Heysel remembered: the horror of a tragedy waiting to happen

As Liverpool and Juventus meet for the first time since the Heysel disaster, John Keith evokes a terrible night for English football, while (right) two players from the game recall a final that was rendered meaningless

A day which had begun in bright Belgian sunshine, spawning a carnival sense of rivalry between Liverpool and Juventus supporters in the streets, bars and cafés of Brussels, ended in a chill, black horror that two decades on still resonates in English football. As a reporter on that terrible night, I still vividly recall one of my colleagues returning from the ground-level chaos to inform the press box: "The wall's gone. People are dead." At that moment we knew that English football would never be the same again.

A day which had begun in bright Belgian sunshine, spawning a carnival sense of rivalry between Liverpool and Juventus supporters in the streets, bars and cafés of Brussels, ended in a chill, black horror that two decades on still resonates in English football. As a reporter on that terrible night, I still vividly recall one of my colleagues returning from the ground-level chaos to inform the press box: "The wall's gone. People are dead." At that moment we knew that English football would never be the same again.

I remember, too, Marina Dalglish, sitting with the rest of the Liverpool wives and girlfriends, trying to come to terms with the grotesque events that unfolded in front of us. "We were all scared stiff, holding each other's hands," she told me. "It was just terrible, sitting there watching. It was the first time I hoped Kenny wouldn't score a goal because I dread to think what more could have happened."

The terrible events at the 30th European Cup final in the Heysel Stadium, and the awful emotions they unleashed, were brought home to me late that night as I made my way down the staircase from the press box.Another reporter and I were confronted by a group of frenzied Italian fans with vengeance in their eyes. It was only when they glimpsed, some yards behind us, the BBC radio commentators, Peter Jones and the former Liverpool captain Emlyn Hughes, that they disappeared into a night heavy with grief and anger.

It was an evening when English football bathed in shame and disgrace, watched by 500 million television viewers in 77 countries. To be English in Brussels that night was not something to advertise.

Yet as I look back on it now, nearly 20 years later and with Liverpool about to play Juventus for the first time since Heysel, what strikes me most is that it was a totally avoidable disaster. The former Liverpool chief executive Peter Robinson had repeatedly warned what could happen in a series of telex messages to Uefa, the governing body of European football, the Football Association, the Belgian Football Association and the Belgian Government.

The English disease of violence and hooliganism was at its height then, and only a year earlier in Brussels almost 200 English fans were arrested before and after Tottenham's 1984 Uefa Cup final first leg against Anderlecht and, less than three weeks before Heysel, a boy died and 96 police were among many injured when Leeds fans ran riot at Birmingham City.

Against this background, and notwithstanding Liverpool's almost blemish-free record in Europe, Robinson voiced his fears over Heysel's ticket distribution, segregation and security. His warnings, with particular reference to the fact that tickets sold in Belgium would be bought by the country's many Italian workers, were reported in the English press in the weeks preceding the match. His messages were politely received by the authorities - and totally ignored.

The inexcusable and fateful charge by Liverpool supporters at blocks Y and Z that caused a wall to collapse at a cost of 39, mainly Italian, lives was the self-evident reason for the disaster. Yet, Uefa's choice of a dilapidated stadium which could not be properly policed is as baffling now as it was then.

Heysel presented a stark contrast to the situation a fortnight earlier in Rotterdam, when a ring of steel around the stadium and precautions that would not allow even a small flag to be carried beyond the security cordon, allowed the European Cup-Winners' Cup final between Everton and Rapid Vienna to be played out without a hint of trouble.

Heysel was another world from the all-seater plushness of today's stadiums which, ironically, the events of Heysel and the other 1980s tragedies of Bradford and Hillsborough helped to create. Compared to the comforts of watching Premiership football, the state of Heysel on 29 May, 1985, was like something from the dark ages.

The terracing was crumbling - strips of flimsy chicken wire were all that stood between Liverpool and Juventus fans - and the perimeter wall was so weak that fans kicked down parts of it and stepped into the ground carrying crates and boxes of alcohol. That fuelled the growing air of menace, the seeds of which had been sown in Rome after the previous year's European Cup final when Liverpool supporters had been attacked in the streets following their team's penalty shoot-out victory over Roma in the Italians' own Olympic Stadium.

When I arrived at Heysel with the rest of the press corps about an hour and a half before kick-off there were already ominous signs all was not well. It was evident, even to the least perceptive official, that violence was brewing. The light-hearted atmosphere of earlier in the day, when Liverpool fans digested the shock of the overnight news that their manager, Joe Fagan, was stepping down after Heysel to be succeeded by Kenny Dalglish, had been replaced by a sinister, simmering resentment.

Rival supporters began jeering each other and throwing missiles. A spectator emerged from the Juventus end of the ground and was seen to fire a gun at police. It was later revealed that he had been brandishing a starting pistol.

Robinson's sense of foreboding became acute. "I conveyed my feelings to a Uefa official two hours before kick- off time, but he claimed not to understand what I was saying," Robinson said. That response was echoed throughout that dreadful evening.

The news that there had been deaths, in an era long before laptops and mobile phones, sparked a communal press box operation. Some of us kept open telephone land lines to our offices, trying to make ourselves heard above the crescendo of crowd and Tannoy noise to dictate copy. Others ferried between the box and the bowels of the stadium to keep a running check on casualties.

By this time bodies were lined up in front of an outside wall and Melissa Berry, the teenage girlfriend of the Liverpool striker Paul Walsh,was forced to look at the gruesome sight by an irate Juventus fan. "He grabbed me when I went to the toilet and forced me to look at the bodies through a window," she said. "I just went hysterical and John Wark's wife and I clung to each other crying."

We did not know whether there would even be a game until the Liverpool captain, Phil Neal, told the spectators: "There's going to be a match. There's been tragic circumstances already. Just behave."

Incredible though it sounds, separate police forces were on duty at each end of the ground and when reinforcements arrived at the Liverpool end, to the left of the press box, their commander lined them up for inspection. A water cannon stood outside the ground but was never used, and compounding the surreal aspect of the horror was the sight of mounted police arriving after the carnage and performing as if in a dressage.

At the end of the game I managed to locate the Liverpool chairman, John Smith. His immediate response was to declare: "I have evidence that a mindless handful of National Front members were behind this appalling tragedy." It was a claim never substantiated and after a tortuous legal process, 14 English fans were given three-year prison sentences, half the terms suspended, for involuntary manslaughter. Police and football officials from Belgium and Uefa received suspended sentences while English football was banished into exile.

When it re-emerged in the 1990s it was a new post-Cold War Europe, its football as well as its political landscape transformed. In seven of the eight seasons preceding Heysel the European Cup had been won by English clubs. In 20 subsequent years only Manchester United have lifted the trophy. Less than 48 hours after the horror of Heysel, Margaret Thatcher summoned seven media representatives, including myself, to Downing Street. As she revealed plans for football identity cards and membership schemes she asked: "Are we to accept that rival football fans cannot stand side by side and enjoy a football match?"

Perhaps the greatest respect Liverpool and Juventus supporters can pay to the dead of Heysel when they meet again twice over the next 10 days is to answer that question by standing together to bring a dignified healing to 20 years of pain.

John Keith covered the Heysel tragedy for the Daily Express.

The legacy Anfield remembers

The Tragedy

Thirty-nine people die and 600 are injured when a wall collapses after Liverpool fans charge Juventus fans.

The Aftermath

Margaret Thatcher and The Queen issue formal apologies to the people of Belgium and Italy.

English teams banned from European competition for six years.

English sides banned from playing other UK sides except Welsh teams Wrexham, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport.

Liverpool given a three-year Uefa ban to serve on top of their indefinite ban.

Aggregate attendances fall to their lowest level for 50 years in 1985-86.

National side escapes ban and, after no major incidents at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, English sides return to Europe in 1990-91.

Heysel stadium demolished and the Stade Roi Baudouin built in its place. Used for Euro 2000 opening ceremony.

Commemorative gestures before tonight's first leg

A friendship match will be played between Liverpool and Juventus fans at Liverpool's Academy.

A Kop mosaic featuring the word Amicizia (friendship) will be displayed during the pre-match minute's silence.

Every visiting fan will receive a free four-page brochure in Italian, aimed at promoting friendship and understanding between the supporters, and a wristband in red, white and black with the inscription "friendship" in both Italian and English.

Commemorative Juventus/Liverpool scarves and T-shirts are being produced.

The matchday programme has been redesigned to promote the friendship theme.

Phil Neal, the Liverpool captain at Heysel, along with Ian Rush and Michel Platini, will bring a banner to the centre of the pitch which will carry the Christian names of the 39 Heysel victims.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution