The Dark Shadow of Heysel

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The Dark Shadow of Heysel
David Cannon/Getty Images

May 29, 1985.

The darkest hour in the history of the UEFA competitions.

What should have been the greatest day in many fans’ and players’ lives became the biggest tragedy in European competition.

39 dead.

Thousands in grief.

Football never the same again.

I was born in 1983, just under two years before the European Cup Final between Liverpool FC and Juventus, and so I’ve grown up in its' shadow as a Liverpool supporter.

I myself have been labelled “murderer” by fans of certain teams, even though I was only just walking at the time.

I’ve always stopped and thought about that day whenever I saw that it was May 29.

Is it possible for Liverpool fans to reconcile themselves with the terrible things that are said about them?

Is it true that the actions of the few hindered other clubs, like our Merseyside neighbours Everton, and sent them crashing in to mediocrity?

Truth is a word that Liverpool fans have held dear since 1989.

It’s written all over our messageboards, our websites, our newspapers, and at certain times of year, our Kop.

It’s used in relation to another dark time, separate to Heysel, but what’s the truth about May 29, 1985, and the build up to events that would change football, and Liverpool FC, forever?

 

Background

English football fans first became synonymous with violent acts and drunkenness during the 1960s and 70s, not aided by the conduct of certain players on the pitch.

During the 1960s, skinhead gangs attached themselves to travelling football crowds in order to create trouble for police.

But this problem was never seen as a Liverpool problem, or even a Merseyside one.

In 1974, a Bolton Wanderers fan attacked and stabbed to death a Blackpool supporter at Bloomfield Road.

This followed on from a spate of organised riots during Manchester United’s 1973 stint in the Second Division, orchestrated by the so-called “Red Army” hooligan firm.

Ten years before Heysel, during the 1975 European Cup Final between Leeds United and Bayern Munich, a large group of Leeds supporters attacked their German counterparts, as well as match officials and even the players, after a Peter Lorimer goal was controversially disallowed.

UEFA’s response was to ban Leeds from European competition for four years.

Of course it hadn’t been all one way.

At the 1984 European Cup Final, several Liverpool fans were attacked by Roma fans before and after the match, crimes that are well documented.

In March 1985, just two months prior to Heysel, a large group of Milwall fans rioted at Luton Town during the FA Cup quarter final, an event of such magnitude that it prompted responses from Margaret Thatcher’s government.

On 11 May 1985, a 14-year-old boy died at St. Andrews Stadium when police forced fans against a wall, which collapsed under the pressure following violence at the match between Birmingham City and Leeds United.

Justice Popplewell described that day’s carnage as more like “the Battle of Agincourt than a football match” at the Popplewell Committee investigation in to football.

 

May 1985

By the time the European Cup Final came around, there were already major concerns about the Heysel Stadium itself.

It had been labelled a “dump” by Arsenal fans following a European match a few years earlier, and Liverpool CEO Peter Robinson, so worried about crowd safety, asked UEFA to choose another venue.

His request was denied.

Brussels has a large expatriate Italian community, and so many inevitably secured tickets for the Z section, which was set aside for neutral Belgian fans.

The idea of having the Z section in place was for it to serve as a buffer zone between the opposition fans in Liverpool’s sections, labelled X and Y, and those of Juventus in O, N, and M, thereby eliminating possible trouble by keeping the hardcore fans apart.

Both Liverpool FC and Juventus, however, publicly opposed the idea, as they believed it would—and it turns out did—provide an opportunity for ticket touts to sell Z section tickets to both sets of supporters, leading to a mix of travelling fans together.

Many of the Z section tickets were sold by travel agents as part of packages to travelling Italian fans, while a small percentage ended up in the hands of Liverpool supporters.

By the time the stadium filled, it became apparent that Liverpool and Juventus supporters in sections Y and Z were standing yards apart and the idea of the buffer had gone spectacularly wrong.

The only boundary between the two was a temporary chain-link fence, thinly policed.

At approximately 7 PM, local time, fans on both sides of the divide began picking up broken stones from the crumbling terrace construction, and hurling them over the fence.

As kick-off approached, the number of missiles increased, again from both sides, until eventually a group of English fans charged and broke through the fence, causing many of the missile-throwing people on the edges of Z to retreat and pen the rest of the section against a broken down perimeter wall.

The weight, added to the poorly maintained construction, meant that the wall collapsed.

39 people lost their lives and 600 more were injured.

Italian fans in sections O, N, and M, at this stage unaware of the scale of the disaster, rioted and tried to force their way through police to meet the English fans in confrontation, but were prevented from doing so.

By the time the game eventually kicked-off, Juventus fans were still fighting a battle against police using bottles, broken stones, and missiles.

Juventus, for what it was worth, went on to win the game 1-0 after officials acted to continue the game to avoid further incitement to the crowd.

 

Blame

Officially, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at the English fans.

The official UEFA observer, Gunter Schneider, despite evidence to the contrary, said, "Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt."

On May 31, Margaret Thatcher, who had enacted several attempts to quell fan trouble at English football matches, urged the FA to withdraw English clubs from European competition.

They did not need to act, however, as UEFA moved quickly to ban English clubs from Europe for “an indeterminate period of time.”

On June 6, FIFA followed suit by banning English club teams from worldwide competitions.

The ban on English clubs in Europe was indefinite, with the only proviso being that Liverpool FC would be banned for three years longer than the other English clubs. The ban was voted to continue each year for five years, and Liverpool only ended up serving one extra year of the ban than their counterparts.

In all, there were 27 people arrested by British police on suspicion of manslaughter.

Some had previous convictions for football-related violence, but hadn’t been prevented from travelling by the British authorities. Ultimately 14 of these 27 people were convicted.

The Heysel Stadium was never used for a football match again until it was demolished in 1994.

 

Aftermath

As a result of the ban, many English club sides failed to achieve European heights, and their financial rewards.

Among these clubs were Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City, and Leeds United.

The argument that this cost sides more severely than initially thought gained most of its fervour when Merseyside rivals Everton suffered a downturn in fortunes during the 1990s.

In the 1980s, Everton had encountered a new wave of prowess, winning the league twice in 1985 and 1987. They would have qualified for the European Cup in those years, but were denied their right by the ban.

They would have also qualified for the European Cup Winner’s Cup in 1986, and the UEFA Cup in 1989.

But did their lack of European competition hinder any one side more than the other clubs?

Of all the club sides affected by the ban, Liverpool were hardest hit, missing three European Cups, two UEFA Cups, and a Cup Winner’s Cup.

Despite this, they continued to win trophies and dominate English football until their last league title in 1990, after which a combination of poor management and outdated boardroom policies reduced Liverpool’s ability to compete with emerging clubs.

Manchester United, also affected badly by the ban, grew in prominence during the late 1980s and came to overtake Liverpool as the dominant force in English football in the 90s, while Arsenal also rose to become a major threat to Manchester United several years later.

Everton themselves managed to attract Gary Linekar from Leicester City in the close season of 1985, after the European ban was placed.

They finished runners up in 1986, and also managed to win the title again in 1987, two years after the ban began.

In fact their fortunes didn’t change until just before the ban on English clubs was lifted five years after Heysel.

So why did Everton fall from grace at the same time as other clubs were flourishing?

The loss of Howard Kendall and his replacement with Colin Harvey seemed to provide a huge change of fortunes, with him only able to take Everton to fourth in 1988 and eighth in 1989.

Poor boardroom decisions and transfer policy became the running theme of Everton in the 1990s.

 

Conclusion

The Heysel Stadium Disaster was one of the most terrible and horrific times in football.

The result of decades of unchecked, irresponsible yob culture like a cancer at the heart of English and European club football, together with the ridiculous and thoughtless actions of a few men at UEFA, it will forever be a day that changed everything about the beautiful game.

There is no doubt that English clubs suffered as a result.

Financial rewards were lost, and possibly contributed to the downfall of Everton’s fortunes, though there’s little doubt that it was not the cause when you see the dramatic rise of Manchester United in the years since.

The biggest loser of all in terms of football, of course, was Liverpool, who were thoroughly dominant at the time and would probably have gone on to record more European honours during the late 1980s.

But it’s easy to cloud the day with football rivalries and tribalism.

The most important aspect of May 29, 1985, were the 32 Italians, 4 Belgians, 2 French people and 1 Northern Irish man: 39 human beings that lost their lives.

So, we remember them.

We stop on May 29 each year and think of them, and Liverpool fans too young to have seen it, or been there, look at their names and mourn.

Dedicated to Rocco Acerra (29), Bruno Balli (50), Alfons Bos, Giancarlo Bruschera (21), Andrea Casula (11), Giovanni Casula (44), Nino Cerullo (24), Willy Chielens, Giuseppina Conto (17), Dirk Daenecky, Dionisio Fabbro (51), Jacques François, Eugenio Gagliano (35), Francesco Galli (25), Giancarlo Gonnelli (20), Alberto Guarini (21), Giovacchino Landini (50), Roberto Lorentini (31), Barbara Lusci (58), Franco Martelli (22), Loris Messore (28), Gianni Mastroiaco (20), Sergio Bastino Mazzino (38), Luciano Rocco Papaluca (38), Luigi Pidone (31), Benito Pistolato (50), Patrick Radcliffe, Domenico Ragazzi (44), Antonio Ragnanese (49), Claude Robert, Mario Ronchi (43), Domenico Russo (28), Tarcisio Salvi (49), Gianfranco Sarto (47), Amedeo Giuseppe Spolaore (55), Mario Spanu (41), Tarcisio Venturin (23), Jean Michel Walla, and Claudio Zavaroni (28).

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