ON a sunny Brussels morning, there was a moment that, more than anything that would happen over the ensuing 24 hours, continues to haunt me. Our train had just arrived at Jette station and a long column of Liverpool supporters set off downhill towards the centre of the city. I lingered and watched them, chequered flags flying, and thought it looked like a medieval army on the move.
Above the narrow street, the locals hung out of open windows and watched, half-grinning but nervous. As I set off for the Grand’Place, I thought: ‘We can do what we like today. No one can stop us.’
The mood in Brussels was complex. In the aftermath, most commentators would ignore the effect of the events in Rome the previous year and even those who alluded to 1984 saw Heysel in terms of ‘hooligan gangs looking for revenge’. It was very different, much more complex and consequently more frightening. We were radiating aggression. The ultras had made us suffer once, but it would not happen again.
There were few direct attacks on opposition supporters, but there was an eagerness to take the upper hand in any potential conflict. No one wanted to be a victim. Minor misunderstandings quickly escalated into full-scale confrontation, much to the shock of the Italians. Turning into a narrow street in the centre of town, my brother and I saw about six Juventus fans in their twenties lounging outside a cafe, trying to look cool and tough at the same time. When one looked me straight in the eye, giving me a classic hard-case once-over, I snarled: ‘Go on gobshite, say something.’ They did not take up the offer. But the tone was set. And the drinking had not even started.
The Grand’Place was less tense than might have been expected. Liverpool fans were here in numbers and small groups who had travelled independently met up, felt safe and relaxed into an afternoon of drinking. Clustered around the bars, we sang, bare-chested in the sun and, briefly, bonhomie abounded. It was almost idyllic.
The morning had passed off quietly and the fear of ultras began to dissipate. Juventus fans ran across the square with their forty-foot Piedmont flags merging seamlessly with the seventeenth-century backdrop. It was breathtaking. Then the drink kicked in. The common belief was that Belgian beer was weaker than the booze at home. In the heat,young men used to drinking a gallon of weak mild were quaffing strong lagers and ales as if they were lemonade. Small incidents started to mushroom and suddenly the mood changed and the bars began to shut down.
By now, there were four of us in our little group.We were reluctant to leave the square because other friends were probably heading for the rendezvous. I went to find some beer, taking a red-and-white cap I’d found on the road to give some protection from the sun. Walking down a narrow street, I saw a crew of scallies laughing almost hysterically. Seeing my quizzical look, they pointed at a shop. It was a jeweller with no protective metal grating over the window. All you could do was laugh.
Farther on,I saw a group of Juventus supporters, and one was wearing a black-and-white sun hat. It would give me more cover in the heat, so I swapped with him. Only he clearly did not want to part with his headwear. He had no choice. Sensing danger, he let me have it and looked in disgust at the flimsy, filthy thing I’d given him. This was not cultural exchange: this was bullying, an assertion of dominance. I remember strutting away, slowly, the body language letting them know how I felt.
There was a supermarket by the bourse and, at the entrance, there stood a Liverpool fan. ‘You’re Scouse?’ he said. There was no need for an answer and he knew what I was there for. ‘It’s free to us today,’ he said, handing me a tray of beer. The rule of law was over. On the way back to the square, the group of Liverpool fans by the jeweller had been replaced by riot police. Glass was scattered all over the street, studded with empty display trays. There was hysteria — and pride — in my laughter. This was turning into an excellent day.
We set off for the ground and there seemed to be more and more small confrontations. On other days any cultural misunderstandings would end in hugs and an exchange of memorabilia.Here,with the hair-trigger tempers, it was tears, and we were determined they would not be ours.
We boarded a tram to head north to the ground,slurring and swearing and exuding threatening, drunken boorishness. At our stop, we stood up to get off and Robert collapsed,the alcohol that had been nastily overriding a collective sense of decency was now severing the physical links between brain and body. We hauled him from the middle of the road towards the stadium, two of us with his arms over our shoulder while his feet dragged behind. He appeared unconscious.
Then, on the approaches to the ground,a group of young men up ahead snatched the takings from a stallholder and ran away with his strongbox. The man went in pursuit, leaving the stall unattended. Without seeming to open his eyes, Robert deftly unhooked his arm from around my shoulder and pocketed a Juventus scarf. It was unbelievable. He immediately resumed his comatose state and we dragged him on until we reached a grass verge to lay him down.
Similar madness was everywhere. People were staggering, collapsing, throwing up. A large proportion of Liverpool fans seemed to have lost control. We met a group of mates who had come by coach. A fellow passenger we all knew had leapt off as soon as they arrived and attacked two people, one an Italian, with an iron bar. That we’d long believed him to be psychotic did not lessen the shock.
John,who had been in the line of fire in Rome the year before, dodging flares in the empty Liverpool section, was greeting Juventus fans in heavily Scouse-accented Italian. Naturally friendly, he is a man almost incapable of violence. A group wearing Liverpool shirts attacked him and beat him to the floor. ‘I’m Scouse,’ he was shouting. Few people have a stronger accent. ‘No you’re not,you Wop,’ they said. It took a riot policeman to rescue him.We thought it was hilarious.
What wasn’t funny was the state of the stadium. Even in a drunk and deranged state, it appalled us. The outer wall was breeze block and some of the ticketless were kicking holes at its base and attempting to crawl through. Most were getting savage beatings from the riot police, who were finally making their presence felt. It was easier to walk into the ground and ignore the ticket collector, some ofwhom were seated at what looked like card tables. I went home with a complete ticket. Four years later, on another dreadful day, I would enter another ground without needing to show my ticket. It is not just the Belgians whose inefficiency had deadly consequences.
Inside the stadium, we sat the still inert Robert down and waited until he woke up. He emerged from his torpor with a start and was shocked by the Juventus scarf. ‘You robbed it,’ I said. ‘Oh,no.’ He was appalled. ‘I didn’t hit an Italian, did I?’ ‘No. It’s new. You robbed it in your sleep from a stall.’ ‘Thank God I didn’t hurt anyone,’ he said. ‘I think I was out of control.’
Section Y, where we were standing, grew more and more crowded and, in front of us, a crush barrier buckled and collapsed. Next door, Section Z was supposedly a neutral area. It looked to be mainly Italian, with plenty of room available.We eyed the space with envy.
The rough treatment by police drew a response and most disappeared from the back of the section after skirmishes. Seeing a policeman beating a young lad who was attempting to climb over the wall and was caught in the barbed wire, I pushed the Belgian officer away. He turned to hit me with his baton and I punched him — not hard — through his open visor. He ran away. It was the second time I’d hit someone in almost 10 years of travelling to football matches — and the other punch was aimed at a Liverpool fan.
With the police gone, groups of youths swarmed over a snack stand and looted it. I climbed on to the roof and was passed up trays of soft drinks to hand around. It felt like being on top of the world up there. Back on the terraces there was an exchange of missiles — nothing serious by the standards of the day. I went to the toilet and, by the time I came back, the fence was down and people were climbing into the neutral section. Unable to locate my group, I joined the swarm.
In section Z I wandered around for a while. There seemed to be very little trouble. People backed away but there were no charges, just a minor scuffle or two. I climbed back into section Y, unaware that 39 people were in the process of dying. It was clear that a huge commotion was going on at the front and we began to get tetchy about the delayed kick-off.
Then there seemed to be a long tirade in Italian over the public address system — someone suggested it was a list of names — and all hell broke loose. Juventus fans came out of their end, around the pitch and attacked the corner where other Liverpool supporters were standing. My mother, youngest brother and sister were in that section. Everyone went crazy. Men tore at the fences to get at the Italians and, at last, the police did an effective job of holding back Liverpool fans.
The brother with me said: ‘If those fences go, football will be finished. There’ll be hundreds dead. It will be over.’ Finally, the police drove the Italians back. The game? Juventus won 1-0, with a plainly unfair penalty, and the team celebrated wildly on the pitch. There appeared to be as much joy on the terraces. That added to the shock later. Surely no one could have been badly hurt before the game if the players reacted like they did when they received the cup?
How naive we were.
Afterwards? Tiredness kicked in with the disappointment but the nervousness over Italian knives lingered. A Belgian policeman gave us a send-off from the stadium by opening the bus doors, throwing in a canister of tear gas and locking everyone in.
At Ostend it was a passive, depressive struggle through overcrowded departure rooms. The police were angry, aggressive and scared. They made sure their guns were very visible and kept dogs snapping at the Liverpool fans. ‘You were glad enough to see us in 1944, you fuckers,’ someone said. No one mentioned death. When the news spread on the boat there was silence and head-shaking. The enormity was overwhelming. How did this happen? The unspoken question perplexed everyone. But instead of admitting our own culpability, seeing how our bad attitudes and fear created a situation where people would die,we immediately found other guilty parties to blame and put the victims out of our minds.
Hillsborough brought some empathy for those who died at Heysel. But even that was paltry to the point of insult.
This is an extract from Far Foreign Land: Pride and Passion the Liverpool Way
Pics: PA Images