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Healing the Hammarby heartbreak

The story of a legendary debacle and why it should be celebrated three decades on.


This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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The Hammarby game was one of my first matches as a St Mirren supporter. I was 13 years old and my father took me along. It was quite an adventure for a school night
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Newspapers the day after the game reflected the shock and confusion that no doubt engulfed the press box as reporters had to scrap carefully crafted stories of historic triumph and slap together sagas of stunning failure

Can decades of supporting a particular football club be summed up by just one game?

For fans of big clubs, it might be a title decider, a cup final or the trouncing of an arch-enemy. But for supporters of most teams, the little teams, the quintessential game is not a glorious one.

In the 44 years I have been alive, my club St Mirren have won only about a third of the games they have played. A truly typical St Mirren match would surely be a defeat. And I suspect supporters of a certain age know which one would symbolise the St Mirren experience best of all: The Hammarby Game.

The match, in the late autumn of 1985, was St Mirren’s chance to step out of the chilly shadows of the Old Firm for once. Rangers and Celtic were already out of Europe, while St Mirren faced little-known Stockholm side Hammarby in the second round of the UEFA Cup. After the first leg, the Saints were poised to advance to the third round of a European competition for the first time in their 108-year history.

The spectacular way in which they failed to do this has become the stuff of legend. This was no mere snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. It was more like reaching down victory’s throat and yanking defeat from the pit of a stomach already awash with digestive juices.

The players were pilloried in the press, accused of letting down not just the team but the entire nation. The viability of the club was called into question. And Hammarby became a byword for stupefying sporting suicide among a generation of Scottish fans. Even for a nation that has specialised in failing when success seems easier, the Hammarby game was something else.

This infamous match has become an object of fascination for me. Displaying a taste for masochism that may well have its origins in that November night, I have scoured the internet for debris from the disaster. I have delved into books and video clips. I have tracked down and bought a copy of the match programme. And I have spent hours in the British Library studying newspaper coverage of the game.

It is a story well worth revisiting, not just because of the incredible nature of St Mirren’s defeat. Not just because it offers the chance to bathe in melancholic nostalgia. Three decades on, it may also be time for a spot of revisionism — to make the case for the Hammarby game as a source of celebration rather than sorrow.

To leaf through big, red bound volumes of 30-year-old newsprint and scroll through snapshots of pages on microfilm is to be transported to a very different era.

The aftermath of the miners’ strike was front-page news in the Daily Record, then far and away Scotland’s best-selling tabloid. A large advert in the Glasgow Herald encouraged readers to buy shares in the TSB banking group as the Conservative government’s big privatisation drive rolled on. In the venerable Scotsman, an ambitious young political journalist named Andrew Marr reported on another rising Scot — Gordon Brown, just promoted to the Labour front bench. Stars of Dallas and Dynasty featured prominently and the TV listings also included Terry Wogan’s chat show, Jersey detective Bergerac and ill-fated soap opera Albion Market.

And on the back pages, expectations around Scottish football teams were immeasurably higher than they are today. Ahead of the second leg of the Hammarby tie, the pressmen (they were all men then) were united in predicting confidently that St Mirren would advance to the next round in Europe. Everything seemed to favour the Saints.

The team had the benefit of playing the tie at St Mirren Park, where they had secured a thrilling extra-time win over Slavia Prague in the previous round. (As many will remember, the stadium was almost always referred to by its address — Love Street. To me, at least, this always gave the place an incurably romantic air despite its drab surroundings.)

The Swedish players were part-timers and their domestic season had ended a month earlier. They would surely be struggling for fitness. And Hammarby were no great shakes anyway. They had finished sixth in the Swedish league that year.

The St Mirren manager, Alex Miller, was in bullish mood. “I reckon the Swedes’ lack of real games will count against them,” he predicted in the Record. “They certainly seemed on their knees in the last 15 minutes in the first leg.”

Miller suggested the team would not only qualify but “with some style”. “Hammarby can play a bit,” he conceded. “But they are not as good as the Slavs we beat in the first round.”

The Record revealed St Mirren had a couple of injury worries but reporter Jack Adams summed up the press box consensus: “Whatever side Saints finally field they should be able to better the 3-3 draw they gained in Stockholm and reach the third round of a European competition for the first time in the club’s history.”

At that time, St Mirren was a club on the up. Having never been in Europe before the 1980s, they were playing in the UEFA Cup for the third time that decade.

The second-round fixture list illustrates how the tournament in those days was far more illustrious than its successor, the Europa League. Alongside St Mirren were Real Madrid, both the Milan giants and various other continental heavyweights.

With only domestic league champions playing in the European Cup, the UEFA Cup boasted several other top teams from each country — the very best of the rest.

But the ‘souvenir European issue’ match programme for the Hammarby game (price: 50p) suggested St Mirren fans did not realise just how lucky they were. It contained no fewer than four articles imploring supporters to… well, support their team.

“Don’t forget to cheer the lads on, even if they don’t get an early goal,” Miller said in his column.

Under the headline ‘You’re At It Again’, the programme editor took St Mirren fans to task for barracking midfielder Peter Mackie when the team were a goal up against Rangers in a recent league match. (Mackie went on to score the winner after Rangers fought back.)

“Now I trust that you’ll be good tonight and GIVE THE WHOLE TEAM YOUR BACKING,” the anonymous editor declared, deploying the sophisticated literary technique of holding down the shift key to make his point.

Another article urged fans to turn out in greater numbers every week — a reference to the never-ending battle to persuade locals to support their local team rather than head to Ibrox or Parkhead.

The article boldly declared that St Mirren were firmly established as a top six side, “known and respected throughout Britain and Europe” and in a position to “seriously challenge the Old Firm for dominance in the West of Scotland”.

“It is now that the club urgently needs your support Saturday after Saturday,” the article proclaimed.

So the fans had been well and truly telt. Now the players just had to win the match, or draw 0-0, 1-1 or even 2-2, and the Saints would go marching into history.

The Hammarby game was one of my first matches as a St Mirren supporter. I was 13 years old and my father took me along. It was quite an adventure for a school night — especially as we lived in Lanark, about an hour’s drive from Paisley.

I remember feeling stunned and miserable at the end of the match. But I don’t remember much of the action and my mind’s eye may be unreliable.

All Hammarby survivors are in the same boat. There is no definitive account of what happened that night. There were no TV cameras so there is no video to replay again and again, to try to make sense of it, to come to terms with it, to accept that it really did happen. There are newspaper reports but they were scrabbled together in a few chaotic minutes after the game turned on its head at the end; inevitably, they contain mistakes and omissions.

Some things, though, are clear enough. Between 11,000 and 12,000 people trooped to Love Street on that rainy evening of Wednesday November 6, 1985.

Under the floodlights, the St Mirren team took the field in their Adidas home kit of white shirts featuring broad shadow stripes and black pinstripes, black shorts and white socks. (The Saints have reverted to a similar strip this season.) Hammarby also sported an Adidas kit, all in green.

The St Mirren players were all Scots, most of them solid but unspectacular pros. The best known today are probably striker Frank McGarvey, midfielder Tony Fitzpatrick and full back Steve Clarke.

As in all great disaster stories, things seemed to be going smoothly at first. St Mirren got the early goal they craved. McGarvey shot high into the net in the 20th minute after a header from defender Peter Godfrey came back off the crossbar.

St Mirren were now ahead on aggregate, playing at home, and had the bonus of three away goals. Hammarby would need to score twice without reply to go through.

Although St Mirren failed to get a real grip on the game, the score was still 1-0 as the match entered its final minutes and the Saints were on the cusp of a great triumph.

Some fans left the ground to get an early start on the celebrations.

Hammarby, however, were not finished. With just a few minutes to go (the precise timing depends on which report you regard as definitive), substitute Hakan Ivarsson scored with a left-footed shot. That was a shock — but St Mirren were still going through on away goals.

Then, as just a sliver of time remained, the Swedes scored again.

People were dumbfounded. Was that it? We’d been bundled out right at the death? How was that even possible?

A few heart-stopping seconds later, relief washed over the crowd. The goal was disallowed, probably for offside, although the offence was not obvious.

What a let-off. The Saints had got out of jail just moments after the cell door seemed to slam shut.

It should not have been hard to see out the final couple of minutes. Goalkeepers were still allowed to pick up backpasses in those days, after all.

Yet the St Mirren goalkeeper Campbell Money rushed to get the ball back into play. He seemed incensed that St Mirren were not going to win on the night. Money was not the only player to act like this. It was as if St Mirren were chasing the game rather than trying to kill it.

Again, the Saints gave away possession and again the Swedes attacked, just as the game was almost over. It may even have been injury time by this point. And Hammarby scored again. And this time the goal stood.

That was it. Game over. St Mirren were out.

Having started with a clear advantage, having added to that advantage by scoring, having lost a goal with a few minutes to go but remaining on course to go through, having received a clear warning when Hammarby had the ball in the net once more… St Mirren had somehow managed to concede again at the death, crash out of Europe and spurn the chance to write a glorious new chapter in the club’s history.

Newspapers the day after the game reflected the shock and confusion that no doubt engulfed the press box as reporters had to scrap carefully crafted stories of historic triumph and slap together sagas of stunning failure.

No laptops then, of course. Or television monitors showing replays. Just journalists frantically conferring, scribbling and dictating reports down the phone.

Traces of this mayhem were visible in black and white. The Scottish Daily Express match report ended abruptly in mid-sentence. Newspapers did not agree on who had scored Hammarby’s second. Several reported Hakan Ivarsson had scored both goals.

The Record even quickly coined a nickname for him — ‘Hakan the Horrible’, evoking an image of cartoon Viking Hagar The Horrible.

But publications as diverse as the Paisley Daily Express and the Guardian reported that midfielder Michael Andersson had dealt the killer blow.

Now, more than 30 years later, the truth can finally be told. In the best traditions of sports journalism, I can exclusively reveal that the man who sent the Saints out was neither Ivarsson nor Andersson but substitute Thomas Lundin.

Lundin, a striker, is listed as the scorer on Hammarby’s club history website and in an official UEFA record of the game. I have also tracked down Lundin and spoken to him. He has a clear memory of scoring the goal — picking up a pass on the left side of the field, hitting the ball with his right foot and sending it across Money and into the goalkeeper’s left-hand corner.

The Love Street crowd had been noisy during the game, Lundin told me, but “I remember it was so quiet after I scored”.

Back in 1985, the Record’s Jack Adams focused on the late disallowed goal in his match report. “No team can ignore a warning like that. St Mirren did — and their chance of reaching the third round for the first time in the club’s history was buried seconds later,” he wrote.

In the Paisley Daily Express, manager Miller confessed: “I’ve not felt like this in my life. I’m sick.”

The local paper did not hold back in its demolition of the players. Beneath the headline ‘Suicide Squad Chuck It Away’, reporter Stan Park declared that “not one supporter could have any sympathy” for them. They would be remembered, Park pronounced, “only as the team which let Paisley down. The team which promised so much and delivered little”.

The criticism got more scathing in the following days, some of it from Miller himself.

“That result will haunt us all for the rest of our lives,” he said. “I feel no sympathy for the players. They let themselves, the club and the fans down.”

Record scribe Jack Adams went even further: “The players let the whole country down by the most unprofessional surrender by any Scottish club in Europe.”

The Scotsman described the club as “shell-shocked” in the aftermath of a defeat that some reporters felt could have profound consequences. Stan Park of the Paisley Daily Express said the very future of the club was at stake if the players did not make amends for going out of Europe “in the most shaming of circumstances”.

For Ian Paul of the Glasgow Herald, Miller faced an “immense task… not only to lift his players from their depression but to try to convince the Paisley support that their presence is still worthwhile.”

At least the Record’s cartoonist, Rod, could see the funny side. He drew a St Mirren fan walking through his front door with a toothy grin and his arms raised in delight, only to be greeted by his wife surmising: “You left five minutes early.”

But many real St Mirren fans were irate. In Saturday’s Record, one fan suggested the players should have to watch the final three minutes every day for the rest of their lives as a punishment for the club’s “most disgraceful result ever”.

In the midst of all the criticism and mockery, there was not a single word from the players. No mixed zones then, no social media. But some years later, goalscorer McGarvey relived the horror in his autobiography, Totally Frank.

With St Mirren still 1-0 up, McGarvey had been substituted to hearty congratulations from Miller and headed down the tunnel for a bath, where he was completely oblivious to what happened in the final few minutes.

He was just putting on his shirt and wondering who St Mirren might face in the next round when Miller walked in. McGarvey recalls him looking like he had just seen a ghost. “We got fucking beat,” Miller told him.

McGarvey could not make sense of what he was hearing. “I couldn’t believe it,” he writes. “We had been cruising when I had come off.”

McGarvey recalls that St Mirren’s season “dwindled away” after Hammarby. The club finished seventh in the league and were thrashed 5-0 by Celtic at Love Street on the final day of the season, allowing the Parkhead side to snatch the league title from Hearts on goal difference.

Irate Hearts fans accused former Celtic man McGarvey of not trying against his old club. A package with an Edinburgh postmark arrived for him at Love Street. As you would expect from a book called Totally Frank, he gives a candid description of the contents: “It was a shit”.

Metaphorically speaking, the pungent package was perhaps the perfect piece of punctuation to conclude St Mirren’s stinker of a season.

More than two decades on, as St Mirren prepared to move to their current stadium, Tony Fitzpatrick said the thought of the Hammarby match still made his stomach churn. “Still, when you talk about it, you feel the pain,” he told the makers of a documentary film, Love Street – The Movie, as he sat in the dugout at the old ground.

Casting his mind back to losing the second goal, he summed up the sensation perfectly, if not with perfect grammar: “It was the most horriblest feeling.”

The novelist and prominent St Mirren supporter Christopher Brookmyre once tried to give a sense of the profound and long-term impact the defeat had on the fans.

“We are not dealing with a result, a statistic, or even a minor tragedy. Proper treatment of this horror, which scarred a town indelibly, would require a commemorative video dedicated entirely to the unmentionable atrocity,” he wrote.

“‘The turnaround’ killed souls. It shattered all belief in the team.”

Brookmyre is known for his dark, twisted comic thrillers. The brief author biography in one of his books says: “He was at the Hammarby game. This may explain a great deal.”

When St Mirren bid farewell to Love Street in 2009, fan Derek Wyllie felt compelled to write to the Paisley Daily Express all the way from Kuala Lumpur to share his memory of being at the Hammarby match as a 12-year-old.

“The world caved in — right in front of us at the Love Street goalmouth,” Wyllie wrote.

He too recalled St Mirren’s panicked reaction to losing the first Hammarby goal.

“I still remember yelling at Campbell Money to take more time with the by kicks, but he was never going to hear me!” Wyllie wrote, sounding like he was still trying to shout to Money — from Malaysia in 2009 all the way back to Paisley in 1985 — and change the course of history.

Why does the legend of Hammarby endure? After all, it is not unheard of for a team to lead for much of a game only to succumb to two late goals.

One explanation surely lies in the key event not recorded in the match statistics — the late disallowed strike between the Hammarby goals. It made the game much more extraordinary and much more difficult to process.

In just a few short minutes, St Mirren fans were dragged through a bewildering zig-zag of emotions — shock (at Hammarby’s first goal), relief (as they realised St Mirren were still going through), shock again (as Hammarby had the ball in the net once more), relief (as the goal was disallowed), then a third shock (after Hammarby scored again) followed by complete despair (at the realisation St Mirren were out).

The game probably also resonates because, for many fans, it really does sum up the whole experience of supporting St Mirren. Most of the time, things don’t go very well. But occasionally you feel the club may be on the verge of something special. You dare to believe — only to see the opportunity spectacularly squandered. It is perhaps the ultimate Paisley pattern.

This is, after all, the club that sacked Alex Ferguson as manager. The club that was holding Rangers 0-0 in the Scottish League Cup Final in 2010 — but proceeded to lose 1-0 after Rangers went down to nine men. Nine men!

But after more than 30 years of Hammarby-induced trauma, maybe it is finally time to relax and look at the game in a new light.

After all, the match has given birth to a legend not always supported by the facts. It has even been the subject of some Norse mythology. One Hammarby fan wrote in a blog post that St Mirren had been so traumatised by the defeat that they tumbled all the way from Scotland’s top division to the fourth tier and needed 20 years to recover.

But the true story is quite different. The following season, St Mirren won the Scottish Cup — for only the third time in their history, and the first time since 1959.

Six players from the Hammarby game — including Money, Fitzpatrick and McGarvey — played in the dramatic 1-0 extra-time win over Dundee United in the 1987 Cup final.

A new manager, Alex Smith, had taken over by then. But Alex Miller was not hounded out over Hammarby; he was hired away by a bigger club, Hibernian.

It’s true that St Mirren were relegated from thePremier Division – but not until 1992, nearly seven years after they lost to Hammarby. They never sank any lower and have had two further spells in the top flight since then.

And after that calamitous loss to nine-man Rangers in the 2010 League Cup final? St Mirren were back in the final three years later, beating Hearts to win the trophy for the first time in their history.

Admittedly, the legend of Hammarby is so powerful that even when St Mirren were leading 3-1 in that final with only a few minutes to go, part of me still fully expected them to lose 4-3. In normal time. But St Mirren endured and prevailed 3-2.

So maybe that is the real meaning of the Hammarby game. It can be seen not as an abject failure – well, not just an abject failure – but as a particularly dramatic episode in a story of resilience and endurance.

It can also be viewed as a symbol of a golden era many St Mirren fans did not even realise they were experiencing at the time.

The fact that the club were in the second round of a European competition and expected to go further was a sign of success. They had not been in Europe before the 1980s and they have not been back there since.

Having suffered relegation in 2015 and ended last season in the middle of the second tier, St Mirren these days would regard a finish in the top half of the top division followed by a couple of rounds of European competition as a stellar achievement.

There is one more good reason to celebrate the Hammarby game. It was truly memorable. Even if the details are fuzzy, the feelings it stirred are still strong more than 30 years later — in the pit of Tony Fitzpatrick’s stomach, in the memories of countless fans. One reason for watching football is surely to escape the mundane, to experience emotion, to feel alive — even if being alive sometimes means feeling pain.

I would not want to experience the bewilderment and despair of the Hammarby game every week. But, somehow, I am still glad I was there. And I bet most St Mirren fans who had their hearts broken at Love Street that night feel the same way.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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