There had been very little in a pleasant Brussels day to warn of the horrors that were about to follow. Fans remember “friendly banter, scarf swapping and photos taken” among the Liverpool and Juventus fans as they congregated for the 1985 European Cup Final. One Reds supporter even recalls playing a game of football with Juve fans outside the ground that afternoon.
The two European giants were going head-to-head for club football’s biggest prize. The reigning champions versus Italy’s Old Lady, who’d been left jilted in the final two years earlier when they were beaten by Hamburg.
But for all the high expectations before kick-off, the match would soon take a back seat to the scenes unfolding in the Heysel Stadium stands.
Instead, the match is now remembered as the catalyst for banning English clubs from European football for five years, as 39 Italian supporters were killed and hundreds more injured when a wall collapsed following a confrontation between the two factions. And while 14 Liverpool fans were convicted of manslaughter following the tragedy, there still remains conflicting reports among the fans in the stands of what caused the crush.
What both sides can agree on is that they never wish to witness anything like this again.
The first major issues occurred with entry to the stadium. “Nobody checked my ticket on the way in, other fans threw the stubs over the wall to the ticketless,” remembers Liverpool fan John Holmes as he took his place on the terraces on that fateful night.
“I’d also been to Rome the year before, as well as Paris and Wembley [for Liverpool’s previous European Cup finals] and the difference getting into the ground was vast,” recalls fellow Red David McLennan. “At the other finals, you had to show your ticket before getting close to the ground – in Heysel you just walked up to the entrance, not even a turnstile, and showed your ticket which was never checked.”
The feeling among many of the English fans was that policing could have been stricter to reduce the number of supporters granted access to the ground. It’s a scene that would be sadly prescient for Liverpool fans as they recall little consideration for the hordes being allowed entry to the ground.
Liverpool supporters are proud of the size of their fanbase, often outnumbering other teams wherever they travelled. But as they soon discovered, this was not the case in the Heysel Stadium. It appeared to some that it was a “ridiculous allocation because the Juventus fans appeared to be allocated half, of what we felt, should have been our end behind the goal,” claims Tom Wignall.
Despite the vast number of ticketless Liverpool supporters being granted access, the Juventus followers were still out numbering them in their own side of the ground. It later emerged that tickets for an allotted neutral section at Heysel had been sold freely in Brussels throughout the day, meaning opposition supporters were face-to-face in what would otherwise have been a no man’s land.
The former Belgian FA secretary-general, Albert Roosens, was later handed a six-month suspended sentence, while Captain Johan Mahieu, the police officer responsible for Block Z, was given nine months as the failure to only allowed fans with tickets into the ground, along with segregating the two opposing supporters was found to be an important factor in the trouble that followed.
The poor policing outside the ground and inadequate segregation then met with the issues attached to a sub-standard stadium for a European Cup Final. The segregation apparatus used, according to Chris Carey “was 2×1 lengths of wood with wire fencing attached, the kind they have around tennis courts in the park”. One supporter recalled “picking up a piece of concrete from one of the barriers on the terracing, this ground was in the worst condition I’d ever seen”, in accordance with another who claimed, “I remember thinking this was the worst stadium I had ever been to, all over Europe and England.”
This was a common theme among those spoken to who were in attendance. Another fan, Peter Barthram, says, “the first thing I noticed was the wall which separated the pitch from the stand behind the goal where we stood. I honestly remember thinking it wouldn’t take much for that wall to fall, the thought of the Liverpool supporters on the Kop and how they used to surge forward made me sure that if that happened there, it would be a disaster. That ground was the worst ground I’d ever been to and it wasn’t fit for purpose, I could never understand why UEFA allowed a major European Final to be played there”.
Liverpool supporters were now in a position where there were too many fans in a ground that many believed was inadequate for the event, as well as being hugely outnumbered by Italian supporters. Although that wasn’t justification for what happened next.
Nobody knows if there was a specific moment that sparked the brutality, other simply the result of a day of drinking and celebration ahead of the match that evening. The atmosphere was growing as more people poured into the ground and so the carnage began.
Stories from Liverpool fans on the day note that “we were getting pelted with stones from the Z Section” and “there were Italian fans climbing on the chicken wire fence beckoning the Liverpool fans” and inevitable a massive charge ensued in reaction.
“[Liverpool fans were] tearing down chicken wire fencing that was supposed to separate the two sets of fans,” adds Wignall.
“A small section in the middle which was occupied by Belgian police was quickly evacuated and it was all over quite quickly but there was a commotion in the far corner and you could see Juventus fans being led away and taken down to the other end.”
It would later emerge that the charge had caused one of the walls to collapse as fans crushed towards each other. But the main thing many fans present recall is the lack of awareness of how serious this charge had been.
The charge and tumbling of the fence and wall that separated Liverpool and Juventus supporters led to the death of 39 fans. Those present were not aware of this until much later, “we all hoped and believed it was not too serious, maybe some cuts and bruises maybe a few fans had fainted in the charge”. After this charge had occurred, according to John Holmes, “no one really believed there had been fatalities”.
Those closest to the events were of course the Juventus fans and they were a lot more aware of the severity of the English charge. This sparked an angry reaction with several accounts even alleging they saw one fan on the pitch brandish a gun, while others armed themselves with stones and a steel bar.
“Juve fans were running towards us chucking bricks and lumps of concrete from the crumbling steps in the stadium at us, the whole thing was horrific,” says another Reds fan Sue Deighton.
“There was a collective call to sit down on the terracing, which we all did it was like our way of saying look we don’t want any trouble”.
The events of the day will be forever remembered as the darkest day for English and Liverpool supporter violence at the height of hooliganism. A stain on the reputation of travelling supporters that will never truly be washed away.
And as Juventus supporter Valter Starace says, there was little doubt in his mind what had made things escalate in such a manner.
“Everything was calm until the charge, we could see a large group of English fans move towards Sector Z, where some Juventus fans were watching the game,” explains Starace.
“The English started to run at them and kept pushing even after the wall collapsed. It was inevitable, all the people who were stuck there couldn’t go anywhere else, so they started to pile up and at the end a lot of them were crushed under a human wall.
“What surprised me was that a few English hooligans were taking rocks off the wall that had just collapsed and they were throwing them at the Juventus fans that survived. I’d never seen anything like that in my life.”
It’s a memory that will stay with anyone who was close enough to see the true horrors unfold. And for Starace, it was enough to change his life.
“From that moment I never attended a football match again,” the Italian says. “That was enough for me because I didn’t want that to happen again and I didn’t want to find myself in another similar situation. It was a big and real shock to witness such a horrendous situation.”
Tragically, some didn’t survive to tell their tales.