Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Heysel remains darkest night in football history

The Liverpool fans stood at one end of Anfield and held placards above their heads spelling out the word ‘Amicizia'.

It means ‘Friendship’ in Italian and five years ago it was designed to broker peace and harmony between two of Europe’s greatest football clubs, Liverpool and Juventus, as they met for the first time in two decades, in a Champions League quarter-final.

Many Juventus fans applauded. A significant number, however, turned their backs on the spectacle, refusing to accept the elaborate gesture.

Time has failed to heal the wounds inflicted on the night of May 29, 1985, when 39 Juventus fans were killed and more than 600 spectators overall injured in the Heysel stadium disaster in the heart of Brussels.

The exact details and causes of the events that night are unresolved as there was no official inquiry into the disaster. Yet it is clear they revolved around a controversial neutral area inside a dilapidated national stadium to which Italian fans gained access, a hopelessly inadequate chicken wire fence and a simmering mood of tension.

Missiles were being hurled by both sets of fans an hour before kick-off but it is not in doubt that Liverpool supporters were responsible for the charge which saw panicking Italian fans retreat, only to be crushed as a wall gave way under the weight of their flight.

After a four-year police investigation and a five-month trial in Belgium, 14 Liverpool fans were given three-year sentences for involuntary manslaughter, half the terms being suspended.

English football was mired in shame. Kenny Dalglish (pictured), Liverpool’s legendary striker and former manager, admits it was not until the following morning that the Liverpool players realised exactly what had happened.

“We saw the Italian fans crying and they were banging on the side of our bus when we left the hotel,” he recalled. “When we left Brussels, the Italians were angry, understandably so; 39 of their friends had died. I remember well one Italian man, who had his face right up against the window where I was sitting. He was crying and screaming. You feel for anybody who loses someone in those circumstances. You go along to watch a game. You don't go along expecting that sort of ending, do you? Football’s not that important. No game of football is worth that. Everything else pales into insignificance.”

English football was never to be the same again.

The Bradford fire, which caused 56 deaths just three weeks previously, and the Hillsborough disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans four years later, led the way for improvements in stadium safety and design and all-seater arenas.

Heysel, by contrast, focused the mind on hooliganism and ways to exclude troublemakers. It was also Heysel which caused all English clubs to be banned from Europe for five years, with Liverpool serving an additional one-year exclusion.

How did it affect the English game? Well, in the eight years before Heysel English clubs recorded six European Cup victories — three for Liverpool, two for Nottingham Forest and one for Aston Villa. In the 25 years since, English teams have won the tournament just three times — Manchester United in 1999 and 2008 and Liverpool in 2005.

Of all football's disasters, however, Heysel leaves the sourest of tastes. The needless violence, the inadequate stadium, the fact that the match went on when the bodies of so many of those who had entered the turnstiles just minutes before were outside and covered with flags as makeshift shrouds.

The authorities claimed they were afraid of inciting further violence had the match been cancelled, and admittedly such decisions are taken in haste and with the best of intent.

Yet the fact that Michel Platini celebrated his winning penalty and the Juventus players marked their 1-0 victory with the usual frivolous footballing fripperies in the middle of the pitch added to the desperate nature of the occasion. It is why, 25 years on, the events of Heysel remain riddled with angst and why gestures of friendship are regarded by some as futile.

It is why the occasion in Heysel remains football's darkest night.

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