A Long Night of Disaster: On the evening of May 29th, 1985, 39 football fans went to a cup final from which they never returned. There’s more than one reason why.
By Alex Moshakis
This is the last in a week of articles dedicated to Liverpool FC between 1985 and 2005, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Heysel stadium disaster and the tenth anniversary of Liverpool’s last Champions League victory in Istanbul. For more Liverpool-related reading, head to the Decider.
Michel Platini, the three-time Ballon d’Or winner and incumbent UEFA president, won six club cup competitions during a 15-year playing career. He scored in four of the finals, including a penalty for Juventus at Brussels’ Heysel Stadium – dispatched low and hard into the left-hand corner of Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar’s net to win the 1985 European Cup. For a moment afterwards, the 29-year-old midfielder didn’t know what to do. He swivelled, stuttered and then quickly sprinted, throwing his fist into the air in triumph before being shrouded by teammates. Juventus’ travelling supporters hollered in celebration; Liverpool’s fans remained quiet. They’d been silent for most of the game.
Platini had scored important goals before. For Nancy he’d provided the only goal of the 1978 Coupe de France final. He’d scored twice for Juventus – once in extra time, to win the game – in the final of the 1983 Coppa Italia. And later, in 1985, he’d scored within 90 minutes and then the winning penalty in the final of the now-defunct Intercontinental Cup. He was a man made for the big occasion – a slight, ringleted, wonderfully gifted playmaker who, until Thierry Henry claimed the record in 2007, held the title of being France’s top scorer.
But Platini’s goal at Heysel, which came in the 56th minute of a game that kicked off over 60 minutes late, and which should have represented the zenith of the Frenchman’s playing career but instead is largely associated with tragedy, was different from the others he scored in the repercussions it provoked. The penalty brought an end to three things: 1) Platini’s personal quest for club football’s greatest prize; 2) Juventus’ 88-year wait to reach the pinnacle of the European game; and 3) the long-standing dominance of British football on the continent. In the eight years leading up to the 1985 final, three English clubs had shared seven European Cup triumphs. Liverpool had won four of them. 20 years would go by before they won a fifth.
Like most Liverpool fans at Heysel that night, Chris Rowland wasn’t paying much attention to the game. He wasn’t really watching when Gary Gillespie, on for the unlucky Mark Lawrenson, who’d dislocated a shoulder inside four minutes, clumsily tripped the breaking Juventus forward Zbigniew Boniek just outside the 18-yard box. He wasn’t outraged when Swiss referee André Daina, 25 yards from the action and panting, then pointed to the penalty spot. And neither was he upset when Platini scored the resulting winner.
Instead, Rowland stared ahead motionless, or looked down at the concrete floor, or talked in hushed tones with his friends. Mostly he thought about how to get out of the stadium unhurt, how to get back to Brussels safely and, then, how to get back to the UK.
Rowland had arrived in Belgium the day before the match, on May 28th. He and seven others (“people I’d been going to matches with for the past 15 years,” he told me recently), stayed in the city of Ostend, 70 miles from Brussels, and reached the Belgian capital at lunchtime the following day. The mood in the city was good. Newspaper reports praised the two sets of fans for getting on so well. Impromptu football matches between opposing supporters had been arranged at campsites around the town. There was little sign of tension.
“There was one incident,” Rowland remembered, “but it was between a Liverpool fan and a hot dog seller. A fan had been stabbed. I assume he’d tried to nick a hot dog, and he was lying there on the grass with blood all over his jeans while the hot dog lay on its side and scolding water drifted down the road alongside cart-wheeling buns. But that wasn’t an incident between rival fans. It dampened the mood, but you couldn’t call it fan trouble.”
Rowland had been to four previous European Cup finals. He’d bought tickets to Rome in 1977, where, as a 20-year-old, he’d witnessed Liverpool beat the German side Borussia Mönchengladbach to claim the club’s first European crown. He’d been to Wembley a year later to see Liverpool win its second. Then to Paris in 1981, where the side won its third. And to Rome again, this time in 1984, when Liverpool beat the inadvertent home side Roma 4-2 on penalties in a game marred by hostility.
The Stadio Olimpico, in which that final was played, is Italy’s national athletics stadium. Located just north of Rome, in the Fora Italico sports complex, it’s also the home ground of Serie A side Lazio, and it still hosts Italy’s international rugby games. In May 1984, Rowland was one of 70,000 fans watching a European Cup final held within a frequently modernised stadium that could bear the vast crowd comfortably. Heysel was different. It was Belgium’s national stadium, but in 1985 it was 55 years old, ill-maintained and visibly dilapidated, used mainly for athletics events that drew crowds of 15,000 people. The European Cup final was to be the last football game played at the ground in its then state. It could hold up to 50,000 supporters at once. 59,000 fans turned up on May 29th to see Liverpool lose.
“There was one incident, but it was between a Liverpool fan and a hot dog seller. A fan had been stabbed. […] It dampened the mood, but you couldn’t call it fan trouble.”
When Rowland reached the stadium he was shocked. People without tickets – those who’d travelled from England on a whim, or members of Brussels’ large Italian community who hadn’t secured official entry – could climb into the stadium through breakages in its walls. Some removed cinder blocks and walked straight through to the stands, ignoring the turnstiles. “There were a few stretches [of the stadium] that had already fallen down,” Rowland said. “You could bend over and look through the stand and see where the European Cup final was going to be played.” Disrepair was obvious and wide-ranging. “The concrete had crumbled to a point where the reinforcement steel bars were exposed and rusted away. I leaned on one to make my way through the turnstile and it just collapsed. That was with the weight of me. Just me.”
Rowland and his friends had arrived at the stadium later than most other supporters. Despite calls for Brussels to be dry of alcohol before the match, to lessen the possibility of intoxicated crowd trouble, many of the city’s bars were selling beer, and hundreds of Liverpool supporters had gathered in the town centre, joined in boisterous, pre-match anticipation. The first large group of Juventus supporters Rowland encountered was outside the stadium, charging towards him – a sweeping mess of faces contorted by panic. “We were thinking ‘What the hell’s wrong with these people?’” he told me. “We thought perhaps they’d tried to get in without tickets and had been turned away.”
The Juventus fans had come from section Z of the stadium, but they hadn’t all come from the normal exits, and none of them were willing to go back. Rowland and his friends were walking towards sections X and Y, in which they were supposed to be sitting. “We were going past Z when we heard this dull bang, almost like a heavy iron gate slamming shut, muffled. And then we see all of these fans charging towards us. We thought we were in trouble – there were eight of us and what seemed like a million of them – but they just charged right past, crazed.”
Apprehensive but undeterred, Rowland and his friends walked on. “What we saw next was absolute chaos. We saw where the stadium wall had collapsed. We saw where a water main had burst, so there was water and mud everywhere. We thought ‘Is this really the venue for the most prestigious club match in Europe? Really?’”
May 1985 was not a good month for English football. On Saturday 11th, 56 people died in a fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium. On the same day, at Birmingham City’s home ground, St. Andrew’s, a 14-year-old Leeds United fan was killed during clashes between opposing supporters. (A wall had collapsed under pressure, and the boy had been crushed.) Crowd trouble at English club games was frequent and frenzied. Worse, it was expected.
“It was an era of hooliganism,” Rowland recalled. “The general climate was awful, and that particular month was probably the nadir of the whole thing. There had been countless crowd incidents in the news, at home and abroad. There was that terraces culture. Violence in and around football grounds was endemic.”
Hooliganism wasn’t specific to England, but it was widely considered an English export, regularly referred to as an “English disease”. “It only really happened in Europe when one of our teams was involved,” Rowland said. “There’d been trouble previously with Spurs in Rotterdam [against Dutch side Feyenoord]. Manchester United had seen trouble somewhere. West Ham somewhere. Chelsea somewhere. Leeds pretty much everywhere. And, of course, England. Probably the worst of the lot was the England national team. Whenever they played abroad the news media went, as well as the sports journalists.” Reports on the European exploits of English clubs in the 1980s filled the back pages of national newspapers. News of the accompanying hooliganism regularly spilled over onto their fronts.
“We thought ‘Is this really the venue for the most prestigious club match in Europe? Really?’”
The 1985 European Cup final was due to kick off at 8pm, local time. At 7pm, Brussels remained bright and, unusually for a May day in Belgium, incredibly hot. On the Heysel pitch, two schoolboy teams sporting the kits of the soon-to-be contesting clubs played out an exhibition match. The boys wearing red were 3-0 up at half-time. Liverpool’s fans believed it to be a portend.
In the stands excitement was building, but whereas in Brussels’ centre the mood had been jubilant, celebratory, here it was tinged with animosity. “The first I knew of the tension building among the two sets of fans was an hour and a half before kick-off,” former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen wrote in A Matter of Opinion, his 1999 autobiography. While the schoolboys played, Hansen and his teammates weren’t allowed on to the pitch. Instead, in an effort to stretch their pre-game legs, they decided to take a walk around the stadium’s running track. As they approached a section of Juventus fans, supporters began throwing what seemed like large rocks. Hansen was surprised. “You don’t often find supporters taking bricks into a stadium,” he remembered saying to Liverpool left-back Alan Kennedy. “They’re not throwing bricks,” Kennedy replied. “They’re throwing the stadium at us.”
Fans had begun to throw the stadium at each other, too. At football matches in England, contesting supporters were divided by thickset lines of unyielding policemen or vast swathes of empty terrace. Segregation was paramount to successful crowd control, stadium authorities had quickly learnt – without it they knew there’d be conflict. At Heysel, at the shared fringes of sections Y and Z, Liverpool’s supporters stood three feet away from their Italian counterparts, separated by waist-high chicken wire. Four Belgian policemen held a dividing line, but they stood 25 metres apart, and, given the volatile atmosphere, communication had become strained. “Normally there were steel cages between fans,” Rowland said. “Here there was nothing to stop one fan getting to another. Liverpool’s supporters were presented with a set of circumstances they hadn’t experienced in England for ten or 15 years, and for some it was too much.”
An hour before kick off, two sets of opposing fans began launching missiles at each other: paper cups at first, then coins, bottles, pieces of concrete plucked from the stadium floor. Boisterous excitement became heated exchange, flailing limbs, territorial scuffles. The Belgian schoolboys were called off the pitch, several minutes before their game was due to end, and then a group of Liverpool supporters made a charge.
At Heysel’s more frequent athletic events – where the action was slower, more organised, less sporadic – crowd surges were seldom, and the stadium’s structural integrity remained unquestioned. Now things were different. Liverpool’s fans threw punches, kicked out, threatened physically. A minority of Juventus followers stood firm, battled and brawled, but most fled, believing they could escape to safety by leaping over the stadium’s perimeter wall. Droves of panicked Italian fans retreated to section Z’s dilapidated edges, causing a mass shift in pressure. Some fans made a successful escape – those Rowland saw streaming wild-eyed towards him – but the wall couldn’t stand the sustained burden and, eventually, it crumbled.
In the ensuing collapse, 39 people fell, or were crushed, to death. An additional 600 supporters were badly injured. Bodies lay submerged in rubble or covered by advertising hoardings. Grieving family members laid prostate on dead relatives. Survivors were stretchered to safety on re-appropriated railings. “At first you don’t realise these people are actually dead,” the photographer John Davidson, who documented the events for the Liverpool Echo, told a reporter in 2010. “Then you realise they aren’t alive.” Of those that died, 32 were Italian, four were Belgian, two were French and one was from Northern Ireland. The youngest involved was Andrea Casula. She was 11 years old.
Whether or not the final should actually have kicked off, which it did, well over an hour late, has been widely disputed. Roy Evans, then Liverpool’s reserve team coach, who accompanied Mark Lawrenson to a nearby hospital after the player had sustained his fourth minute injury, disagreed with the decision. “The game was irrelevant after the disaster,” he told me recently. “No one could have been in the right frame of mind to play a game of football, to watch a game of football.”
Phil Neal, who, with Juventus captain Gaeteno Scirea, had appealed for calm over the stadium tannoy system only to be quickly ushered back downstairs when a contingent of Italian fans began to make understandably aggressive attempts to seek retribution against their Liverpool counterparts, agrees with Evans. “I would describe Heysel as the worst day of my life,” he told reporters in 2010. “We were pushed on to the field by UEFA, who expressed their concerns that if they didn’t get a product then maybe more mayhem would erupt from the situation. We were almost begged to go on the pitch. But we were never going to win it were we? It was almost like having your arm twisted up your back.”
Rowland sees things differently. “I’ve heard a lot of people say it was a disgrace to play the match,” he said, “but I think it’s the only thing [the authorities] got right. It allowed them two more hours to plan what to do, two more hours of distraction, two more hours to let the thunder and tension dissipate.” Rowland used the time to figure out what to do next, to devise an exit plan. Only when he reached his position in the stands did he learn of the severity of the disaster, and even then details were hazy. “You’ve got to remember there were no mobile phones at the time,” he said. “No one really understood the extent – there was no one to tell us what had happened. The first I knew came from a Liverpool coach driver who’d managed to pick up the BBC World Service on his radio. He told me they were saying people had died.”
Word slowly spread among Liverpool’s supporters, most of whom decided against watching the game in favour of planning a quick route home. “We knew the Juventus fans were going to be unhappy when they came out,” Rowland said. “We didn’t really want to meet them in the dark streets in the early morning so we left with about 20 minutes to go, and heard the Italian celebrations when they won. We were a good way away by the time the game finished.”
Rowland returned to England three days later. From Brussels he’d taken a train to Ostend, collected his belongings, caught a ferry home. When he arrived in London, a woman publicly chastised him for being a murderer. At work, colleagues questioned his decision to continue in his support of the club. “Don’t you feel ashamed of going back?” they asked. Rowland didn’t.
“The first I knew came from a Liverpool coach driver who’d managed to pick up the BBC World Service on his radio. He told me they were saying people had died.”
By that point culpability had been placed firmly at Liverpool’s door. “Only the English fans were responsible,” UEFA official Gunter Schneider said in the immediate aftermath. “Of that there is no doubt.” UEFA clamoured for a ban. So too did the then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose relationship with football, and Liverpool, had been repeatedly adversarial. The English FA, recognising the opportunity to rid its sport of hooligan elements, banned Liverpool from European football indefinitely, and quickly extended the imposition to every other English club. “It was more about who was going to deliver the blow first,” Rowland remembered. “You couldn’t argue with it. Other clubs thought it was unfair – that the Football Association was penalising every club for the actions of one – but the ban was a culmination of 20 years of trouble.”
Where true culpability lay is complex, mixed with mythology. There are those deemed legally liable: Johan Mathieu, who oversaw police operations at the stadium and who, in 1989, was charged with criminal negligence; Albert Roosens, then-secretary of the Belgian Football Union, who was convicted of the same charge; and 14 Liverpool fans, found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the same year, the result of a five-month trial.
But Rowland puts the tragedy down to a more intricate composite of ill-maintenance and ill-discipline. “You’ve got to start with the stadium,” he said. “It failed to meet modern standards of safety and design. It had been condemned. Little money had been spent on it. An architect’s report found that areas reserved for standing were exactly as they had been when the stadium had been constructed in 1930.” There were other reasons for the trouble, too: the antagonistic seating arrangements (section Z was meant to house neutral fans, but tickets went on open sale, and Juventus supporters bought them en masse); the subsequent lack of an effective neutral zone; the failure of authorities to sustain a pre-game alcohol ban; undeniable fan aggression; and poor policing. “The police were split into civic, district and state police,” said Bill Sergeant, a Liverpool officer who retrospectively investigated the disaster, “which wasn’t right. [And] there were lots of other problems: radios weren’t compatible, there were delays getting reinforcements into the game, and police decided to march onto the pitch rather than deal with what was happening [on the terraces]. Policing wasn’t good enough on every level.”
The repercussions of the FA’s immediate decision remain relevant. In the five years prior to Heysel, Liverpool had dominated in Europe. Continental football had become an inherent part of the club; without it, fans worried for their team’s future. Questions were asked: Would new players still sign? Would attendances drop? Would Liverpool end up in the second division, a ghost of its former, triumphant self?
“It affected us,” Roy Evans told me. “When you’re out of a competition for five or six years you lose all the experience you ever had in it. Things change very quickly in five years in any sport. In the era leading up to Heysel we’d been incredibly successful, and it became very difficult for us to get back in and dominate. And it wasn’t just us. Everton fans will tell you we stopped their chances of being there.”
English clubs were banned from European football for five years. Liverpool were banned for six, and there are arguments to suggest the club has never fully recovered. Domestic football progressed in reaction to the ban first with the development of the ScreenSport Super Cup, a knockout competition (that lasted a year, and which Liverpool won) involving the teams that would have otherwise qualified for Europe, and then, arguably, with the inauguration of the Premier League. “Heysel forced the top sides – the clubs now being deprived of European income – to sit down at a table and ask, ‘What the hell are we going to do about this?’” Rowland said. “The eventual solution was the Premier League – an attempt to bridge the financial gap caused by not having European football, and a breakaway from the equitable Football League.”
Chris Rowland is now 55 years old. He lives in Hebden Bridge, a West Yorkshire town 57 miles from Liverpool. He still goes to games, and he still thinks about Heysel. “There’s a strong sense of unfinished business,” he told me. “Hillsborough interrupted the naval-gazing process, and I don’t think the story’s been properly told. There’s a sense of, not injustice, but incompleteness in the way the story’s been reported.”
“People try to create links between these two events where there aren’t any,” Rowland went on. “But for me it’s no coincidence that Liverpool’s last league title was shortly after Hillsborough. Those two events gutted the club. Its soul had been taken. Only now is it beginning to return.”
This article first appeared in Issue Five of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2013.