Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and conveniences, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” There is nothing great about the loss of innocent lives, but forged from these two tragedies is a bond among supporters, and between supporters and club.
On May 29, 1985 Liverpool met Juventus in the finals of the European Cup in Heysel, Belgium. Due to a perfect storm of hooliganism on both sides, ineptitude by local police, and poor planning by the authorities, 39 fans lost their lives.
There isn’t enough space here to give the event the full treatment it deserves, but in the end Liverpool FC and its supporters were made to pay a steep price. The team was banned from European competition for six years, all other English clubs, five.
This pales in comparison to the price paid by the deceased Juventus fans, and we all recognize what a tragic event occurred that day. Having been forced to bear the brunt of the blame by UEFA and in the press, LFC supporters turned inward to protect and support each other.
A Belgian court would later assign blame to UEFA, the crumbling state of the facilities, and inadequate security, among other reasons. On May 26, 2010, a permanent plaque was unveiled at the Centenary Stand at Anfield to honour the Juventus fans who died 25 years earlier.
Four years later, on April 15, 1989, Liverpool met Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the F.A. Cup, at Hillsborough Stadium, home of Sheffield Wednesday F.C. Due to poor planning, Liverpool fans were assigned to the Leppings End of the stadium, which lacked capacity.
Late arriving fans, desperate to get in before the match kicked off caused a bottle neck at the entrance to the section, then spilled over into the section, crushing fellow supporters up against the fencing, then used to prevent fans from invading the fields.
A majority of the casualties occurred among those trapped against the fence, with many dying where they stood, crushed by the bodies about them. At first no one was aware of the disaster taking place at the front of the Leppings.
Desperate fans climbed the fence, some climbing to the upper sections above, others escaping onto the field. Liverpool great, Bruce Grobbelaar recalls, "One shot went over the bar. I went to pick up the ball. All they said was, 'They're killing us, Bruce, they're killing us'. And I thought, 'Who'? I took the kick and kicked it away. Voices through the fence. I looked round, and I could see the fright on the people's faces through the fence.”
In the end 94 fans lost their lives that day, four days later 14-year-old Lee Nicol was removed from life support. Four years later 22-year-old Tony Bland would be as well, bringing the total to 96. The youngest of them was 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, cousin of current Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard.
In the aftermath, Liverpool supporters were again unjustly blamed for causing the tragedy. The Taylor Report exonerated fans and among other things resulted in seating-only stadia across England. To this day however, we still await Justice for the 96.