HEYSEL 30 YEARS: WHY DID NO-ONE SEE IT COMING? | The Anfield Wrap

Soccer - Heysel StadiumTHE Heysel Stadium was inspected by Belgian architectural expert Joseph Ange. Called in to assess the state of the stadium which was over 50 years old, he found the terracing “still as it was at the time of its construction”. With the passing of years it was now “in an advanced state of decay”.

The stadium was in fact built in 1930 and could house 62,000 spectators. At each end of the ground were curved terraced bankings. At the end where the tragedy occurred, section X held 6,700 standing spectators; section Y 10,500 and section Z 6,000 – a total of 23,000.

The corresponding banking at the other end of the ground, containing sections M, N and O — which together held a similar number – were allocated to Juventus supporters and Belgian neutrals. X and Y were for Liverpool supporters and Z for Belgian neutrals. This was the theory but one of the major contributing factors to the disaster was that so many of these latter tickets found their way onto the black market.

An electronic scoreboard had been added in 1980 but nothing seemingly done at that time to improve the terracing. The steps were worn, the concrete posts crumbling and chipped and the framework had been exposed in places. This was now rusted and dangerous. Many of the handrails situated on each fifth terrace were unstable. There were also no proper fences separating the sections.

The only entrances and exits appeared to be at the rear of these terraces. A second exit at the bottom of the enclosure, Ange found, was out of use as the door had been locked and the key had been lost.

The terracing ran right up the retaining wall, made of concrete sections. It was by no means in good condition and when panic-stricken spectators were jammed against it, an 18-metre section gave way under their pressure.

Mr Ange concluded: “Because of the age of the stadium, its layout and its unsuitability for the circumstances, one might have foreseen a tragedy.” His expert report was damning in its condemnation of the Belgian Football Association and those responsible for the maintenance of the ground.

British experts who visited Brussels in the wake of the tragedy were also shocked at the state of the Heysel stadium. They it as “crumbling and decrepit” and breaking a host of European football safety rules. There were doubts if it would ever have passed the Safety of Sports Grounds Act in this country.

Angry Liverpool FC officials demanded to know answers to five questions:
1. How the majority of 20,000 tickets, allocated to the Belgian FA, seemingly ended up in Italian hands
2. Why there was no perimeter fence outside the Heysel stadium and no checks on ticketless fans
3. Why so many tickets also ended up in the hands of touts
4. Why both sets of fans were not systematically searched on entry
5. Why an ageing stadium in an obvious state of dilapidation was chosen for a major European final.

Liverpool secretary Peter Robinson reckoned Heysel was no better than an English Third or Fourth Division ground.

“I certainly can not condone the behaviour of some Liverpool fans but there are questions which need to be asked,” he said. “The fence erected to divide the fans was flimsy affair, and there appeared to be no police presence between the fans. Whole sections of the concrete wall at the rear of the trouble spot had been removed allowing people to flood in. And it would appear no-one was frisked as the police found literally hundreds of bottles afterwards.

“More security could and should have been taken.”

Soccer - Retiring Liverpool manager Bill Shankly with Bob Paisley and John Smith

Liverpool chairman John Smith, centre, wuth Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly. Pic: PA Images

Liverpool FC also believed they knew where to pin at least part of the blame. Although the National Front denied it, Liverpool FC claimed their members and sympathisers were behind the attacks. Several Liverpool fans said they had been approached by men with Cockney accents handing out NF leaflets. Club chairman John Smith also claimed to have been approached by six NF supporters who he said professed themselves “delighted with the death and destruction of Heysel”.

Specifically, the London-based Inner City Firm were said to be involved. “They were boasting they had caused the trouble that evening and seemed pleased with their actions,” Smith added.

Others spoke of infiltrators. They were wearing Liverpool colours or were carrying Union Jack flags, but they were not Liverpool fans according to several who saw and heard them on the terraces.

In May 1986 a report by the Independent Centre for Contemporary Studies pointed to racist and political tensions behind the Heysel riot and accused football authorities of “sleeping too soundly” on the build up of racist and fascist groups attending football matches here and abroad.

The report produced evidence alleging active participation by the National Front and the British National Party on the terraces at Heysel. They were, it was alleged, even trying to recruit members among Liverpool supporters on the cross-Channel ferries.

Police later recovered English banners from the Heysel terraces covered in swastikas as well as Juventus banners bearing the insignia of the outlawed New Order faction responsible for a wave of terror in Italy in the 1970s.

Liverpool officials had consistently said they had seen or been confronted by NF supporters at Heysel. Now it was also alleged that Italian fans were incited to “kill the Red bastards” because they were told Liverpool was controlled and run by Communists.

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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