Going into the final game of the 1982/83 campaign, Fulham were still in with a shout of winning promotion to Division One. We needed a win and were relying on Leicester City to drop points, but the bottom line is that it was a possibility.
The crucial match for Malcolm Macdonald’s men was at Derby County’s Baseball Ground, with the game taking on huge significance for the Rams, too, with the threat of relegation still looming large. Fulham had occupied one of the three promotion places throughout the season, but three consecutive defeats at the end of April going into May had curtailed our ambitions.
Ahead of the game, there was a senior officers meeting at Derby’s main police station with the key topic of discussion being the protection of Fulham’s supporters. Owing to the high-stake nature of the clash, coupled with Derby fans’ reputation for pitch invasions on the final day, there were many concerns regarding the safety of those attending the game.
What wasn’t expected, though, was the level of protection that would need to be afforded to Fulham’s players. Two minutes after Bobby Davison had handed the home side the lead with just less than a quarter of an hour remaining, Rams supporters began climbing over the fencing. Seconds later, one entire side of the ground had spectators pushed up as close as the touchline.
Soon after, the swelling of supporters exacerbated and there were thousands of people encroaching onto the pitch. The assistant referee had to run the line within the playing arena itself, while Macdonald later recalled how he had to stand 10 yards onto the turf in order to see the game.
In circumstances that are mind boggling for viewers of football today, the Whites players not only had to avoid tackles from Derby players, but fans too.
“We needed a goal as we were 1-0 down,” Macdonald said. “But on the far side Robert Wilson got the ball, turned, and as he did so somebody leapt out of the crowd and smashed their foot across his thigh. It was so off-putting for the players and they never had a fair playing field.”
On 88 minutes and 42 seconds, referee Ray Chadwick blew his whistle, with the fans assuming it was for full-time and subsequently swarming the pitch. It turned out the whistle was for offside, but with the Baseball Ground turf littered with supporters, it would be impossible to play out the remainder of the game and so Chadwick deemed that the match be abandoned.
Fulham appealed to have the game replayed; not only because of the premature conclusion to proceedings, but also because of the thuggery which our players were exposed to in the second half.
The hearing took place at the FA Headquarters at Lancaster Gate, with Macdonald presenting evidence from past matches where teams had scored twice in the last 78 seconds of a game to come from behind to win. But the argument came back that it would be impossible to replicate the circumstances of that day, not least because Derby now knew they were safe from relegation.
The appeal was lost and Fulham remained in Division Two – a fact that was made all the more frustrating by Leicester only drawing their final match, meaning a win would have sent the Whites up. It proved to be the beginning of the end for Macdonald, who departed the Club the following season following a poor run of results.