2006 Champions League: Liverpool v Juventus

Sean O'Conor

Return to Heysel

Heysel: Juve Home Shirt 2005.

Liverpool v Juventus takes place again this week, twenty years after that match. Memories fade with time and for many football fans in 2005, Heysel means nothing.

For those of us alive that night however, the images do not die away and the names of the teams thrown up by this tie struck deep chords as soon as the Champions League draw was announced.

In short what happened was that thirty-nine Juventus fans in the stadium were crushed to death when an interior concrete wall collapsed as they fled a charge of Liverpool fans. UEFA then banned all English clubs from European competition indefinitely, a ban which lasted five years.

Liverpool Home Shirt 2005 - Morientes.

My own recollection is vivid but hardly remarkable. I was twelve years old and already a fervent footy fan. Although my team was Nottingham Forest I felt a reflex of patriotic duty whenever a British team took the field against foreign opposition and so was relishing another memorable European final night supporting Liverpool, England's consistently great side. If it was going to be anything like their previous season's heroic victory over Roma in their Stadio Olimpico then we were in for a treat.

The BBC's children's news show 'John Craven's Newsround' I can still remember starting that afternoon with the headline "The message to Liverpool fans is keep it cool". I was not worried. I knew hooliganism existed because I had heard it said on TV so many times but I had never seen any take place. For me football was fun and happy, exciting and joyful.

It was only years later when visiting Premiership stadia that I realised that I had been worshipping the Beautiful Game for years amidst concrete gulags encircled with barbed wire, on overcrowded terraces behind metal fences where the police would escort us to and from the train station, having kept us locked in the away end for an hour after the final whistle. I did not care, because I did not know any differently.

The Heysel was a crumbling dinosaur of a stadium but would still have seemed exceptionally decrepit to the Liverpool fans that evening. It included chicken-wire fences and its exterior 'walls' included sections of rusty chain-link fences which ticket-less fans were able to scramble under. Most worrying of all were the chunky concrete walls built along the terraces for segregation and the crumbling old stonework everywhere. Add to that a woefully understaffed, cowardly local police force clearly inexperienced in policing football of that magnitude and the ingredients for an outbreak of violence were already brewing.

Renowned English football journalist Brian Glanville, in his book "Champions of Europe" recollects watching the obscene sight of a Belgian police sergeant pompously lining up his men on the field and inspecting them, after all the bodies had been removed from the stadium.

I visited the infamous ground around five years after the tragedy and to my horror it looked identical to what I had seen on television that night. The fences had been repaired as had been the awful concrete interior barriers that had crushed the fans in the first place.

It was as if they had raised the Titanic and I was trampling around where so many had perished. My second visit there was in 1998 to see Belgium play the USA in a World Cup warm-up. By then the Heysel had thankfully been buried, replaced for good by a new, modern stadium with a new name, the King Badouin. The sad memories had been soothed, too.

On the fateful night, the kick-off had been delayed, to our bemusement watching on television from England, and as the wait continued and the confusion grew, much like at Hillsborough four years later, we began to think the worst. As the evening went on our suspicions about what had transpired began to be tragically confirmed.

My father came home from work some time during what should have been the second half and asked me what the score was. I recall his grimaced sigh of despair to this day when I told him the kick-off had been delayed because it seemed some fans had been killed.

As the TV pictures from Brussels began to resemble those from a third world tragedy, thoughts of the night's football grew farther away in our minds. In horror we watched the ghastly scenes of carnage unfold in our living rooms. There were masked hooligans, one armed with a starting pistol I remember, running around amongst the detritus of broken glass, bricks and metal and of course the dead bodies, their scarves and hats lying just as lifelessly on the tarmac beside them.

Back on the BBC, Jimmy Hill was calling for the return of National Service whilst a more sober Terry Venables reflected, "I fear the worst tonight", correctly foreseeing the coming UEFA ban. My father turned the TV off.

In shock and anger whilst the family listened patiently yet sympathetically, he spent the next half hour or so blasting the Thatcherite yob culture that had overrun the working-class religion of football he had grown up with in London in the 1940s and '50s. In those days there was no need of segregation, let alone concrete walls, heavy policing or makeshift morgues at football matches. This was a dark and discomforting evening for everyone even remotely connected with the game.

When we turned the TV back on later that evening we were as amazed as anyone else to see the game had kicked off. Juventus won thanks to an appalling penalty decision but the game was irrelevant.

The images of a beaming Platini dancing around the pitch with the trophy at the end were rather disconcerting but in their defence the players insisted they did not know the full extent of the tragedy. To this day many of the relatives of those Juve fans who died are as angry with the Italian club for its perceived insensitivity to the victims then and now as they are with the Liverpool hooligans.

UEFA's subsequent indefinite ban on all English clubs deprived the likes of Oxford and Wimbledon of European adventures and unfairly punished clubs whose fans had no violent history. In terms of the sport it was a disaster for England as it gave us an excuse to turn in on ourselves and ignore the rest of the world's football.

At the FA headquarters at Lancaster Gate the Heysel ban coincided with the ruinous reign of Charlie Hughes as Director of Coaching. The so-called 'High Priest of the Long Ball' preached his mistaken pseudo-religion unchallenged by any evidence of its inadequacy against top European teams. Before Heysel, English clubs had been crowned Champions of Europe seven out of eight years. And since? Once.

Come Italia '90 and England played in Turin, home of Juventus. When I was at that tournament I remember seeing anti-English graffiti across Italy referring to Heysel but the team's fine showing, including the mutual friendship felt at the 3rd-placed play-off against Italy in Naples, seemed to have let bygones be bygones.

At the conclusion of the tournament UEFA happily announced they were re-admitting English clubs to European competition and reducing Liverpool's extra three-year ban to one. "Inglesi? Oh Yes!" proclaimed the cover of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's top-selling football paper. Almost hidden a few pages inside was a small piece quoting the disapproval of the parent of one of the Heysel victims, "At Italia '90 the English showed they have not learnt the lessons of Heysel," one said. But the overall mood was of a happy reconciliation that pleased the Italians. Fast forward six years and Italy received a warm welcome playing in Liverpool at Euro '96.

A year later however there was little reciprocated goodwill as England drew 0-0 with Italy in a World Cup qualifier in the Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Fans like myself who attended were horrified as the carabinieri confiscated belts and coins before the match, did nothing to stop the missiles being hurled at us and then waded in with brutal and gratuitous baton charges on England fans throughout the game.

To cap it all they locked us in the ground for three hours after the match and provided no transport to help us get back to the city. In the cross-national media spat which followed, the Italians time and again dragged up the ghost of Heysel in order to attempt to justify their vicious policemen.

Why did it happen? Well the aforementioned inadequacies of the venue and security are undoubtedly important. This would not have happened at Wembley, period. It is also true that the British, Italian and Belgian cultures intersected that day and they did not understand each other well enough before the event for it to pass off smoothly.

But at the end of the day, one can only honestly blame those yobs who charged the Juve section. They had not intended to murder but the circumstances conspired to transform their scally bravado, one that was being replayed in and around grounds all over the country, into an impromptu bloodbath.

Without wanting to wade into the mire of hooligan research, my two cents is that those who made that fateful charge were only products of the society that produced them at that time. Eighties Britain was violent, decaying, ill-mannered and bellicose. There was violence from the top (the Falklands War and the Miners Strike) right down to the lads on the terraces at the bottom.

Looking at the fateful night from an English perspective it is all too easy to forget the human tragedy because the dead were all Italians. In the same way that Leppings Lane would haunt the English football psyche in 1989, Sector Z of the Heysel would traumatise Italy.

I am undecided whether it is a good or bad thing it has taken this long for the two sides to meet again. An earlier replay might have healed the wounds sooner on the one hand but on the other there is no healer better than time. One's fervent hope is that no one will get hurt this time around because of the actions of a few idiots.

It only took a few idiots on that May night in 1985, but the actions of the few can be noxious to the many. It is surely time for reconciliation and forgiveness and to respect the relatives of those who died so unnecessarily that night by ensuring the two ties are played in a spirit of goodwill. Only when that happens will we have really learnt the lessons of Heysel.

Related Liverpool FC Links

Hillsborough Disaster
Liverpool Red Diary
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