Arsenal v Millwall in 1988: The ‘bonkers’ afternoon when violent fans terrorised Highbury
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
If you supported Arsenal or had an N5 postcode in 1988, it’s almost certain you’ll remember the “Battle of Highbury”.
This week 30 years ago, Millwall made the short trip to Islington for an FA Cup third round game. What could go wrong?
Well, 500 specially trained police officers were unable to contain terrifying violence as Arsenal and Millwall fans clashed.
There were 48 arrests, and 60 people thrown out of the ground.
A tube train was smashed up at Arsenal station.
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Two pubs – the Arsenal Tavern in Blackstock Road and Plimsoll Arms in St Thomas’s Road – were completely wrecked. The Plimsoll Arms was left without a single window.
Pc Robin Harman suffered a broken leg when a fan forced him off balance and then jumped on him.
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And cops were pelted with so many coins inside the stadium that they later collected £13.59 for their kitty.
The Gazette’s Arsenal correspondent, Layth Yousif, was there. As a peaceful, law-abiding Gooner, we might add.
“I was 14 or 15,” he recalls. “I used to go to The Arsenal with my pals and we decided to go in the North Bank that day. You could feel something in the air. It felt nasty.
“The Clock End was properly rammed with 12,000 Millwall fans. In those days, Arsenal would only get about 30,000 people at games, so you would know the familiar faces. But there was this big mob of geezers in the North Bank I’d never seen before.
“I don’t know if it was before or after kick off, but there was this massive roar of ‘MILLWALL!’ It just went bonkers and these blokes in the North Bank kicked off on anyone they could find. And this revved up everyone in the Millwall end, too.
“I remember walking back to Finsbury Park after the game, and every window in the Plimsoll Arms [in St Thomas’s Road] had been smashed up. It was pretty crazy.”
The Gazette asks another Gooner, who has worked in Islington since 1983, if he can recall the violence.
“Yes, I do remember it,” a stern-faced Jeremy Corbyn replies instantly.
“I wasn’t at the match but I certainly picked it up the day after. The Plimsoll Arms pub was trashed by Millwall supporters – absolutely shocking. A shocking event in the history of our borough.”
This was, don’t forget, at the height of football hooliganism. And it went without saying that Millwall had a “reputation”.
But Layth, who has attended 90 per cent of Arsenal’s games since the ’80s, adds: “To be fair, this sort of thing happened every week. Football was a different world back then.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Millwall as a club. I used to watch England and whenever I bumped into Millwall fans, they would look back at that game.
“Their fans wanted to prove themselves, off the pitch, as a top-level club. No one remembers the actual game on the pitch.” Arsenal won 2-0.
Layth continues: “That game was almost the end of an era for hooliganism. Hillsborough happened the year after. It showed how football fans had been treated like second-class citizens.
“Watching The Arsenal was a lot more raw back then. Everyone was in it together and you would expect a little bit of trouble – as long as you weren’t caught up in it.
“The game has been sanitised since then, and that’s a good thing because it’s allowed more people to get into the best sport in the world.”
Islington North MP and Labour leader Mr Corbyn agrees: “In a way, this stands out in the history of our community because in general, there is now so little trouble around football matches, when you think 30 times a year, more than 60,000 people go to the Emirates Stadium.
“I live very close to the stadium and there is no trouble at all.”
‘It was the most frightening thing of my life’
Unsurpisingly, the Gazette called police into question after the game.
But Ch Supt Archie Newlands, who was in charge of the operation, said at the time: “We did all we could. Our plans, which were to keep the fans apart for as long as we could, worked. You can only plan to contain it – you can’t stop it.”
We also spoke to Arsenal Tavern landlady Jeanette Moynihan. “We’d been warned by police that there might be trouble,” she said in 1988, “but we never expected anything like what happened.
“Everything erupted about 1.30pm. We heard shouting and chanting. People suddenly started surging forward. It was the most frightening thing of my life.
“They slashed seats and threw glasses at each other. Within seconds, we didn’t have one glass left.
“One woman climbed onto a pool table and started telling who to hit who. People were diving behind the bar to try and escape and one of the windows was broken by a customer trying to get away from it all.
“It was like another world – and yet the whole thing was over in about five to eight minutes.”