The Belgian police lead a baton charge at the Liverpool supporters at Heysel in 1985

The Belgian police lead a baton charge at the Liverpool supporters at Heysel in 1985. Pic: PA Images

THE facts are stark enough. Before the European Cup final, one of the showpieces of world football competition, at the ageing Heysel Stadium in Brussels, on the night of May 29, 1985, Liverpool and Juventius fans clashed in one of the most serious outbreaks of football violence and rioting on the terraces ever seen.

Thirty nine people were to die, either on the night or of injuries they sustained. They died in the crush of bodies pinned against the perimeter wall of Z section as rampaging Liverpool fans charged time and again. More than 200 were injured when this wall collapsed.

Millions of television viewers in Europe, Britain and worldwide witnessed these sickening scenes as pundits offered instant verdicts on mindless morons, on the hooligan psyche, on what had become known, rightly or wrongly, as “the English disease”.

Behind the facts lay a sorry catalogue – a history of escalating trouble on the terraces. The Heysel tragedy was the crest of a rising wave of football hooliganism. British football fans had earned quite a sorry reputation at home and abroad.

Their record in Europe in Europe was tarnished in 1972 when Glasgow Rangers were suspended from European competition for two years after fans rioted in Barcelona, where Rangers were playing Moscow Dynamo in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final.

Two years later, Tottenham were barred from playing their next two European games at White Hart Lane following ugly scenes during their UEFA Cup final second leg match with Rotterdam. In 1975, Leeds United were banned for four seasons from European competition after rioting by their supporters in Paris during their European Cup final clash with Bayern Munich. The ban was later cut to two years on appeal.

In 1977, Manchester United were forced to pull out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup after crowd trouble in their first round match at St Etienne. They were reinstated on condition that they play their home ties at least 125 miles from Manchester.

In 1980 the trouble escalated. That year, England were fined £8,000 after riots in Turin during their European Championship match with Belgium. West Ham were fined a similar amount when their fans ran amok in Madrid during a European Cup Winners’ Cup clash with Castilla. West Ham played the return leg of the tie behind closed doors.

World Cup defeats the following year by Norway and Switzerland saw English fans taking it out on Oslo and Basle. In the former £60,000 worth of damage was done, 16 were injured and 59arrested. In the latter, 20 were arrested. Spurs fans were arrested in Amsterdam following trouble after their European Cup Winners’ Cup tie with Ajax.

In 1982, Aston Villa fans invaded the pitch and held up play for six minutes during a European Cup tie against Anderlecht and Manchester United fans rioted in the Valencia Stadium after their side was beaten in the UEFA Cup. Police with batons charged fans who retaliated with stones, bottles and seats.

In 1983, Spurs and Feyenoord fans clashed again in Rotterdam. Thirty needed hospital treatment, many for stab wounds. Violence also spilled over onto the Hook of Holland ferry – another 30 Spurs fans were arrested for wrecking the bar.

That was nothing compared to the £700,000 worth of damage inflicted by England fans in and around the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris the next year after a ‘friendly’ international. There was also widespread vandalism on the Sealink ferry taking them across the Channel, and in Dunkirk hooligans broke into the British Leyland compound to play dodgems with cars awaiting export to Italy.

In 1984, a Spurs fan was shot dead on the eve of the UEFA Cup final first leg in Brussels against Anderlecht following an argument in a bar. English fans rampaged through the streets, overturning cars and setting them alight. 200 arrests were made.

Liverpool were fined £1,350 for trouble on the terraces during a European Cup clash with Benfica in Lisbon; Manchester United were fined for an Old Trafford pitch invasion while playing the second leg of a Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Barcelona, who had themselves been fined for crowd trouble in the first leg, and Celtic were fined after a fan vaulted the barrier and ran onto the pitch to assault the Rapid Vienna goalkeeper in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Another fan kicked the Austrian team’s goalscorer to the ground as the teams left the pitch.

On the home front, things had been going from bad to worse for several seasons and those tuning in to hear the Saturday football results were accustomed with being regaled with the day’s casualty count. It seemed to be a national epidemic. Police, politicians and other concerned bodies were already applying their minds to the cause and to a workable solution.

Two months before Heysel on March 13, fans rioted at Luton where the home team were their quarter final FA Cup tie against Millwall. There were two pitch invasions and a 25-minute delay during which the teams left the pitch.

More than 700 seats were ripped up and thrown onto the playing area, along with darts, coins and advertising hoardings. Supporters later went on the rampage through Luton and a British Rail football special was wrecked. Police made 33 arrests and 46 people were injured.

Although vandalism was not to blame, the fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground came at a time when football morale was at an all-time low. On Saturday May 11, 1985, during a league match with Lincoln City, the blaze quickly spread through the packed main stand. 56 people died and at least 265 were injured. Locked doors at the turnstiles were held to have prevented an orderly evacuation and most of the dead either perished in the fire or the panic which ensued.

On the same day, a 15-year-old lad was crushed by a collapsing wall at Birmingham City’s ground during rioting at their match with Leeds. He died later in hospital. More than 75 were injured and police arrested 50. These were but the latest in a series of worrying violent attacks at football matches and the game consequently was suffering through football gates and the lack of a family atmosphere that had previously made Saturday afternoon at the match such an institution.

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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