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
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The Independent Football

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.