The sense of frustration and anger that must have been felt by the 75,000 who had gathered in the Stade de France this evening must have been overwhelming. Irish fans would have spent hundreds on travel, accommodation and tickets – and will return having made their journey for nothing.
The sheer resilience and determination of sports fans is extraordinary. There were always apocryphal stories of travelling soccer fans – like the group of Glasgow Rangers fans who were said to have gone to the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Barcelona in 1972 and decided to stay on, being encountered by Scotland supporters in Spain for the World Cup Finals ten years later – but there were plenty of more prosaic tales.
Wednesday, 21st November 1979 was a chill autumn day, by the time darkness fell, fog began to form across North London. Being a student in London, it was easy to meet a friend travelling from Brighton at Victoria Station. We caught the tube across to Saint Pancras station to meet friends coming in from Leeds, and then it was a Metropolitan line train up to Wembley Park. Being first term undergraduates, there was nothing that could possibly be a discouragement.
The fixture against Bulgaria was a qualification group match for the 1980 European Championships. Hardly a glamorous fixture, but there were reports that up to 85,000 tickets had been sold (the capacity for floodlit matches at the old Wembley was 92,000). The mood was cheerful and buoyant, as it was on any occasion at Wembley, and tens of thousands of fans milled around outside the stadium. It became apparent that the match was in doubt, the turnstiles had not been opened and the fog had grown so thick that the twin towers were barely visible.
Eventually, an announcement came that the match had been postponed because visibility was so poor; it would be played 24 hours later and tickets would be valid. There was a huge groan and much muttering and people turned to go home. There wasn’t much money around in 1979, my friends would return to their colleges in late trains and would be unable to return. It was hard to imagine that those who had travelled from distant points in England would get much use from their tickets.
The following day, I again caught the Metropolitan Line tube with four £2 terrace tickets in my hand; the three I didn’t need were sold, at face value, to people travelling to Wembley. The match went ahead without a hitch, Dave Watson and Glenn Hoddle scoring in a 2-0 win for England.
The fog certainly reduced the attendance, but for a re-scheduled match on a November Thursday evening in economically-depressed times there were 71,491 people in the crowd. The overwhelming majority of the crowd from the previous evening had managed to turn up on the second night; there were people from the corners of England would support their team, wherever and whenever it played. On Friday 2nd March, tens of thousands of rugby fans will again travel to Paris to be at that match.