Liverpool reminded of their past and glimpsing the future

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The Independent Football

It was the second of the three great tragedies involving English football in the Eighties, and in one significant way the worst.

It was the second of the three great tragedies involving English football in the Eighties, and in one significant way the worst. The Heysel stadium disaster of 1985 may have claimed fewer lives than the Bradford fire a fortnight earlier or Hillsborough four years later, but it was the one directly attributable to the scourge of hooliganism. That is why absolution will be a necessary part of the commemorative process when Liverpool and Juventus meet again at Anfield on Tuesday, just a few weeks short of the 20th anniversary.

Although the clubs have never played each other in the ensuing two decades, relations between officials are said to be good on both sides. It is important that the respective supporters feel that too, which they will have the opportunity to demonstrate on Tuesday, when the theme of the evening will be "memoria e amacizia" (memory and friendship); there is a match earlier on between supporters, the "Game of Friendship", and a Kop mosaic during the minute's silence for the 39 people (38 Italians and one Belgian) who died when a wall collapsed on top of them as they were charged for the third time by Liverpool fans.

While it is perfectly true that the stadium was in abject condition, that Juventus followers found their way into a supposedly neutral section at the Liverpool end, and that local police inflamed the situation, the fact is that without those antagonistic charges, nobody would have died.

The carnage, broadcast live on television around the world, caused the kick-off to be delayed for 90 minutes, yet even though Liverpool's manager (Joe Fagan, in his last match before retiring) and captain (Phil Neal) had earlier gone out to appeal to their fans to calm down, the players in the two dressing-rooms were largely unaware of how serious things were. Kenny Dalglish, dosed up with Lemsip to combat a heavy cold, was actually asleep on the massage table. The young Irishman Jim Beglin was intent only on preparing for the biggest match of his career, playing at left-back instead of Alan "Barney" Kennedy, whose penalty had won the previous season's final in a shoot-out against Roma in the Olympic Stadium - after which many Liverpool followers had been attacked by Italian fans, fuelling resentment for the following year.

Beglin's recollection is that the players' focus was very much on the game, and continued to be. "I don't know whether I was being shielded, as one of the younger members of the squad. All I knew was I was apprehensive about playing in such a big game at the age of 21. I was desperate to win it and that was what was being preached to us in the dressing room, to focus on the task in hand. Because the start was delayed for so long, we knew it was something serious, and there were rumours going round about fatalities.

"I'd heard that three people maybe had been killed. But even during the game I wasn't aware of the situation being so desperate, and watching it subsequently [on videotape] in all honesty I didn't notice a single Liverpool player not trying. Admittedly, when we conceded the penalty that won Juventus the match, there weren't too many protests. Mark Lawrenson had just recovered from a broken collarbone and it snapped again very early in the match, and Gary Gillespie, who replaced him, brought down [Zbigniew] Boniek. It wasn't a penalty, it was outside the area, but who cares?"

As was the case at Hillsborough, the players were the last to know the true devastation. It only came home to Beglin long after the final whistle had confirmed defeat for the holders. "Quite a few of the lads took a walk up to the wall and basically it was just the remnants of peoples' lives there, handbags, shoes, clothing.

"It was an horrific scene, and the idea that we'd gone out and played a game of football after something like that had happened, we were all of the view that we would have preferred not to. So I really had one feeling before and during the game and a completely different one after it. We stayed on at the hotel that night and had a very, very sombre gathering. I have been to parties after Liverpool lost finals, like the 1987 League Cup, which were much happier affairs. I think that night was the quietest do I have ever been to."

Thus ended what should have been the greatest day of Beglin's career. The following season he would complete the League and FA Cup double under Kenny Dalglish, Fagan's successor, but a broken leg soon meant a premature retirement after moving to Leeds.

These days he works as a media pundit, and as a summariser for ITV's Champions' League coverage this season has seen plenty of his old club's progress to Tuesday's quarter-final, without quite believing that they are strong enough to reach a first European Cup final since Heysel: "Juventus are very, very solid, tough to break down, and it'll be comfortably Liverpool's toughest test yet. They were probably in the weakest group in the competition: Monaco had lost all their attacking players and were nothing like the side of last season, Deportivo La Coruña didn't score a goal and Olympiakos I never really rated.

"Yes, Liverpool pulled it out that night at Anfield, but Olympiakos capitulated a bit and were their own worst enemies. Then they got Leverkusen at just the right time. This is the toughest opposition by far and they're very much second favourites - which may suit them."

He is nonetheless impressed by Rafael Benitez, certainly in comparison with his predecessor, Gérard Houllier: "I think people are getting ahead of themselves if they thought Benitez would have by now the cohesive and consistent unit he's looking for. Admittedly one or two of the signings look suspect, but I think Liverpool are very much a work in progress. He's popular with the fans basically because he's much more positively set up in his methods than Houllier, who was often negative and very cautious. I think there's a boldness about Benitez, and the fans take to him because of that. Some of my mates are season-ticket holders and they all think he has what it takes to turn Liverpool around. What he'll need is backing and money to spend, because there's quite a few [players] to offload as well."

So Tuesday night will offer an indication of what Liverpool's immediate future holds, as well as a grim reminder of their past. As the club history on the official website concludes: "May 29th will forever be a day of remembrance for both Juventus and Liverpool supporters. Think for a minute about those who lost their lives at Heysel and pray it never happens again."

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