HEYSEL 30 YEARS: OH GOD, WHAT HAVE WE DONE - The Anfield Wrap

Soccer - European Cup - Final - Liverpool v Juventus - Heysel Stadium

FOLLOWING the tragedy, there was a full inquiry in Belgium – a parliamentary inquiry that was very damning in its criticism of the Belgian authorities.

A Belgian architect also carried out a survey of the stadium shortly after May 29 and his criticism of the condition of the stadium was equally damning.

The Belgian authorities amassed a large quantity of evidence running into hundreds of sheets of paper, from Belgian and Italian witnesses, although the latter was not seen until sometime in 1986.

Despite the efforts of Belgian and Italian investigators, when the papers came into the possession of Merseyside Police there was really no case to answer against anybody.

The Italian evidence was exceedingly weak. In fact, so weak, that the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate said at the end of the trial at Highbury that he was disregarding it completely.

The Belgian evidence was mixed and would not of itself have been sufficient to carry a conviction. In fact, certain independent Belgian evidence was very critical of the behaviour of the Belgian police and the condition of the stadium.

All the papers were therefore remitted to the Merseyside Police, where under the supervision of Detective Superintendent Bill Sergant, head of the force’s serious crime squad, 50 officers were assigned to a computer-aided search for the culprits. They spent hundreds of hours considering video film of the events of Heysel and attempting to identify persons from them.

They also enlisted the support of newspapers in Britain and abroad which carried freeze-frame photographs of fans the police wished to interview in connection with the riots. Those pictured or anyone who recognised them were urged to telephone specific numbers with information.

In the end, out of more than 50,000 spectators at the match, and of the several hundred involved in the fighting, Merseyside Police came up with more than 30 names.

There then followed a long process of interrogation. All suspects were interviewed separately and some of those interviews went on for hours. Certain admissions were alleged by the police to have been made and as a result warrants were issued for the arrest of 26 of those questioned.


The following quotes attributed to those defendants are either taken from statements they made to the police or in answer to police questioning, unless otherwise stated.

“My life as decent person is over,” wrote one of the accused in an anonymous letter to The Liverpool Echo.

He added: “I couldn’t believe what I had done. One moment I was acting like a yob, the next I started to cry…God, forgive us.”

Most of the 26 Liverpool fans – mainly from Merseyside but from other parts of the country as well – told distressingly similar tales of the scale and fury of the riots.

One, from Bristol, travelled the most popular way – by ferry from Dover and train to Brussels. He palled up with some Liverpool fans and at one point before the game swapped his jacket for a leather one worn by another lad. “They had been robbing shops and he wanted my jacket to change his appearance.”

Some fans wandered into the Z section because there was more room. One, from Runcorn, explained the X and Y sections were “chocker”. Each of the accused was shown video film and still photographs alleging their contribution to the riot. Most agreed the Juventus fans provoked them and they retaliated in self defence.

Some were in an excitable state, and were seen on the video film jumping up and down at one stage. Asked what they were doing one suggested: “Dancing.”

When the fans arrived a representative youth match was in progress. It is likely those at the other end of the X,Y,Z enclosure might not have known exactly the scale of the tragedy, even at the time the wall collapsed.

And the majority were contrite when it sank in. One added: “I left the ground when I heard a whisper that people had been killed. I was sick.”

The wire fencing between X,Y and Z sections was easy to break down, being in effect no more than chicken wire. It was also only perfunctorily policed.

So were the entrances to these sections. A lot of the accused who bought tickets from touts outside the ground found these tickets were not checked as they went through the gates. Unchecked tickets were then passed back for other fans to use to enter the stadium.

Some fans were simply pushed through by the press of Italians and Belgians behind them. Some just walked in through holes in the perimeter wall. By the time police woke up to what was going on, Juventus and Liverpool fans were mixed together in an explosive conflict of interests. Just how swiftly anger can well up in someone caught up in this sort of situation was graphically and harrowingly illustrated in that letter to the Liverpool Echo.

“I can’t stop shaking and crying as I write this. You think we have all forgotten about it and don’t care, but you’re wrong. If you knew how broken inside I feel then maybe you’d realise it was just two minutes of madness,” wrote one of those involved.

“We didn’t realise how out of hand it got. As far as we were concerned it was just a fight – but look now. 38 dead. Oh God, I’m sorry.”

The writer alleged he was threatened by a Juventus supporter before getting into the stadium. An axe had been swung which missed him by inches and he fled up an alleyway. Near the front of section Y, he also claimed a brick missed his head by a fraction and he saw a bottle smash over a young lad.

“An older man tried to rally everyone to attack the Italians,” he wrote. “He said something about the NF boys would show us how it’s done. I stood there for a minute or two then I saw large groups of Italian youths walking over. One was laughing at me as I backed away, then he pulled up his jumper and pulled out a large blade. I swear almost every one of the Italians had a knife.

“I looked behind me for somewhere to run, then suddenly the group led by the Londoners ran down and started fighting and the Italians backed away.

“I snapped and lost my head. I ran towards the Italian who had pulled a knife in front of me and started fighting with him. I started hitting him… I started hitting any Italian who was anywhere near.

“It suddenly dawned on me what I was doing. I ran to the top of the terrace at the back of the ground and stopped. I couldn’t believe what I had done. One minute I was acting like a yob, the next I was crying.”

An Italian family were trying to get their two children out of the ground. With another Liverpool fan, he silently helped to lift the children over the wall.

“All we could keep saying was ‘Sorry’.”

He added: “My life as a decent person is over. God forgive us for what we have done. Our lives have also just ended.”

Soccer - European Cup - Final - Liverpool v Juventus - Heysel StadiumOne of the flashpoints for the riot, it was claimed, was Italian fans picking on a young Liverpool supporter. Several of the accused claimed they heard a man in a Liverpool hat crying and shouting: “Help our kid!”. When a group of Italians parted, they said, a youngster about 10 or 12 was crying with a bloody nose.

Whether this story is true or apocryphal remains open to conjecture but there is no doubt it proved an effective catalyst and spread like wildfire among the English supporters. If some of the Liverpool fans needed final proof that the Italians were hell-bent on causing great mischief, this was it.

And drink of course played its part in fuelling the fires of confrontation. Another of the 26 admitted: “I just wanted to get over there, to sort them out, anyone who wanted to know. I had been drinking bottles of lager before the match. It altered my mind, gave me Dutch courage. I’ve always had a temper but when I’ve had ale the aggression comes out and I’m like a different person.”

He admitted running into the Italian fans and fighting, right in the middle of the scrap. “But then I saw cameras and bags on the floor and Italian fans crying and pleading. That’s when I backed off.”

Some were easily identifiable on the video film because of what they were wearing or what they were seen doing. Seen dragging a large Juventus flag through the Z section, one added: “I panicked. It could have been a load of police coming at us or a load of Juventus.” So he ran with the others at the Italians to frighten them – “I was upset because they were throwing bricks and bottles.”

Stripped to the waist, another wore a Juventus scarf he swapped with an Italian earlier in the day. So when he was hit across the back he had no idea whether it was an Italian or a Liverpool fan who hit him. He does know he lost a sovereign out of the ring he wore – probably when he hit an Italian. “I was not a ringleader,” he insisted, “but I was up there at the time.” And afterwards? “I felt sick. If I hadn’t been one of those idiots it wouldn’t have happened.”

Caught up in what one described as “the to-ing and fro-ing” the fans were as likely to be struck by a police baton as a can or brick thrown by other fans. It is clear the police did little to calm the situation, and probably played their part in provoking worse violence. One Liverpool fan spotted hurling cans from the terraces at police said he’d done it “in the heat of the moment after being trampled on”. He originally went into the Z section for a better “spec” but ended up on the pitch nursing his injury. And he got no sympathy from the forces of law and order.

Soccer - European Cup - Final - Liverpool v Juventus - Heysel StadiumThe fans appear to have gone into Z section because they bought tickets from touts for that area, or because there was more room there than in X or Y. Angered because Juventus fans were seen to be “booting my mates”, one of those trapped in the Z section added: “I didn’t want to fight. I ended up running with everyone else because there was nowhere else to go.” When told the wall had collapsed and Juventus fans had died, he added: “I felt sick that people had died for nothing.”

Another explained it this way: “I saw a build up of people against a wall below me. After a minute or two there was a big swaying in the crowd and everyone fell forward. There was a lot of screaming and shouting. The reason people died was that they were trying to escape the fighting. The blame for the fighting rests equally between the two sides.”

Some got caught up in the attacks because they were “having a nose”. Asked who led the charges, one of the accused said frankly: “I don’t think anybody did. It just happened.” Were you frightened, he was asked, and he replied: “Not really. I was in Rome last year wasn’t I?”

For others it all blurred into a bad dream. Until shown the video film they did not believe the full horror of the situation. “Yes, that looks like me…” one told the police. “But there are people cowering and I’m putting the boot in. I can’t believe that’s me. I honestly didn’t know what I was doing.” Asked what was going through his mind, he could only say: “It must have been madness, absolute madness.” Asked what he was thinking at the time, he said: “I don’t know. I was there, but I wasn’t.”

Some of those standing in a group by the dividing fence between Z and Y sections claimed they began to “get bricked” by Juventus fans. It was a situation which demanded a response. “I was just following everyone else,” explained another caught on camera. “When I was in Rome I got beat up, so I just wanted to get my own back.”

But then: “…everything went mad around us, everything was just stupid. Then we saw the wall, concrete and bricks swaying like in slow motion…then it went.”

“It was never meant to be like that,” added another. He ran towards the Italians because someone told him his mate was being beat up. “ I got carried away. I lost control. We all panicked.”

Extract from Heysel: A European Tragedy – an unpublished book finished in 1989 written by Sir Harry Livermore – a former Lord Mayor of Liverpool whose law firm Silverman Livermore represented 16 of the accused in the Heysel trial – and David Stuckey, a journalist at the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

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