The phrase “behind closed doors” has hit the football mainstream.
Like any hipster worth their artisanal salt, Celtic and Rangers can say that they did it before it was cool. Celtic faced Atlético Madrid at a silent Celtic Park in 1985, whilst Rangers played Inter Milan at an (almost) empty San Siro in 2005.
Football without fans is something that we are going to have to get used to. But how did these games come about in pre-pandemic times — and what can we learn from them?
Don’t throw things onto the pitch
Before there was a global pandemic to contend with, the best way for football to be played without fans was for those fans to throw things onto the pitch. A bit of racism was generally OK, however.
Inter faced Rangers without their fans as punishment for a stooshie at the Milan derby. With AC 3-0 up on aggregate in the 2004/05 Champions League quarter-final, Inter supporters reacted to a disallowed goal by hurling flares onto the field, one of which hit Milan goalkeeper Dida on the shoulder.
Fortunately Dida was able to walk off (unlike in 2007, when he had to be removed on a stretcher after being tapped on the cheek by a Celtic supporter) but the game was abandoned and a four-game stadium ban followed.
Celtic were ordered to play Atlético behind closed doors as a result of the infamous series against Rapid Vienna in 1984. Having lost the away leg 3-1, Celtic turned the tie round at home, winning a dirty game 3-0 and seemingly securing a place in the quarter-finals.
The victory was compromised by a flying vodka bottle, thrown onto the pitch by a Celtic supporter no doubt unimpressed by the way the Austrians had punched and kicked their way through the match. Although the missile missed its intended targets, Rapid’s Rudolf Weinhofer sensed an opportunity, went down in instalments and brought the result into jeopardy.
“UEFA may indeed have the last word on this”, warned match commentator Jock Brown as the teams left the field. The governing body initially ruled that the result should stand. Then, after an appeal by Rapid, it ordered the game to be replayed at a venue no less than 100 miles from Celtc Park.
The replay, a predictably tense occasion, took place at Old Trafford. Rapid won 1-0 but this time two of their players really were attacked. Goalkeeper Herbert Feurer was thrown into the back of his net by a pitch invader, and goalscorer Peter Pacult was kicked in the haw-maws by another as he left the field. Both assailants were sentenced to three months in jail.
It was a shameful episode, and one that meant that Celtic played the first home game of the 1985/86 Cup Winners’ Cup without their supporters.
Supporters are important…
Celtic were in a good position going into the game against Atlético. In the first leg, they held on for a 1-1 draw at the Vicente Calderón Stadium, with manager David Hay telling the Daily Record that the result was “frankly better than I had hoped”.
Hay was cautious however: “We’re not assuming we’re in the next round, though. It will be a very difficult match at Parkhead because we don’t know how our players will react to a silent stadium.”
They reacted badly. Atlético strolled to a comfortable 2-1 victory, with Celtic unable to summon the urgency normally associated with East End European nights. “Celtic were like a team in a dress rehearsal saving their best for the real thing,” said Alex Cameron in the Daily Record, whilst Ian Paul in the Herald called it “one of their most depressing performances of this or any other season”.
Before kick-off, Celtic players showed their edginess by waving to the empty terraces. Afterwards, they spoke of the surreal setting for such a vital game. “The players were badly affected by the flat atmosphere,” said their manager. “It shows how much our supporters mean to the club. They were sorely missed.”
…but sometimes they’re not required
Inter had no such problems. They won all three group games at a silent San Siro and topped the section by five points. The standard of opposition undoubtedly played its part: also in the group were a Porto side rebuilding after the Mourinho era and Artmedia Bratislava, whose name will send a chill down the spine of Celtic supporters, but who had no European pedigree.
Rangers too were not in great shape. Europe had become a welcome distraction. When they arrived in Milan, Alex McLeish’s side lay 5th in the SPL – 11 points behind leaders Hearts – and would finish 3rd in what was supposed to be a two-horse race, 18 points behind Celtic.
Both McLeish and his Inter counterpart Roberto Mancini were wary ahead of the game. McLeish called the situation “horrendous” and worried about the effect on his players’ concentration. Mancini admitted that he was “very concerned about this match”, adding, “there will be no crowd and no passion.”
He needn’t have worried. Inter won 1-0 with relative ease, despite missing a penalty, and, although Rangers played doggedly, they posed little threat to Júlio César’s goal. Perhaps as a result of the lack of atmosphere (or the fact that McLeish sought an equaliser by bringing on Federico Nieto and Franny Jeffers) the game lost its intensity in the second half.
Although the stadium was virtually empty, McLeish still felt that the referee was a homer: “I thought the referee gave Inter everything – absolutely everything. It didn’t matter if there was a crowd there.”
Fans might still get in
The San Siro wasn’t quite empty. Impressively, a number of enterprising Rangers supporters managed to blag their way in by dressing up in club regalia and producing fake passes.
Sky TV commentator Ian Darke explained the situation to viewers: “I’ve just been told 200 or so fans have got into the concourse outside and they’re chanting away.”
They certainly were. A genuinely witty chorus of “what a shitey home support” soon turned into more culturally traditional numbers, prompting complaints to broadcasters and a flood of calls to the Daily Record hotline. “[Rangers chairman David] Murray surely wouldn’t have too hard a job identifying the sectarian singers this time if he sets his mind to the job”, said one caller.
Rangers launched an internal investigation into events in Milan. We await the outcome.
Celtic supporters found it more difficult to get into Celtic Park for the match against Atlético. Police and stewards ringed the stadium (“Checkpoint Charlie came to Glasgow today”, said the Evening Times), and even players and officials needed tickets to get through. Strathclyde’s finest were also on duty on the roofs of nearby high-rise flats.
As part of its punishment, UEFA decreed that the game could not be captured live on television and that recorded highlights could not exceed three minutes. “The idea is to punish the spectators of Celtic, rather than the club itself,” said a UEFA spokesman. Given the abject performance of their team, the Celtic supporters might be glad to have missed it.
It can be expensive
Before UEFA handed down its verdict against Celtic in 1984, there was a feeling that, as the Times reported, “a lengthy suspension seems inevitable”. The club therefore escaped lightly with a financial penalty and a game behind closed doors.
The incident still proved costly, however, prompting Hay to label the offending projectile “the most expensive half-bottle ever thrown”. In addition to the lost gate receipts for the Atlético game, the fact that the club was ultimately eliminated from the Cup Winners’ Cup by Rapid deprived it of further European revenue that season.
Rapid went on to reach the final in 1985, earning an estimated £1 million in additional income according to the Evening Times. To put that in context, in the mid-1980s that could buy 10 Alan McInallys or two-and-a-half Mo Johnstons. A terrifying thought.
As well as their four-game stadium ban, Inter were fined 300,000 Swiss francs (around £132,000) by UEFA. “This is the highest fine in the history of UEFA,” said spokesman William Gaillard, in response to accusations that the penalty was too lenient, “and the loss of four games will mean they lose out on revenue of 8 million euros.” In 2005, this was the equivalent of one Jean-Alain Boumsong.