MAY 30, 1984. European Cup night in Rome. Liverpool beat Roma on their home ground. In a tense penalty shoot-out, they lift the European Cup for a remarkable fourth time.
Liverpool were already League Champions and Milk Cup winners back home, where their reserve side had taken the Central League title. Neighbours Everton were FA Cup and FA Youth Cup winners, so Merseyside had rightly staked its claim to not only be football capital of England, but of Europe too.
But there had been problems. The Italians had not taken defeat lightly and as they left the ground, Liverpool supporters were made to run the gauntlet of verbal and physical abuse.
Roma fans sprang an ambush near the stadium coach park where they threw bottles and stones at the Liverpudlians. One man was stabbed with a stiletto that narrowly missed his lungs.
The anger and frustration of the Italians provoked a response from some Liverpudlians and a bridge over the Tiber became the scene of a pitched battle. But most Liverpool fans just wanted to get away from the city and stay out of trouble.
For some it was a near thing. Roy and Joan Gronow from the Wirral, for instance, both in their 30s, stumbled in the car park and lay there cowering to escape a hail of stones. Then came another menace – excitable Italian drivers racing away from the scene in their cars all but ran them over.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” explained Roy, “but we soon found ourselves trapped with cars shooting off around us in all directions.
“Joan was hysterical, so I shouted in Italian to three Roma lads getting into a Fiat. They hesitated, then one of them, a young law student, helped us both in and took us away from danger. We both felt we owed him our lives.”
In the coaches young children and teenagers sobbed in their parents’ arms as blood-splattered passengers limped onto their transport. Bob Davies from Rock Ferry added: “We all felt safer when the police arrived but they immediately fired tear gas indiscriminately into the crowd. We all felt the affects. Our eyes were smarting and it only made it more difficult for us to see where we were going.”
Given the build up before the game, it was surprising that until then things had gone so smoothly. “THE BARBARIANS ARE COMING” screamed one headline from a popular Italian magazine, just one of many ‘knocking’ articles to accustom Roman fans to the English invasion.
Yet, when the Scouse army arrived most Italians were delighted to find them happy, smiling and – on the whole – law abiding. High spirited maybe, but generally not malicious.
Certainly before the game there was little hint of trouble – an understandable tenseness in the air, but the overall spirit was one of friendliness and anticipation.
The more responsible Roman papers had been keen to promote an atmosphere of friendship and welcome. There had been ugly scenes when tickets first went on sale at the stadium, and it was agreed the arrangements had been far from ideal. But the authorities were willing and eager to put such hiccups behind them and ensure the fans, Italians and British, had a good time.
Il Messagero optimistically promised “Peace, Love, Song… and Lots of Mineral Water!” The Mayor, Sgr Ugo Vetre, ventured this quote and added: “We wish to make this a great occasion…in a spirit of sportsmanship and goodwill.”
Liverpool FC chairman John Smith had already appealed to fans to behave themselves. Reminding them that it was in Rome in 1977 that Liverpool first claimed the European Cup, he added: “It would be tragic if we finished winning the coveted trophy, yet found ourselves barred from Europe because of crowd trouble. May I earnestly impress upon the thousands of fans who intend to be at the final the importance of upholding not only their good name but the good name of this club.”
Liverpool FC’s chief executive Peter Robinson had already attended a top-level meeting in Rome to defuse what he saw as a potentially explosive situation. “Unfortunatley British fans are acquiring a bad reputation abroad,” he explained, “and the Italians are extremely volatile We are certain our supporters will not let us down and we want to ensure they have an enjoyable visit.”
He added: “UEFA have made it clear they are determined to stamp out hooliganism at football matches. If things went wrong we could find Liverpool winning the European Cup yet banned from playing in it again next season. It’s as serious as that.” Prophetic words indeed.
The record of British fans abroad was not good. A few months earlier Spurs fans had cast the latest cloud across the international soccer scene by going on the rampage in Brussels. But Liverpool fans considered themselves – and were considered by others – to be something else. British Embassy spokesman Frank Docherty in Rome reported: “Liverpool supporters are behaving as we expected them to and maintaining their good reputation.”
Even the official delegation sent in advance of the Red Army, and led by Liverpool City councilor Jimmy Hackett, surprised the Mayor of Rome by bursting into an impromptu rendition of the Kop anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone, at a reception in his Grand Parlour. With a neat sense of timing if not protocol, it served to break the ice – and won a round of applause from assembled dignitaries and pressmen.
Cossetted and chaperoned everywhere by a discreet police presence, Liverpool fans managed to win friends. Taken on a tour of the Coliseum, one was heard to say: “It’s like a thousand-year-old Kirkby. You’d think they would have put a roof on it by now.” And of the ornate splendour of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, another suggested: “Just think what they might have built had they known him…”
Emissaries from the clubs involved, as well as council dignitaries and journalists went out of their way to stress the positive aspects of this Final showcase. Pre-match souvenirs were full of stories of fans exchanging favours and smiling in anticipation of a good contest. While admitting to a liking for the odd bottle of wine with a suitably prepared meal, most Italians professed themselves puzzled by the Scouse liking for lager and liquid lunches.
Several Roman bars ran out of beer that weekend as certain battalions of the Red Army seemed hell bent on drinking the Eternal City dry. And the Trevi Fountain, ringing to the sound of You’ll Never Walk Alone, had more than coins thrown into the night before the match.
Tension before a European Cup game can take several forms, extends well beyond the stadium and affects players as well as fans. Liverpool players never forgot the lesson they learnt when playing Dynamo Tbilso. At four in the morning on the day of the game, a gang of rowdy fans invaded the Liverpool players’ hotel, making a frightful racket and waking everyone.
Consequently, by the time they were ejected, the players could enjoy no more than a fitful doze before early morning training. They arrived at the stadium feeling well below par – and lost.
They were, however, able to get their revenge when Tbilsi played Hamburg. A phone call to former Liverpool star Kevin Keegan, then Hamburg’s top striker, warned of the tactic.
So when the Tbilsi fans stormed the Hamburg players’ hotel their opponents had already enjoyed eight full hours refreshing sleep, having been sent to bed extra early. And, that time, Hamburg won.
Other ploys have included turning up the central heating on full blast in the dressing room, instructing ball boys to deliberately fumble the match ball when it goes out of play to put players off their rhythm and even presenting bouquets to players as they run onto the pitch. What in the name of diplomacy does the average football player do with a bunch of flowers on a football pitch?
Liverpool, however, were not known for resorting to dirty tricks. So far they had found honesty to be the best policy and it had worked for them every time.
Things seemed to be working out quite well on the pitch too. The game was good, hard fought but fair. It was the penalty shoot-out which seemed to be the final straw that broke the Roman patience. Unbearably tense, it served to shatter the façade of friendship in certain sectors and rivalry and resentment overtook civility and friendship.
Roman papers were disgusted with their own fans the next day. Il Messagero claimed to have evidence of a premeditated campaign to “hunt down the English” and added: “The gravest aspect is that the English did nothing to provoke the violence.
Yet once clear of the police cordon around the stadium they were set upon by the ‘Romanisti’ armed with broken bottles, sharpened sticks and lethal knives. Milan’s Corriere della Serra claimed these Roman louts “did not demonstrate calm and self-control which are typical British characteristics”.
Italy’s main sporting daily added it turned into “a night of vile blind violence that disappointment cannot justify”.
Meanwhile, the British were counting the cost of the attacks. George Sharp, a Halewood paint shop worker from Ford’s Liverpool factory, was the worst affected. Stabbed in the back, a stiletto had missed his heart by a fraction. He stayed a week in a Rome hospital before being allowed to come home. The Rome authorities paid his air fare and that of his wife, together with her hotel bill so that she could be with him.
He returned full of praise for Italian medical team which treated him. His son Ian had also been beaten up and could only watch helplessly as his father collapsed.
Peter Robinson was angry and emphatic. “We could sense trouble brewing,” he said, “and we have an assurance that in future the final will not be played at the stadium of either finalist nor in the same city, nor even in the host country.”
UEFA too were displeased with the way Roma had masterminded the Final debacle, taking charge of security and ticket arrangements. In future, UEFA decided, it would take a firmer hand.
And so the stage was set. A year to the day after the rumble in Rome, Liverpool did indeed reach the European Cup final again. And as fate would have it, they met an Italian side, Juventus.
Liverpool fans, with long memories and fuelled with pride were once again face to face with Italians.
There were scores to settle and the battleground was Heysel.
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.