BY MARK GODFREY

May 29th 1985 will go down as one of football’s darkest days. At the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, before the scheduled kick-off of the European Cup final, 39 people lost their lives when a decaying wall collapsed under the pressure of scores of fleeing people during a period of crowd violence involving supporters of the holders and recently-deposed English champions Liverpool and their Italian opponents, Juventus. There that day was Reds fan TONY EVANS, now Football Editor of The Times. Following years of disturbances involving English clubs, events on that evening were the final straw and led to UEFA imposing a five-year ban on all English clubs participating in European club competition. Liverpool’s punishment lasted a year longer. We spoke to Tony to find out what he recalls of the day itself, the chaos inside the stadium and the aftermath. Tony Evans is also author of the book FAR FOREIGN LAND – the story of a 5-day trip to Istanbul to watch Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final

 

What are your memories of the build up to that game in Brussels? It was yet another European Cup final for Liverpool and no doubt the mood was joyous. Liverpool fans were renowned for their ingenuity in getting themselves to the big European adventures.

1985 was different. It needs to be seen in context. The year leading up to Heysel was the most violent period I remember. It wasn’t just football. There was the Miners’ Strike, with clashes on the picket lines across the country. Every night we were seeing pictures of the conflict in Northern Ireland. There were ‘Troops Out’ marches which met with hostility. The British Movement and National Front were on the streets. And that’s before you even get to football. The FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Goodison Park a month before Heysel was the worst violence I’ve ever seen. It was off the scale.

What happened in Rome the year before changed our attitude, too. Roma fans stabbed, slashed and attacked us in massive numbers. Scores of people had knife wounds. So when we got Juventus in the final, people were wary. It wasn’t ‘let’s pay the Italians back’. We knew Turin was to Rome what we were to London. It was more like: ‘No Italian will ever do that to me again.’ It was more tense.

When and how did you get to Brussels and how did the day leading up to the game pan out?

We were on the boat train the night before. We got to Brussels in the morning and headed for the Grand Place. It was warm and we were meeting mates there. It was fairly relaxed. Juve fans were running up and down the square with their huge flags, we were singing; lots of drinking. There was a belief in Liverpool that Belgian beer was weaker than British beer. Christ, we were dumb. Loads of lager was going down. It was all fairly happy at that stage.

What were the first indications that the atmosphere was turning sour? Was it away from the stadium, right outside, or only when you were inside with the game fast approaching?

About 3pm the ale kicked in. They started shutting the bars. The mood was turning. A jewellers got done over. I went looking for more beer and a supermarket was getting looted. We got our beer.

We moved towards the stadium and there were people drunk everywhere. Worse than I’d seen before and I was pretty drunk, too. There were rumours running rampant about stabbings and one said a Scouser had been hung from a tree. There were always mad rumours and you’d laugh at them. But after Rome, there was less disbelief.

heysel2

Where were you inside the stadium and where was the trouble happening?

We got into the stadium fairly early. We were quite close to the neutral Z section. At first there was plenty of room but a crush built up quickly. A crush barrier in front of us collapsed. It was pretty unpleasant. The place was falling apart. Everyone’s seen the pictures of people kicking holes in the walls. People started pulling down the chicken wire and climbing over the parallel barrier that separated the sections. There was no missile throwing or fighting that I remember where we were at the top of the terrace. I went to the toilet and when I came back couldn’t find my mates. I thought they might have climbed into Z section so I got over. There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and there was a half-hearted charge. I thought nothing of it. By the standards of the day it was low-level argy-bargy. I hung around for a minute or two but it seemed generally quiet, though the Juventus fans had backed right away. I stood on the barrier and spotted my mates and went back to them. We had no notion of the events happening about 50 yards away.

You must have witnessed some horrific scenes on the terraces that day?

Here’s the thing: I didn’t see anything I considered unusual or particularly violent. The crush and the collapsed wall happened further down the terrace and I didn’t see it happen and where we stood it was out of our sightline. It would have been the same for most of our end. You could see on the corner on the running track people spilling out and gesticulating but, again, people sometimes spilled out of terraces. Then the Juventus end started fighting with the police and came round the track and attacked our end. We were going crazy. We thought we were under attack. They came down the left-hand side (from our point of view) and it took attention from what was going on in the right corner, where the dying and injured where.

heysel4

With all the violence, chaos and confusion were you aware that the wall had collapsed killing so many fans or was that something you only found out later?

I found out at 6am the next morning on the boat going home by listening to BBC news. I couldn’t believe it.

The authorities took the decision to play the game regardless – was the violence continuing? Did you watch the game with any enthusiasm or interest?

The police got things under control finally but we were starting to wonder. We were beginning to question whether people had died. We were bemused. Then the teams came out. We were, like: ‘It can’t be bad, they’re playing.’ We thought the crisis had passed and settled down to watch the game. Then, when Juventus won, they danced around the track with the trophy. Michel Platini, celebrating as if it was the happiest day of his life. The Juve fans likewise. How could anyone be dead? Or even injured badly? It was inconceivable.

 

What happened after the game? How was the atmosphere among you, your friends and other Liverpool fans in Brussels and on the journey home? And what was the reaction towards you like on your return to England?

The police were hostile. As our bus crawled away from the station, a policeman opened the bus door and threw in a cannister of tear gas. Then we were pretty roughly handled at Ostend. The mood was pretty downbeat. We weren’t used to losing. At that point we still thought it was all about the game. When we heard, on the boat, it was shock. Coming back into Dover and on the train to London, you could see people’s fear and loathing. There were camera crews all over the place. A few meatheads started singing and mugging for the cameras. Most of us just wanted to get home.

In your opinion was there any provocation by one side or the other either at the stadium or in the hours before? As you mentioned, Liverpool fans had been attacked in Rome at the final a year earlier and perhaps had a pre-conceived ‘plan’ for revenge or at least not to let the same thing happen again.

I didn’t see any. I think it was drunken ‘bellendery’ that spiralled out of control. ‘Revenge’ is a red herring. I never heard anyone even suggest it in the weeks before the game. There was suspicion and a more hair-triggered aggression than before. If there would have been a concerted plan to ‘get’ Italians, it would have happened in the city in the day. The banal reality is simpler and stupider.

heysel3

While the FA, UEFA and the British government were very vocal in their condemnation of Liverpool fans, the club’s response was less public or apologetic. Do you think this damaged Liverpool’s excellent reputation within the game and helped to form a pre-conceived prejudice against the fans that contributed to the Police and media handling of the Hillsborough tragedy four years later?

The misjudgement from the club – blaming the NF and Chelsea fans – was ludicrous and offensive. On a wider note, the city had been under so much political, economic and social pressure over the previous few years that circling the wagons became a default reflex. That happened in this case, too, to a certain extent. The criminalisation and dehumanisation of football fans, not just Liverpool, set the scene for Hillsborough. But Heysel gave plenty of people the chance to come up with a ‘poetic justice’ view of what happened in Sheffield in 1989. Some still have that view, unfortunately.

Although the team carried on winning more trophies domestically in the following five years, do you think Liverpool have ever truly recovered from the subsequent European ban?

There’s a story – apocyphal, probably – that Liverpool were planning a new stadium. After Heysel, they scrapped the plans and replaced all the 100w lightbulbs at Anfield with 60w ones. But Heysel was not the turning point for the club. That was Hillsborough. That destabilised the club to its foundations.

Liverpool fans get a lot of abuse from supporters of other clubs because of Heysel. Is any of it justified based on the actions of those directly responsible for or involved in the trouble?

It’s justified in the sense it was us. We were part of a chain of events that led to 39 people dying. We weren’t the only factor but there’s no escaping the fact that, as a body of fans, our behaviour contributed to the tragedy. On the other hand, people using the deaths of 39 people to score points about football allegiance is beyond pathetic. Interestingly enough, this is a fairly recent phenomena. I remember very little of it in 1985-86, if any. There was a recognition at the time – especially from fans who travelled to Europe with club and country – that it could have been them in a similar situation. Maybe even on the receiving end.

There are several factors, when put together, that contributed to what happened that day – which of those stand out as key and what – in hindsight – could have been done to prevent it ever happening?

What lots of people forget about Heysel is that there was a judicial investigation. Recommendations were filed, jobs lost, people jailed. It wasn’t entirely satisfactory but it went a fair way towards it. The stadium was dangerous, the police inept. It was a mistake creating a ‘neutral section’ in our end. But from my point of view I wish we’d have been different. Rome had spooked us and we were defensive and aggressive. I wish the rampant drunkenness wouldn’t have been so bad. More than any other day I remember, it felt like we were out of control. We couldn’t do anything about the stadium, the police or any of the other factors. We could do something about ourselves, though. I’m not a murderer, I didn’t do anything more that day than act like a drunken dickhead. But I accept my behaviour played a very, very small part in a perfect storm that led to the deaths of 39 people.

There are some people who were there who will take exception to this. They’ll say they had nothing to do with it. They’re right. And there are others – the ones who charged across the terrace – who must take greater blame. But, overall, the Liverpool support behaved differently that day to other European trips. There are good reasons why but no excuses. If we were not so daft and drunk, it’s likely no one dies. It’s as simple as that.

Advertisements

6 comments

  1. I’ve been back for the 3rd, 20th & 25th anniversaries, i’m very upset that i can’t make this years 30th anniversary.

    I was there in 1985 & in Rome the year before. I was 28 years old in Brussels that day.

    I had met a bloke called Lorenzo Farranto who was a couple of years younger than me at Brussels airport, i think he was from Manchester or somewhere close, he was from an Italian family. We got on very well & decided to share a room in an Italian run Hotel. Neither of us had a ticket so we went out that night and had a drink or two in a couple of bars and asked around for tickets, no joy with that.

    The next morning we went to the ground fairly early to try and get a couple of tickets. Lorenzo bought one, for Z section. We found out soon after that that section was supposed to be for the Belgian neutrals, so we decided that i would buy the ticket from him and he would try and get one for the other end to be with the Juve fans. I never saw any trouble outside the ground. I saw plenty of drunk Liverpool fans, but no drunk Juventus fans.

    I was in Z section & saw everything.

    After the match (which i think should definately not have been played) I hung around the ground at the bottom of the terrace near the fence to talk to the police, but had to turn around to stop myself from being hit with bottles thrown by Liverpool fans at the police from the top of the terrace for about 10 minutes, the running track was covered in broken glass. If they knew of the deaths they didn’t look like they gave a shit about it, maybe they didn’t yet know that anybody had died, still no excuse though.

    I was in a tramcar with plenty of Juve fans, one of them went berserk at me, it was very sad, he had lost his passport, all his money. I gave him some money and my Liverpool scarf, christ knows why i gave him my scarf, why would he have wanted that ? We parted with a handshake as i got out very sheepishly from the tram not really knowing where i was, somewher near the city centre. I met a fellow Liverpool fan who was lost as well.

    As we tried to find our way back a coach full of Juventus fans passed us, it stopped and one Juve fan in particular went mad at us and tried to get at me and the fellah i was with, he was restrained by his mates, who actually apologised for his rant, they had no need to, i would have done the same had the roles been reversed. As we ran off we ducked into a hotel and i ran straight into Gordon Banks, close by him were ex-Liverpool players Ian Callaghan and Ron Yeats. Normally i would always chat to footballers, but other than a hello to Gordon Banks i just couldn’t manage a word to them.

    Finally i got back to the Hotel to eventually meet up with Lorenzo, we were both stunned and shocked by what had happened, i’m not sure what we said to each other now.

    The next day we went to buy the papers for further details. I broke down reading the news and looking at the photographs. A girl came along and asked me in Itailan if i was alright, she put an arm around me but quickly removed it when i said to her in Italian that i was English and not Italian. I looked Italian with my long dark hair, she obviously thought that i was, i felt sick and ashamed to be English. The man who had sold me the newspaper saw what had gone on and so took me for a strong coffee in a local cafe.

    A little later Lorenzo and i went to the stadium to try and find a young groundsman we had met the day before. I had assured him that there would be no trouble as Liverpool fans were very well behaved. We had a good chat about the match and he took a couple of photographs of me and Lorenzo on the running track with the Atomium building in the background.
    We couldn’t find him, so we walked around for a while, talking of the previous night’s events and trying to understand it all.

    I saw a few people taking photographs of the stadium through a fence and gave them some abuse for doing so. It turned out that they were from various newspapers around the World including what turned out to be a very nice bloke from the Daily Express, he eventually took us back into the ground, i believe we were the only fans that were allowed back in to the stadium that day. A photograph of Lorenzo and i appeared in the next day’s edition of the Daily Express, full page i think, me with my arm around Lorenzo.

    At some point i rang somebody back home in Portsmouth, i can’t remember who, to let everybody know that i was okay.

    Lorenzo and i shook hands at the airport in England and that was the last occasion that i saw him. I hope that one day we can meet again.

    I was taken back to Heysel in 1988 by the Portsmouth sports paper the Football Mail, i also returned ther for the unveiling of the sculpture to commerate the 20th anniversary of the tragedy in 2005. I met that day amongst other people Dora Coppola, an Italian who had moved to Brussels in the late 1950’s, she gave me a commerative scarf. I also met that day many lovely Juventus fans who showed not the slightest animosity towards me, including a group of Belgian blokes of Italian ancestry who worked for a radio station in Liege called Radio Italia. I am still friends with them to this day.

    I gave a lot of radio interviews that day to the Belgian and Italian stations trying desperately to answer their questions, it wasn’t very comfortable with up to a thousand Juve fans who had made the trip from Turin listening to me.

    I returned again to Heysel for the 25th anniversary to meet up with my Italian friends from the radio station Gianni, Lorenzo, Vincenzo, Fabian and Dora. On the pitch they presented me with a plaque marking the anniversary of the tragedy, i couldn’t help but shed tears as Vincenzo gave it to me, surrounded by the relatives of the people who had died all those years ago.

    They invited me to return the next week as a guest of Radio Italia to watch the Italy versus Mexico match the following wednesday, which i did. I again met many Juve fans, some who had lost fathers and sons that terrible night, all of them without exception friendly and warm towards me as i showed them my ticket from Z section 25 years before. I think Mexico won 2-1. I had made friends with an Irish fellah, Michael O’Shea in Brussels the week before, he said i could stay at his place after the match, which i did. Whilst waiting for a lift from a friend of the fellah in charge of Security, i decided to stroll around the pitch and bumped into the Italian Goalkeeper Buffon, who was having a quick fag, he looked a bit guilty as i tried my best Italian on him.

    I seem to have drifted a bit from the events of that night.

    This is the only match that i have watched abroad since the tragedy.

    It was a terrible, terrible night the 29th May 1985.

    I can never forget it.

    It doesn’t seem to get a mention in the papers on the anniversary of that night very much. I always check for a mention of it but most time there isn’t a word about it, shame on the Press for that.

    As for the comment written by Mark Godfrey and said i think by Tony Evans, that people going to Prison and jobs being lost although not entirely satisfactory, went a fair way towards it. WHAT !

    Ask the relatives and loved ones of the Juventus fans who died that night what they think of that comment.

    An absolutely idiotic, stupid, disgraceful thing to say.

    39 football fans went to watch a football match that night and ended up in the mortuary.

    Most of the gates had no turnstiles, the Police were woeful, the ticketing was awful, the fencing between the fans was inadequate, but the main contributing factor in the tragedy was 99% the aggresive, cowardly, drunken behaviour of my fellow Liverpool fans.

    This is the first time i have ever written anything of that night.

    1. Deano, firstly my sincere thanks for taking the time to read this interview which give a candid and honest account of Tony’s own experiences, comments and opinions regarding the Heysel tragedy (no comments are personally mine, I was not at Heysel. I conducted the interview for that very reason – to get the thoughts of someone who was and who, in the past has been open about it). Secondly, and more importantly, I’d also like to thank you for deciding to share your own personal story and experiences of the disaster itself and the time since, for the first time here on our site.

  2. I'm an Evertonian, one who has to my shame used the deaths of 39 italian football supporters in the past to score cheap points at rival Liverpool supporters. As Tony says, this is pathetic behaviour and for what its worth I apologise for my part in the de says:

    Martin

    1. Things in common Liverpool fc supporters run at Part of ground they want to be boss of At Hysel and At Hillsborough. Each time the Innocents Die. Some people who went to watch each match ‘as Liverpool fans’ did cause the deaths of innocent people. No Doubt I watched it happen in front of my eyes.

  3. In 1985 I was 37 years old and went to many big football matches in Manchester and Liverpool from around 1963. During the early years too many people were packed into small areas and it is amazing people were not killed. The main reason for this was that crowds were good natured and well disciplined — for example as United supporters we stood on the Kop and were well received, even welcomed.
    Slowly over the years the atmosphere and behaviour deteriated pushing became commonplace for example we were often carried over the Warwick Road Bridge at OT with some United supporters taking great delight in running to the bridge to create a crush then as a group shouting “heave”
    As we got into the 70’s things got steadily worse with running battles beween opposing fans across the country. This sort of thing happened everywhere but mostly in the big cities sometimes fuelled by drink and often premeditated.
    This culminated at Heysal but could in my view have happened at any big match involving so called British football supporters.
    This is why I find it impossible to believe at subsequent events absolutely no one was pushing and no one had too much to drink. Whenever in earlier years crushes developed people were more likely to back off and disasters were usually avoided because of a sort of collective common sense. I say usually because of the Ibrox and Burnden Park disasters which were a combination of particular ground design issues not of crowd misbaviour.

Comments are closed.