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.
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.
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.
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.