Richard Sutcliffe: ‘If there had been no violence, there would’ve been no disaster’

A police officer faces off with a Liverpool fan prior to a disastrous clash between rival soccer fans at the European Cup Final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels on Wednesday May 29, 1985. (AP Photo/Piet Van Bellen)
A police officer faces off with a Liverpool fan prior to a disastrous clash between rival soccer fans at the European Cup Final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels on Wednesday May 29, 1985. (AP Photo/Piet Van Bellen)
1
Have your say

“THE past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

So wrote LP Hartley at the start of his 1953 classic The Go-Between, but the novelist’s words have proved apt in many contexts, including football.

Spectators walk by debris and a Liverpool-Juventus banner which litter the stands after a disastrous clash between rival soccer fans at the European Cup Final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels on Wednesday May 29, 1985. (AP Photo)

Spectators walk by debris and a Liverpool-Juventus banner which litter the stands after a disastrous clash between rival soccer fans at the European Cup Final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels on Wednesday May 29, 1985. (AP Photo)

In a month that marks the 30th anniversary of not only the Bradford fire disaster but also Heysel and a riot involving Leeds United fans that ended with a teenager losing his life, Hartley’s words seem almost prescient when it comes to how differently things are done today compared to the past.

Certainly, should any supporter under the age of 35 be whisked back in time, Marty McFly-style, to a month that brought shame on a game that, by then, was far from beautiful then he or she would surely see little that was familiar.

Instead, the sight most likely to meet those disbelieving eyes from a very different era would be of hooligans running amok on an almost weekly basis at grounds that, with the odd exception, were a crumbling mess.

Attendance levels would also be something of a shock. White Hart Lane, for instance, was almost 33,000 under capacity for the visit of Sheffield Wednesday in May, 1985.

Six days before a crowd of 15,679 watched the Owls lose 2-0 at Spurs, a hardy 13,789 were at Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea claim another three points en route to finishing sixth in the old Division One.

Today, both fixtures would be sell-outs, as surely would a Merseyside derby. And yet on May 23 that year, just 15,045 were sprinkled around Goodison Park as champions Everton beat Liverpool, by then through to the European Cup final and all but guaranteed to finish the season as runners-up in the league.

Matters did not improve the following season, either, with Spurs and Aston Villa both having sub-10,000 attendances in the top flight.

Another aspect of football 30 years ago that would surely render speechless any modern day fan able to travel back in time would be television coverage of football.

Put bluntly, there wasn’t any as the 1985-86 campaign got under way. An inability by the TV companies and the Football League to strike a deal meant football disappeared off the nation’s screen for seven months.

That meant no live games and no highlights, quite a contrast to today’s wall-to-wall coverage of everything from the Premier League through to the Conference and most leagues in Europe.

A deal was finally struck – for what can now only be seen as a paltry £1.3m – in December, meaning the blackout ended when the BBC cameras were at Selhurst Park early in the New Year to screen Charlton Athletic, at the time lodging with Crystal Palace, host West Ham United in the FA Cup.

It would be the first of only 13 League and Cup games shown live that season, again something that the modern fan would find hard to fathom.

What those time travellers from 2015 would also find very strange is how football fans were regarded as little more than pariahs by not only the rest of society but also the Government. And it was the events of May 29, 1985, in the Belgian capital of Brussels that cemented that belief.

Thirty nine spectators died following a stampede at one end of the Heysel Stadium ahead of the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus.

The stampede, caused by Liverpool supporters in one section of the terrace trying to attack Juventus fans in a supposedly neutral area next door, was typical of the time.

Hooliganism had been rife all season in the Football League and few grounds had remained untouched by what the rest of Europe had dubbed “the English disease”.

What made trouble turn to tragedy in Heysel, however, was that the Juventus fans, panicked by the charge from the Liverpool section, fled towards a wall that then collapsed under the sheer weight of bodies.

For the next hour, bodies were being pulled from the rubble. As this was going on, trouble continued to rage as Juventus supporters, including one brandishing a gun, poured over the security fence at the opposite end to attack the English.

Chaos reigned until, finally, a semblance of order was restored. Incredibly, the final went ahead 90 minutes late. Juventus won 1-0 but, in truth, that day brought only losers.

Action was swift. Margaret Thatcher called an emergency cabinet meeting the following morning and also made it clear to the football authorities that all English clubs must be withdrawn from the three major European competitions.

This was duly done 24 hours later. A ban that would eventually last five years followed from UEFA, a far from knee-jerk reaction to a problem that the English had been exporting to the continent for more than a decade.

In the immediate aftermath of Heysel, a whole variety of reasons were put forward as to the cause. These ranged from the dilapidated state of a stadium that didn’t even meet guidelines laid down three years earlier by European sports ministers to ticketing, poor segregation and a policing operation that appeared flawed at every turn.

As much of a role as these factors may have played, however, the true reason why so many lost their lives was hooliganism. If there had been no violence, there would have been no disaster – no matter how rundown the stadium had become or how unprepared the local authorities seemed.

Thatcher, already appalled by the violence that had seen Millwall run riot in Luton two months before Heysel, insisted on further measures being brought in.

These included a ban on taking alcohol on football coaches or into the stadium. CCTV, then in its infancy, was also to be extended, while the Prime Minister also made clear her support for an identity card to be introduced to keep out the troublemakers.

That latter edict would not make it on to the statute book, the Hillsborough disaster four years later – and the subsequent inquiry by Chief Justice Taylor – saw ID cards fall by the wayside.

Despite these measures, the hooligans did not go away. Not initially, at least. But, in time, matters improved and football started to move towards a time when outbreaks of thuggery became the exception and not the norm.

This coming Friday will be the 30th anniversary of that awful night in Heysel. And while the game’s landscape may have changed beyond all recognition in the intervening years, football should still pause for thought and remember those dark, dark days. And pay grateful thanks that the game we still love today bears little relation to the often ugly beast it had become in the not too distant past.