sports gazette

Then and now: 30 years since the Heysel disaster

Horrific scenes from the Heysel Stadium disaster (photo courtesy of Eamonn McCabe)
Published: 21 May 2015

Thirty years ago 39 football fans lost their lives before the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, a tragedy that led to English clubs' suspension from club competitions for five years. The Sport Gazette remembers and reflects on how fan culture and facilities have progressed since.

On that fateful night David Lacey, reporting for The Guardian wrote arguably the toughest match report of his career. His intro says it all:

"Liverpool lost the European Cup to Juventus last night, but the game of football has lost far, far more. In short, it died along with the 47 people trampled to death when a group of mainly Italian supporters stampeded to get away from rioting Liverpool fans and were crushed when first barriers, and then a wall, collapsed.”

It should have been a celebration of football when the sides met on May 29th 1985, for a game that would see one of them crowned champions of Europe.

Juventus won 1-0 on the pitch, but what happened just hours before brought shame on English football.

As some Liverpool fans started a running battle against rival Italian supporters, the scenes became so chaotic, forcing Italian fans fleeing the area to climb on a wall to seek safety.

The impact saw the wall collapse and fans were crushed to death by others, while hooligans chased each other with metal poles.

Liverpool fans were not solely to blame. The stadium was in a poor condition and the security was seriously lacking.

Sam Deane, 52, from London, a Liverpool fan since 1977, discussed going to the match with his ex-partner Charlotte, but instead ended up listening to it on the radio.

“The commentator blamed Liverpool fans initially for causing the troubles. I then watched it live on the news. It still haunts me,” he recalls.

The event came a few weeks after the Bradford fire which claimed 56 lives and serious questions had to be asked about stadium security.

“The main lesson that was learnt was that football needed to change,” says Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport Business Strategy and Marketing and editor of ‘Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal’.

“It was, and remains, totally unacceptable that someone might die at a football match, and also that anyone should feel threatened or unsafe watching the game they love.”

Primitive conditions were taken for granted, according to Mick Dennis, a veteran football journalist and a Norwich City fan.

“It was considered normal at the time, you expected a fight to start and that gangs of young people will use football for violence. Looking back, it almost looks like a different country,” he says.

Dennis was working for the Sun newspaper at the time and the phone kept ringing at his home address.

“I did not answer at first, but my wife persuaded me to. It was work on the other end of the line. They asked if I knew what had happened. I had no idea, so they told me to switch the telly on and call them back."

It was, and remains, totally unacceptable that someone might die at a football match, and also that anyone should feel threatened or unsafe watching the game they love.

Dennis still recalls how Peter Day, the Tottenham club secretary, told him after the disaster that even though what happened was horrible he was not surprised.

“We played there before and the stadium was in such a state, Day told me."

Dennis says that the tragedy changed the fabric of entertainment and football, however it remains debatable whether fan culture had.

Professor Chadwick supports that view: “The same sub-groups who will have been around in 1985 are still around today.

“The biggest differences are that the hooligan threat has dissipated while the 21st century football consumer has emerged.”

Policing and stadium infrastructure improvements have led to reduced hooliganism and football becoming more family orientated, according to Dennis.

‘Safe standing’, for example, successfully implemented at Cardiff City F.C, is a growing buzzword.

Could allowing fans to sing and stand reduce tensions even further? And is it economically viable?

It will require complete redesigns of some stadiums, according to Dennis.

“Clubs cannot hope to increase the number of supporters that are allowed in if there is a certain cap on that number.

“This contradicts the whole idea of selling more tickets, making it not worth it,” he said.

Professor Chadwick believes that if your customers demand to stand, you should give them exactly that.

“More people watch the London Marathon than they do football matches for example and they do so standing. Sadly, for some politicians, the 1980s stereotype of football fans endures,” he claims.

That view, however common, brings us back to the Heysel disaster, 30 years on and to the question of whether the tragic event can ever be properly commemorated.

“It can be commemorated by playing, supporting and following football in a joyous and respectful way," says Professor Chadwick.

Recently, Juventus rejected the FA's offer to mark the 30 year anniversary of the Heysel tragedy and Dennis is pessimistic as to whether it is even possible to commemorate the event despite attempts in the last decade, saying it’s difficult as “there is so much guilt and blame attached to it.”

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