Time stood still as if in suspended animation, writes MARTIN SMITH.

Mouths fell open. Eyes popped. Then, in an instant, the spell was broken in a mad frenzy as half-a-dozen hands in the Layer Road press box reached for the nearest telephone. “Put me through to the newsdesk.” “Get me copy.” This was the hold-the-front-page moment of which every journalist dreams.

And it did make the front pages. And the comment columns. And the subject of leader articles. MPs mounted soap boxes. Eminent legal eagles applied their brains to the evidence. For a week, and probably more, it was ‘trending’ (as we didn’t say back in 1980).

The cause? The curious incident of the policeman on the pitch in the day- time, to mangle the title of a best-selling novel from the distant future.

It was twenty-five minutes into the second half of an otherwise routine Third Division match 40 years ago today – Colchester United leading Millwall 2-0 – that the balloon went up.

Out on the pitch there was puzzlement and confusion as Sgt Frank Ruggles of Essex Police strode out from his duty monitoring the turbulent Millwall support massed on the away terrace and made a beeline for the visitors’ veteran defender Mel Blyth.

Steve Foley, the U’s captain at the time, recalls: “When it first happened I wondered what he was doing. He walked over to Mel – who was actually marking me – and said, ‘I’m arresting you for swearing’. I said, ‘What are you on about? You’re effing joking. Well, you’ll have to arrest me and you’ll have to arrest the rest of the players, too. We all swear’. For a minute I thought we could all end up in the cells that night!”

On the final whistle of the U’s comfortable 3-0 win, the Evening Gazette’s eager young reporter bolted down the steps of the Main Stand towards the dressing rooms to catch Blyth as he left the scene of his alleged crime to find out just what had gone on. He was still shaking his head in bewilderment 20-odd minutes after his bizarre brush with the law.

He stopped to confirm the facts of the case as he saw them: he had shouted at Millwall’s dithering rookie goalkeeper Peter Gleasure to “come and get it” (expletive deleted between the ‘and’ and the ‘get’). Next thing he knew there was a burly copper in his face.

Foley can still picture the policeman. “Frank Ruggles, that’s it. He was a big ol’ boy. You didn’t want to mess with him, that’s for sure. It was unbelievable. Coming on and arresting a player. In a way I wish he had arrested him: he was marking me. I might have scored!

“Then the ref [Howard Taylor] came running over to find out what was going on. I thought he was going to give the policeman a red card!”

It was a time of heightened off-field tensions with football hooliganism rife. Millwall fans had a notoriety they did nothing to belay and the police presence was duly intensified. With good reason: shoppers in Colchester town centre cowered in doorways as the Millwall rabble army marched from railway station to ground.

“Yeah, the swearing could have triggered something, but I think him coming on to the pitch could have been worse,” Foley suggests. “We didn’t have too many police at Layer Road in those days, only for the odd game, and because Millwall had a reputation there was a bit more policing that day.

“I said to Mel as we came off, ‘Bloody joke, isn’t it?’ We were laughing about it. He said something like, ‘Haven’t these coppers got anything better to do?’ We wondered if he’d had a bet on the game and didn’t want them to score. I said, ‘It’s as well he didn’t come in our dressing room because he’d be nicking us all for swearing’.”

Opinion in the aftermath was polarised. At one extreme, Colchester MP Anthony Buck said police should not interfere in ‘a properly-conducted football match’ unless it was obvious the officials had lost control or a crime had been committed. “To my mind a bit of bad language on the field is not sufficient cause for a police officer to intervene.”

On the other, the chairman of the Police Federation contended that Sgt Ruggles had been ‘a very courageous man’ for what he did and that he had a duty to uphold the law and prevent a breach of the peace. The secretary of the Police Superintendents’ Association warned that it might become a regular occurrence at matches.

Blyth accepted a police caution and his manager, George Petchey, said he would be telling his players to mind their language in future. Sgt Ruggles went on to receive the British Empire Medal, though for charitable works rather than services to policing football matches.

The fuss eventually died down and the incident has remained a one-off. “To be fair, some of the stuff that goes on on a football pitch now, you could probably arrest them for a lot of things,” says Foley, now 67. “Abuse and stuff like that.

“It would have been nice if the incident had been filmed, though. They sometimes have on telly funny moments in football and that would have been one of them, I’m sure.”