‘Oh when the Spurs go marching in’

Early on the evening of the 29th May 1974 Jeroen Noppen and his mates got out of the tram at the stop for Feyenoord Stadium. It was well before kick-off, but Jeroen saw that the car park near the grandstand was already full of cars. Under the pale evening sun, huge crowds were streaming towards the stadium gates.

Jeroen, a mere sixteen-year-old, was with big brother Lex and Lex’s buddies, Kees and Adrie. They were going to watch the UEFA Cup Final second leg between Feyenoord and Tottenham Hotspur and were in high spirits. They set off quickly, making their way towards their seats in the GG section, hearing the din of thousands of English supporters in the distance. As they passed the long side of the stadium, Jeroen spotted a Rolls Royce with an English number plate, parked right by the main entrance as if it owned the place. Silver, showy, but a real beauty, he thought.

Lex had recently started work as a sports reporter for the Algemeen Dagblad and a few days before the final he’d knocked at Jeroen’s bedroom door. ‘Look here, kid,’ Lex said, and before Jeroen could say a word, his brother conjured up four tickets. ‘A present from Mr. Coerver. For the final.’ Wiel Coerver was the Feyenoord coach and Lex had got the tickets from him because he didn’t have to work for the newspaper that evening.

Even though Jeroen was not as keen on Feyenoord as his brother, he was still over the moon. He was going to see Feyenoord play in the UEFA Final, for real, and against an English club too – Spurs. For years now he’d followed the FA Cup Final on regular Saturday afternoons on Dutch television. And, as Jeroen recalled forty years later, it didn’t really matter who the opposing teams were: ‘It was the stadium atmosphere, that’s why you watched them.’

Feyenoord had managed a very promising 2-2 draw in London in the first leg of the final, so there were strong chances of a celebration in the Kuip – the Tub – as the Feyenoord Stadium was affectionately known in Dutch, where every seat had been sold. But almost no one knew that the Dutch supporters who’d travelled to London for the first leg had nearly been lynched. In the middle of the match a group of English fans, dressed in white butcher’s coats, rose up in the midst of the Feyenoord group. They were forced to run for their lives and fled London, ducking down on the floors of the Dutch coaches in terror as all the windows were smashed.

But now for Jeroen, at the foot of the stadium, this was the thrill of his first real Cup Final experience. The English fans were packed into one end of the stadium, making an enormous din. What Jeroen didn’t realize at this point was that many of them had already downed several litres of beer by the time they arrived at the Kuip.

Later, when people tried to understand why things went so badly wrong on that May evening, the blame was laid squarely at the door of the travel agencies. They had sold ultra-cheap all-in packages to the fans, but hadn’t laid on a proper programme. There was no alternative entertainment. So there was nothing else for the fans to do except roam through the city getting sloshed. But the travel agencies had warned the Rotterdam authorities that the English fans would probably consume ‘a large amount of alcohol’. That forecast turned out to be entirely correct.

Most of the Spurs fans now standing at the entrance gates already had a long day and night under their belts. They’d made the sea-crossing to the Netherlands by ferry on the previous night. The boozing had started as soon as they were on board, because what else can you do on a ship? One group of English fans, part of the seven hundred and fifty that sailed on the Avalon, behaved so badly under the influence of alcohol that the captain threatened to put into port at Ostend instead of Rotterdam. In the end, though, the fans were allowed to disembark that morning at the Park Quay in Rotterdam. From there they made a beeline for the nearest bars and the drinking continued. At nine in the morning drunken fans were already at the stadium gates, on the hunt for tickets. In the afternoon more supporters arrived, those who’d come by plane and coach, and the beer drinking carried on as a joint project. Scarves, Union Jacks and Tottenham Hotspur flags were draped everywhere. The English were acting as if it was a home match. And the food and drink were dirt cheap. Lager and Dutch gin flowed like water and spirits were high. But as the afternoon wore on, the English behaviour worsened.

In the UK people had got used to seeing mobs of supporters run amok on Saturday afternoons, yelling, boozing, pissing and plundering their way through town centres, but in Rotterdam people couldn’t believe their eyes. There were fights everywhere and shoplifting. The shops on the Lijnbaan were ransacked for clothes and alcohol. A furniture store was pillaged, its chairs and tables flung onto the street, and unsuspecting shoppers even spotted a fan running through the streets with a cash till. And when at last, at the end of the afternoon, the crowd, swathed in blue and white team colours, some wearing painted doctor’s coats, marched to the stadium, they yanked street signs from the ground and blocked the cars. Near the stadium a car that couldn’t brake in time carried an injured drunkard off with it.

 

That afternoon the police recorded 59 incidents in the city centre. In thirteen cases these required immediate police intervention ‘on account of the serious inebriation of the young English supporters and the violence, vandalism and acts of theft which resulted therefrom’. Twenty English fans were picked up. One of them was put behind bars to calm him down, but was later released. That was also the case for others picked up for assault and theft – released through insufficient evidence. Three vandals were fined. In not a single case did the arrests lead to any kind of legal action.

 

Jeroen Noppen and his friends knew nothing about this mayhem as they climbed the steel staircase to section GG in the second tier of the stadium, but as soon as they went through the narrow entrance to the stand they realized something was wrong. They were right in the middle of the English fans. ‘Nice work, eh,’ Jeroen teased his brother, ‘getting those tickets off Coerver. Look where we’ve landed!’ Lex gave a worried nod, stuffing his Feyenoord scarf under his jacket. They could hear Cockney accents all around them. The Rotterdammers decided to play it safe for the moment and not say another word to each other. Like most of the English fans, all four of them had long hair and wore denim jackets. Perhaps they could merge in. They also decided to stand at the side of the section.

Jeroen took another look round and saw that the stadium really was chockfull. To be precise there were exactly 63,167 people, four thousand of these being English fans, most of them massed around Jeroen. So many young visitors, all aged between fourteen and twenty, he realized. And suddenly they launched into song, the whole crowd of them, in unison and at the tops of their voices. One of the songs was a version of ‘When the Saints go marching in’:

 

Oh when the Spurs go marching in,

Oh when the Spurs go marching in,

I wanna be in that number,

Oh when the Spurs go marching in.

 

That was a totally different sound, nothing like the dutiful ‘Olé olé’ you sometimes heard in Dutch stadiums. This gave him the goose bumps. ‘That singing in chorus, it was cool, you know. You usually only saw it on the telly. And of course the English fans did eventually realize we were Feyenoord supporters. But it wasn’t a problem. Yeah, there was a load of drinking. But the mood was fantastic. There was this Feyenoord fan in front of us, waving a huge flag around on a wooden pole. But they let him get on with it. It was just a load of fun. Laughing and joshing each other.’

But it wasn’t all innocent jollity among the English. They’d started to provoke the home fans from the moment they’d got their seats in section GG. They pelted the Dutch fans in the lower tier with beer bottles and coins. Some even aimed their urine at them. They wrenched away the plastic seats – bought two years previously for the Ajax and Inter Milan UEFA Cup final and costing more than the stadium itself – and used them to bash their opponents. The Dutch fans were forced to run to reach their seats without damage. Fights broke out between the English and Dutch in the GG section, but the English fought each other too.

 

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The Kuip had a closed-circuit TV system, enabling the various sections to be checked from a distance. It was pretty modern, and certainly unique in the Netherlands then. Three quarters of an hour before kick-off the system was switched on, when the stadium was more or less full already, and the ticket collectors and stewards had already reported that serious difficulties were emerging behind one of the goals.

The man in charge of law and order that evening was Superintendent Gerrand. He zoomed the camera in on section GG and saw, to his amazement, that there was a pitched battle underway, with flag poles as weapons, and beer bottles being flung around. The barrier at the bottom of the second tier was under extreme pressure and there was a risk of supporters falling more than ten metres down.

The Superintendent, who’d been expecting a quiet evening, decided to take five policemen with him so he could size things up. As soon as they set foot on the staircase on the outside of the stadium, the English laid into them with sticks. The officers used batons to beat them off. When they got to the first tier it became apparent that the narrow entrance to section GG had been barricaded from within. The policemen battered the door open. They were immediately attacked by an even wilder horde, who according to the police report, attacked the officers with ‘all manner of clubs and blades, e.g. daggers, metal pipes, belts and knives lashed onto poles’.

But Gerrand hadn’t seen this with his own eyes. The moment he entered the section something cracked against his head and he was knocked out. The lights immediately went out for Police Constable Jaap de Vlieger too. He was beaten with a metal bar and had to be rushed to hospital, where a fracture to the skull was confirmed. There was nothing the other officers could do except save their own skins. They retreated behind the entrance door, with the hooligans in hot pursuit. They were the ones who barricaded it this time, to save themselves from being lynched.

 

After this, half an hour before kick-off and just after 8.00 pm, calm briefly returned to section GG. The police were so outnumbered they decided for the time being to take no further action. But all available officers, including the ones handing out parking fines, were called together, ready to regain control. For a while the spectators switched their attention to the players, first for the warm-up and then, at 8.30, for the line-up ready for kick-off: Feyenoord in their red and white home strip, Tottenham in yellow and blue. The English yelled their beery throats hoarse. And when Tottenham scored 0-1 everything seemed to be going their way. Section GG transformed into a dancing, swirling mass. But the celebration only lasted a few seconds: the goal was disqualified as offside. Feyenoord supporters baited the English fans, prodding them with their flag poles through the fencing.

Darkness fell and the luck turned. Just before half-time the ball was crossed from the right-hand side of the pitch and was headed straight in by Wim Rijsbergen: 1-0 for Feyenoord. ‘That was when the Feyenoord fan in front of me went off his rocker,’ Jeroen remembers. ‘I can still see him waving his flag around, knocking one of the English with it, then the other English fans starting to shove him. The Rotterdammers in the neighbouring section saw what was going on and butted in. They thought one of our blokes has been attacked. And yet nothing was really going on.’

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Others remember it differently: when Feyenoord scored the English fans launched themselves at the neighbouring sections and the barriers separating section GG from HH were torn down. A group of troublemakers clambered across to confront the Feyenoord fans, and then they started fighting with flag poles. From then on the goal end stands turned into an immense battlefield. Jeroen saw people tugging metal rails from the fences like rotten teeth. Then the English started hunting their enemy down, wielding the metal bars. He saw people hacking at each other with all kinds of weapons. Seats, bottles, everything went flying. Aerosol paint, used by the English for graffiti, was sprayed into their opponents’ eyes. Banners, flags and scarves were set alight.

Jeroen wasn’t simply scared but terrified. For a moment he thought he and his friends could hide themselves in the crowd, but that tactic seemed too dangerous now. ‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ his brother yelled. Like soldiers on a battlefield they forced their way through the fighting crowd. From the corner of his eye Jeroen caught sight of someone on the ground, covering his face with his arms, begging his attacker not to beat him with the iron bar he was swinging. Then he immediately heard the metal slam into the body. Around him he could see that no one was spared: men, women, little boys – all got clouted.

By some miracle Jeroen reached a section barrier unscathed, but this one was still standing. ‘Hang on,’ his brother shouted and, before he could even tell what was happening, Lex had grabbed him by the waist and pushed him over. Then Lex climbed it too and they were safe. Adrie and Kees had followed their example and were standing a little way off. For a while it looked as if peace had returned.

But then the police came.

 

 

Now that the Superintendent was at death’s door, the command of the police was in the hands of Rotterdam’s Chief Commissioner, J.W. Donkersloot. He was in the Kuip as a spectator, but very soon realized that this wasn’t going to be a pleasurable off-duty evening. After a discussion with Deputy Mayor De Vos, who was also at the match, the legendary Bill Nicholson, the manager of Tottenham Hotspur, made an appeal to the fans, in a last-ditch attempt to restore peace, but it was naïve to think that mere words could calm a crowd that had gone totally berserk. Donkersloot realized that other measures were necessary. All officers on duty that evening were called to the central operations room, the so-called Post House. Here Donkersloot addressed his men: ‘Chaps, we have a most unusual situation on our hands. There’s only one possible solution: give ’em a good pounding. We’ll show ’em who’s boss here. Us.’

After this the Inspector directly in charge of the operation got together a group of fifty of the younger policemen and a sergeant. He gave brief instructions, expressly forbidding the use of the firearms, according to the police report, but making it obligatory to ‘use truncheons for some minutes on entering the section’. The policemen resolutely set out, batons at the ready.

Although it hadn’t been previously possible to enter the crowded GG section without risking life and limb, they were now able to go in through the narrow doorway because so many people had fled to the neighbouring sections. For the next seven minutes, in the words of Police Officer Rob de Vries, they laid a ‘blanket of violence’ across everyone. ‘Ruthless violence was answered with ruthless violence. Some people received blows they certainly didn’t deserve. But then, you didn’t have enough time to check if someone was innocent. Whoever got in the way of the cudgel, copped it,’ according to De Vries.

 

When Jeroen, his brother and his friends finally managed to get out of the stand, the chaos outside the stadium turned out, if possible, to be even worse. The Tottenham hooligans, together with the ordinary fans who’d been thrashed by the police in the stadium, bolted down the stairways, but somewhere halfway down the steps the fleeing crowd stalled. About fifty furious Feyenoord fans, thirsting for revenge, were standing at the foot of the staircase, ready to kick the English back upstairs. And in the meantime the English were letting fly again.

And here too the police dealt with a hard hand. In short, it was the law of the strongest. Once again Jeroen saw people apparently beating each other to death. There were blood stains all over the concrete, people were lying in agony on the ground, others had plunged several metres, tumbling over steel fences, or were actually flung down. The stadium perimeter wasn’t protected by barriers, so anyone who wanted to join in the battle could simply do so, from other sections too. Eyewitnesses later said that somewhere between three and five hundred people were hammering at each other.

 

The police had never before taken such strong action and it didn’t fail to have an effect. Many of the English were beaten black and blue, but most still made it to the stadium exit, tails between their legs, where they boarded the coaches waiting to drive them to the ports and airport. One hundred and fifty English fans were treated by the Red Cross. Another fifty were ferried to the hospitals in hastily drummed-up ambulances, nursing black eyes, splinters in heads and arms, broken bones and contusions. But not everyone’s fury was spent. Some of the young English supporters screamed that they’d be back in Rotterdam at the first opportunity and they’d kill the police.

Meanwhile the sirens kept on wailing. A single ambulance had been standing ready at the start of the match, now a fleet of them rode back and forth to various Rotterdam hospitals. Jan Kluin, a forty-eight year old Merchant Navy engineer, was flat on his back in one of them. Later that night he told a journalist: ‘About twenty unruly Spurs supporters clambered over the barriers on their terraces. And an immediate battle blew up. Metal bars, poles, belts and knives, all used as weapons. You gave as good as you got. I got and I gave, but was suddenly felled.’ They’d thrown a seat at him. He was covered in blood and had to go to hospital for stitches. ‘I didn’t come out of it too badly. Others were much worse off. There was a whole waiting room full of the wreckage, just Dutchmen. The mood was so tense that no Englishman would have dared set a foot inside. We’d have turned him into a jigsaw puzzle.’

 

 

That night Jeroen dropped face down onto his bed, still wearing his clothes.  And when the alarm clock rang at seven in the morning he was still on his front, as if he hadn’t moved all night. His legs felt stiff and cramped as he went down the steep wooden staircase. His parents were already at breakfast.

‘Good morning, son,’ his father said. ‘Had a good night?’

‘Good night?! Didn’t you see what happened,’ Jeroen asked, totally aghast.

Yep, there’d been a bit of a scuffle, Noppen senior had definitely seen that on the telly.

Jeroen gave a spirited report on the event, as he’d already done twelve hours earlier for the journalists, but his parents gave him a slightly pitying look as he told them he’d been in the thick of the battle. ‘Come on, son,’ he read in their faces, ‘You’re overstating things a little, aren’t you?’

 

Now, forty years later, sitting on the leather sofa in his Rotterdam apartment, Jeroen tries to explain his parents’ reaction. ‘They had indeed seen the images of the terraces. But on the television it just looked like a ‘normal’ brawl. No one understood what had really happened. For many years after that evening in May 1974 Jeroen avoided the Kuip. In the 80s he went back once or twice for a Netherlands team friendly match, but he never became a regular fan. Later, as a freelance photographer at pop concerts, he was always on the alert. ‘Even a minor thing, like throwing a plastic cup of beer, would make me jump aside a few metres.’ Because that’s what has stayed with him the most: it doesn’t take very much for people to start attacking each other like animals. That lesson, learned in the Kuip, was one missed by many. ‘They never really understood.’

 

***

 

About the book War on the terraces: The Lethal Romance of Football Hooliganism

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Epic weekly brawls in the stands, nail bombs going off in the crowd, police forced to retreat; in the seventies, eighties and nineties, football violence was quite common. In spite of (or perhaps even because of) the threat of that violence, the football stadium has always had an irresistible pull on many young men. Friso Schotanus was one of them. He wonders: where does the violence come from, why are so many men drawn to it, and how did it escalate to the point of people getting killed?

Friso Schotanus travelled to England to investigate hooliganism’s roots, reconstructing through eyewitness accounts incidents such as the 1974 Tottenham-hooligan invasion of Rotterdam, the drama in Heizel in 1985, and how the politically motivated football riots in Zagreb (Dinamo Zagreb vs. Red Star Belgrade in 1990) could inflame a civil war. He also describes how the violence was driven out of the football stadium—and where it has re-emerged. War on the terraces is not just about fighting, solidarity and club loyalty, but also about social changes that have made football a family sport.

 

Friso Schotanus (1976) has written for publications such as NRC Next, AD Sportwereld and FEM Business. He is the founder of the PR firm Het Sportbureau, and has (co-) authored several books about sports, including Desespereert nimmer (Never Give Up), about the history of professional football in the town of Zwolle, and De beste sigaret voor uw gezondheid (The Cigarette That’s Best For Your Health), a cultural history of smoking.

 

About Never Give Up:

“An exceptionally interesting history. Especially as described by a person with a clever pen who manages to combine journalistic detachment with affectionate engagement.” **** — Bert Wagendorp, de Volkskrant

 

“A smashing book. A club doesn’t have to have won the UEFA Cup to have a fascinating history written about it.” —Johan Derksen

 

About The Cigarette That’s Best For Your Health:

“Schotanus writes with speed and with verve, and has a great sense of (sometimes black) humour.” — Trouw

 

Non-fiction, 256 pages , sociology