Remembering the Heysel disaster and the English Disease

  • On 29th May 1985 39 football fans lost their lives at Heysel Stadium
  • Heysel staged European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool
  • English clubs were banned from European competitions for 5 years

No one wants to write or talk about football disasters. We all like to forget and move on and the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels is one that tends to get the least coverage of all. Back in May 1985 I was about to turn 11 years old and on a family holiday in Majorca when the game was due to be played. The plan was to have our evening meal in the hotel before finding a bar nearby to watch the game presumably with other brits keen to take in the football on a balmy Spanish night.

The year before we were enjoying our first holiday abroad in Spain and watched the European Cup Final between Roma and Liverpool in a bar. Bruce Grobbelaar famously wobbled his legs like he was about to faint in the penalty shoot out putting off Roma’s Graziana who subsequently missed his penalty. Liverpool’s Alan Kennedy scored the following penalty and Liverpool were European Champions again spoiling this writers evening. Whilst many English families in the bar were pleased for Liverpool, this Manchester United supporting family were drowning their sorrows. Football does that to you being involved in tribalism. You hate your neighbours or a specific team from another part of the country that you just do not like all because of football. For all the bitterness, I did admire what Liverpool achieved during the seventies and eighties. Its just a shame they spoilt my life growing up.

Despite all the hatred we were looking forward to the game as football fans but secretly hoping that Michel Platini, Paulo Rossi and Marco Tardelli could inspire the “Old Lady” and Juventus win the cup. I had been fortunate enough to see that Juventus side come to Old Trafford the year before in the Semi Final of the European Cup Winners Cup. That Juventus side was packed with world class footballers and who can ever forget Tardelli’s goal for Italy in the 1982 World Cup final and his celebration afterwards?

Marco Tardelli’s world cup goal and emotional celebration

One thing that stood out before the game in 1985 was a Spaniard was painting the bar around the corner from our hotel and where we would watch the game from. The bar owner was providing the decorator with free flowing beer to cool him down from the heat as he painted. Only disaster struck a few hours later when the decorator being so drunk fell off his ladder at the front of the bar spilling paint all over the pavement much to everyone’s amusement but not the bar owners. Despite this setback and mess the bar remained open, happy days we thought.

However as we sat down to watch the game it wasn’t being broadcasted in the bar. Little did we know what was unfolding in Brussels as fans of both sides were rioting inside the stadium pre match. We only really got to see the full horror when a few days later we returned home and the television channels were full of the news.

Football grounds back in the mid eighties were a violent place to be. Nowhere was immune to large scale disturbances inside or outside of grounds. Only two months earlier Millwall fans rioted inside Kenilworth Road after the FA Cup quarter final defeat to hosts Luton Town. Disgraceful scenes of horrific violence as fans ran onto the pitch throwing all manner of missiles at the retreating police, the whole place resembled a war zone with seats ripped out and this was inside a ground.

Around the same time I was caught up in one of the most violent clashes at Old Trafford when West Ham United visited in the quarter final of the FA Cup. The Hammers travelled in numbers and outside there were running clashes whilst during the game a number of home fans made their way up the steps towards a group of West Ham fans who were seated not far behind us without a police officer in sight. To be caught up in the middle of such violence aged 10 was an eye opener but sadly not unusual.

With poor policing with a lack of organisation and planning, no cctv or stewarding and grounds that were falling apart plus a group of young men who felt oppressed by Margaret Thatcher’s government all led to a dangerous cocktail.

Heysel Stadium itself was falling apart. It was in such poor state that Liverpool objected to the final taking place there however the authorities had made up their mind. It was a central location for both sets of supporters, easy and cheap to get to.

Poor planning and woeful segregation led to both sets of supporters being kept apart by nothing more than chicken wire fencing. One section was supposedly set aside for “neutral” supporters but with a large local Italian population in Brussels this was taken up by many Juventus supporters. With Liverpool fans only metres away all manner of missiles began to rain down on each set of fans.

Due to the missiles being thrown the Italians retreated but only ended up crushed against a brick wall that could never hold the pressure against it and the wall collapsed resulting in 39 deaths. A total of 600 people were injured that night.

After the wall collapsed and despite people laying dead both sets of supporters decided to riot with scenes of people running around with poles and any manner of missiles whilst covering their faces with scarves. The carnage went on for a couple of hours and the football match hadn’t even kicked off.

Back in Majorca we were oblivious to the sheer devastation and loss of life. Sadly hooliganism was christened the “English Disease” and we as british holidaymakers were tarred with the same brush.

The next morning the hotel staff removed the Union Jack from the roof yet the Italian flag remained with various other countries flags. The site of the missing flag and shame felt because of it remains with me today. What happened in Brussels had an effect on everyone whether a football fan or not.

In the weeks and months after the disaster, English clubs were kicked out of European competitions indefinitely only to be reinstated five years later. The likes of Everton, Coventry City, Luton Town, Oxford United and Wimbledon missed out on playing in European competitions because of the ban.

During that time the prime minister Margaret Thatcher already dismantling the working classes by breaking the miners and looking after the wealthy had another reason to kick the man in the street by putting pressure on the football authorities to do more to combat hooliganism. Whilst much did need doing to make attending football matches safer, the opposite happened with fences going up including Chelsea chairman Ken Bates installing electric fences at Stamford Bridge, heavy handed policing, etc.

Bates had a plan to erect a 11ft fence with barbed wire and electrify the top of the fence to prevent any pitch invasions which had blighted Chelsea around that era. After much legal wrangling the local council refused to allow the electric fence much to Bates`s annoyance. He claimed farming had been using the fencing for years but this reference just alienated his supporters more. Instead of working to resolve the issues with better stadia, segregation, etc Bates wanted the ultimate deterrent.

One cannot image how haunting it must have been to be at Heysel in 1985. It was an embarrassing time even for this 10 year old who loved football and wanted to talk to the Spanish staff about Barcelona and Real Madrid yet you always felt we were tarred with the same brush as those who rioted in Brussels.

The game was eventually played out later that evening with Juventus winning thanks to a Michel Platini penalty but that never really mattered.

4 thoughts on “Remembering the Heysel disaster and the English Disease

  1. Nice piece. I’m slightly too young to remember it directly but the European ban was just a fact of life as a kid. It seems incredible in the era of complete European football overload.

    1. Doesn’t it?? Was supposed to be longer than 5 years. English football ruled European competitions in the 80s, with forest, villa, Liverpool and Everton all winning European trophies. Then once the ban was lifted united won the cup winners cup, many thought the ban was to stop the domination of English sides in Europe.

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