fans’ in their white masks, right behind me. They had my scarf away before kick off and I had to endure aggro throughout the game. Much as it was sickening to concede a late equaliser, it may have been for the best; not sure what would have happened if they’d lost.”

Big Bank, beneath Alan Banks’ groin (Exe archive)

“I vaguely remember there was a band on the pitch either before the game kicked off or at half time, a load of Wolves fans invaded the pitch and ran through the band who continued playing.”

“There was a local business at the time called Renwicks Travel who had a mascot of a beaver. Before the match this “beaver” was going around the ground throwing in handfuls of sweets. I remember that when he threw them into the Wolves fans he had them all thrown back at him with interest!”

“It was all a bit surreal with the Wolves lot charging from the Big Bank and climbing into the Cowshed via the grass bank. I still remember it vividly.

Anyway, Wolves did not get into the Cowshed at the front, they were succesfully repelled by all and sundry (this was before the walkway at the front was installed, ruining the Cowshed)…They did sneak in to the back in the 2nd half via a open gate from the St James Road end,but were soon sent packing by some of Beacon Heath & Burnt House Lane’s finest.”

often shaken, never taken

“A day I’ll never forget. I was in the shed (aged 13) and was very, very scared at the final whistle. Harry Holman was brilliant and we were so unlucky as it looked like we would hold on for a famous victory. I think they equalised with about 5 mins to go. Scenes of carnage during and after the game. Fence collapsing in the away end, crossbar broken.”

“The coaches that had brought the Wolves ‘fans’ were parked on Union Road by the Police – so much for ‘Police intelligence’ even then- and after the game they went up Victoria Street putting out windows. They were, however’ locked out of the Vic – which was where I was cowering!”

“The Klan outfits are my most vivid memory, and the fighting on the Sidwell Street roundabout after the match. I also remember sitting in the Black Horse pre-match, and counting the Wolves coaches going past. When I got to I think 30, I removed my scarf and stuffed it down my jacket.”

“I was there aged 16 in the Big Bank. It’s a shame that the memories of the trouble overshadow the match, which we were on the day easily good enough to win. It’s the only City match ever that I have left before the final whistle, because I knew what was going o happen next. Thank God those days are gone.”