May 29th 1985, 6.30pm-after midnight
I’ve no idea what the Heysel Stadium is like now; it’s not even called the Heysel Stadium anymore. But on the day that it made history, it was a rickety, ramshackle, crumbling, run-down football and athletics stadium in the north-western part of the Brussels conurbation. Its history involved some Belgium international matches and domestic cup finals and some athletics meetings. It was rarely more than half-full and usually less than that. This time it would be full to its nominal capacity with nearly 50,000 supporters.
Close behind the Heysel Stadium stands one of Brussels’ most distinctive landmarks, the Atomium. Built for the Brussels World Fair in 1958, it’s a huge metallic reconstruction of the atom, rising hundreds of feet into the sky and instantly recognisable to anyone who has driven around the Brussels peripheral motorway ring. For me it remains to this day a stomach-churning memorial to that monstrous night. Just seeing its image, even if only in a brochure or newspaper article, is enough to set off a small hand grenade in my stomach and vividly reactivate all those recollections. But on that perfect late spring evening, the Atomium rose majestically into the vivid blue sky, its metal glinting in the sun’s glare. In the foreground, the flags of the Heysel Stadium fluttered proudly in proclamation of its finest ever moment, the first time it had ever hosted the major European final –– and its last. No scene could have hinted less at the sordid, squalid show that was to follow.
The Heysel was approached by a series of pathways winding through lawns and gardens adjoining the main road. As expected, the entire area was a ring of steel barricades and temporary fencing, each break manned by police with dogs. Here supporters would be checked for alcohol, weapons and valid tickets before being allowed closer to the stadium. Beyond, much nearer the ground, a second inner ring would pick off any who had somehow evaded the first search. At least that was the assumption, and all perfectly customary procedure for football fans.
What certainly wasn’t customary on that day was the sight, in full view of hundreds of on-duty police, of several bars open right by the ground and, hardly surprisingly, packed to bursting point. As this was Liverpool’s end of the ground, it was a red and white carnival, with supporters spilling out onto the road and massed on the wall. From inside came all the familiar anthems amidst a cacophony of shouting, foot-stamping and table-thumping.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, pubs and bars by a football ground and inside it were closed on match days, without exception, and especially in Europe when an English club or the national team was involved. It was, on police orders, the (reluctantly) accepted norm. You were lucky if the whole city didn’t close. So to see these bars open, right in front of the police, was a culture shock for us, albeit a very welcome one, and all but unprecedented for such a big game in Europe, defying all logic, wisdom and common sense, and contradicting every assurance from all the authorities. But if life is made up of fixed and variable factors, that hordes of football fans will take advantage of a bar open right by a stadium is definitely one of the former. Leave the chicken coop open and the fox will certainly get in. Despite the strong advice –– rather than enforcement, transparently –– not to open, the lure of quick fat profits was presumably enough for the bar owners to take the risk of damage, disturbance and adverse publicity. That’s market forces for you I suppose –– if somebody wants something and is prepared to pay for it, somebody else will be prepared to supply it, regardless of the consequences. Opening was a decision based on straightforward, calculated self-interest, and, purely from the commercial point of view, a successful one. The profits would more than pay for a few hours of the cleaners’ time. But it was astonishing, in the context of the times and given the high profile of the match, that they were allowed to open, by both the police and the Brussels authorities.
We felt like children with our noses pressed against the outside of a sweet shop window who had suddenly been invited inside to tuck in. It was a wholly unexpected opportunity to grab another beer and let rip with some singing and chanting to get in the mood, a last chance to crank up the atmosphere before the match. We weren’t going to miss it. We entered the first and biggest bar. Inside the insane, heaving melee, the mass of bodies had almost fused into a single pulsing entity. Within seconds, our shirts were soaked with sweat and beer that spilled from plastic glasses held on high as people tried to push and worm their way through. The toilets had long since ceased to cope, and a trail ran from them to the pavement outside. The super-competitive business of getting served was only for the grimly determined or desperate, but we managed it. The story of the stabbing had arrived before us, fuelling the tension that hung heavy in the overpowering hot stale air. There also seemed to be any number of obviously forged tickets in existence, wads of them being passed around in tens and twenties at a time, with the instruction: “Get something for them if you can, or get your mates in, or just dump them.” For once, supply seemed to outstrip demand, as handfuls of discarded forgeries were tossed idly aside, fluttering earthwards to be trampled soggy. Forgeries are always an ominous harbinger of trouble; if they work and get people in, they can cause serious congestion. If they don’t, they can cause delays and unrest at the turnstiles or at whatever point the forgery is detected as people are turned away, or try to break through by force, or turn nasty, or get arrested.
With about half an hour left to kick-off, we drank up and left for the ten-minute walk to our end of the stadium. The first security check, the most cursory and superficial of body searches, revealed a disinterest that almost bordered on the insulting to fans from the country that consistently topped the hooligan export league. We did not know yet, but these same security checks at the other end of the ground were failing to detect a replica handgun, which later turned out to be a starting pistol (“Ooh it’s not a gun it’s a starting pistol, OK fine you can bring it in then, no problem”), to be brandished at the height of the carnage by an Italian supporter before a worldwide TV audience of millions. No other security check followed this one. We just passed right through the sets of barricades, police didn’t even stop us or ask for tickets. Suddenly we were on our final approach. Away to our right, we could see part of our crowd in one of the terraces, a vast curving sweep of red and white bathed in sunlight. We followed the signs for Blocks X and Y, past the main stand and up a gentle slope. We didn’t quite know what to make of the muffled thud that soon followed, not crisp enough for a firecracker, not metallic enough for clanging gates, not quite like any of the usual football match sounds.
Suddenly, ahead of us, a group of supporters came clambering over the wall at the edge of Block Z, shouting and gesticulating. At first we assumed it was our lot trying to bunk in without tickets and being turned back. More and more appeared, swarming over the wall and charging down the bank towards us. But as they drew nearer, running maniacally towards us, it quickly became apparent they were not Liverpool supporters trying to get in but Juventus supporters getting out. And they were heading straight for us, at speed, maybe a hundred or more. When faced with a number of rival supporters charging at him, the average English football fan’s experience tells him they are not coming for his autograph.
Phil’s eyes narrowed: “Bloody hell, these are coming for us here –– quick, get a brick or something!” The first group arrived, but just ran straight on past us, wild-eyed, before barging into some more Liverpool fans behind us. One Italian, wearing a silk scarf like a headband, bandanna-style, launched into a bizarre kung-fu routine with circling hands and trilling noises, before sprinting off with the others. More and more followed, all with the same wild demeanour. Most odd, we thought, not familiar with this type of pre-match behaviour, as we continued towards our entrance, completely unaware of the significance of what we had just seen and heard.
Our first sight of the crumbly stone walls and old-fashioned turnstiles conjured an image of rosettes and rattles, Kenneth Wolstenholme commentary and the old ‘Match of the Day’ theme tune. It was tragi-comic to behold, like a faded glamorous actress long past her prime auditioning for the part of sex kitten. Outside the shabby exterior, an anarchic, unsupervised queue swayed and swirled without pattern as it shoved and pushed and sweated towards what seemed a wholly inadequate number of turnstiles. Many of those forged tickets were being used successfully. We witnessed cash being handed over to turnstile operators who then allowed them in. The sacred match ticket, that took so much hard work to get hold of, seemed to have been relegated to an optional extra for this strictly ticket-only event. In another major departure from convention, there were no police or stewards outside to control the surging swaying mass, or just beyond the turnstiles to check and control the access points. As the pressure at the front of the queues built, those behind were crying out for the pushing to stop –– a chilling foretaste of what was to come four years later at Hillsborough.
Having finally got into the stadium, further reasons for the turnstile chaos immediately presented themselves. Just beyond the turnstile, a water pipe had fractured, turning the area into a sea of reddy brown mud, in which floated endless crushed paper cups and empty cans, discarded wrappers from chocolate bars and bags of crisps and other unidentifiable debris. A red Liverpool FC cap lay forlornly semi-submerged. The mud lake was too wide to jump across, so wading was the only alternative. The result: apart from spattered jeans and squelchy shoes and socks, it meant a build-up of bodies just beyond the turnstile, restricting the smooth flow of supporters into the ground from outside, at the precise time and place where the crowd pressure was greatest.
Once over the water jump, the next obstacle was a choking, swirling cloud of red dust, as the decrepit building’s foundations were scuffed into life by the stampede of thousands of pairs of feet. Ahead of us, partly no doubt as a result of the cavalier approach to ticket control and ground admission, the terracing was a solid, impenetrable Red Sea with no parting –– and there were still thousands outside waiting to get in, most presumably possessing genuine match tickets and assuming there would be space for them. But they, like us, would have to lever their way through, prising bodies apart and wedging their own into the tiny gap created, which would snap shut instantly behind them as they pushed forwards another few inches in the sweltering body heat. On some of the crush barriers, the concrete had crumbled away to reveal the exposed metal reinforcing strips inside, rusted and twisted.
We felt an acute sense of disappointment at the standard of the venue; this stadium did not make it feel like European football’s grandest occasion. You expect to be impressed, awestruck by the sense of occasion; I thought back to the grandeur and pageant of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the inspiring first impressions and the explosion of sound and vision created by Liverpool’s army of fans. In stark contrast, the inglorious Heysel felt second-rate, squalid, shorn of style and class, and with feeble organisation to compound it.
We finally found a position where we could see what should have been the green of the pitch. Instead, we saw that the entire near right-hand quarter of the vivid green playing surface had been engulfed by a human spillage of epic scale –– a tangled mass of fans, police, stewards, officials, paramedics and photographers. We took this as nothing more than yet another manifestation of overcrowding and organisational incompetence. After all the chaos, Don began to lose patience, with which he probably isn’t over-blessed: “For fuck’s sake sort yourselves out, this is shite”, he yelled across the terraces.
“There’s been a bit of bother in that corner lad, a crowd surge or something, a bit of fighting like”, came a voice from behind. If the match was to start on time in twenty five minutes –– 20.15 kick-off in those days –– there was an awful lot of clearing up to do. In the UK, a TV audience of millions was finishing dinner, fetching beer from the fridge and settling down to watch the football. But what they, and millions more across Europe and across the globe, saw and heard instead were the first harrowing images of people dying at a football match. Replay after replay of clashes and charges between rival supporters was being shown, interspersed with an ever-rising fatalities figure. Around the globe, newsrooms sparked into frenzied activity, phones and faxes chattering excitedly as a major news story broke. Yet we inside the Heysel Stadium, only yards from the eye of the hurricane, had much less idea of the gravity of the situation than most of the rest of Europe who were watching. No commentary, no replays, no access to TV or the authorities to feed us information, certainly no rumours of deaths yet, just speculation. Still oblivious to the nature and scale of the incident, we remained the calmest and least horrified of observers. I’m sure it looked incredibly callous, but we just didn’t know. We just wanted the pitch cleared so the European Cup Final could start, and grew more agitated with the authorities’ apparent inability to get even that right.
Despite the frenzied scurrying and frantic arm-waving of the assembled legions of arm-banded officials, police and the advance guard of the army, the situation seemed not to change for what felt like an eternity. Their hyperactivity contrasted sharply with the unnatural calm that had settled over the red mass of supporters. With kick-off so close, excitement levels should have been approaching critical. Instead we waited in silence for news, explanation or action, or at least some visible signs of progress. Kick-off, if indeed there was going to be one, would clearly be considerably delayed, opening up the additional complication of probably missing our last train back to Ostend.
A man wearing a Liverpool shirt suddenly appeared on the running track surrounding the pitch, hotly pursued by another supporter. After being chased for nearly half the length of the pitch, he was felled by a brick to the head. The pursuing police seized the chasee –– though not the chaser –– and frogmarched him away with highly visible and almost over-compensatory firmness for their hitherto supine response. Cops chasing fan chasing fan, it was a farce that belonged more to The Benny Hill Show than the European Cup Final.
There would clearly be no football for some time. We decided to move to the back, away from the packed terracing, to find some less competitive oxygen. It also gave us a clearer view of the chaos on the pitch. Two concentric semi-circles of armed police with helmets and riot shields now spanned the entire Liverpool section of the crowd, staring blankly back at us with their backs to the pitch. Whatever had happened, it looked pretty clear where the blame was being apportioned. With all the police attention directed towards us, the Juventus crowd remained a police-free zone. A rhythmic chant rolled out from the Italian masses, thousands of black-and-white flags jigging suddenly into life. One bore the inflammatory message ‘Reds are Animals’. Unless someone had brought a blank flag and felt-tip marker pen in to the stadium with them, ready to tailor a relevant message on the spot according to events as they unfolded, at least one Italian fan had a preconception regarding the English fans opposite them.
A few red flags waved half-heartedly in token, muted response, but by now nobody seemed in the mood. A large electronic scoreboard –– just about the stadium’s only concession to the 20th century –– flashed incomprehensible digital messages, whilst a public address system babbled incessantly and totally unintelligibly. A mood of deep gloom and foreboding pressed down like a heavy, soggy blanket. All we’d looked forward to for so long, built ourselves up for, dissipated into the clammy evening air.
By this time, at the opposite end of the ground, a group of Juventus supporters had got to work dismantling the perimeter fence, but the police, preoccupied with staring at us, either didn’t notice or didn’t care. A group broke through and swarmed over the mangled debris of the fence. Another roar rolled from the Italian end as a group of 40 or 50 began to charge round the running track towards our end. (See photo page 79.) We watched with mild bemusement. A crowd of 15,000 does not feel threatened by 40 or 50 potential attackers, but the evening was becoming more surreal by the minute. It was tempting to shout a pantomime-style “Behind you!” to the police, who steadfastly refused to switch their expressionless gaze from us as the Italians grew ever closer behind them. Some of the Italians wore scarves bearing the Ultras’ skull-and-crossbones insignia, pulled cowboy-style over the mouth and nose.
When they reached the seated Liverpool section they came to a halt and began hurling stones, coins, cans, even a metal waste bin into the packed seating. The response from the Liverpool supporters was immediate, and a random assortment of debris (including the returning waste bin) arced from the stand towards the Italians on the running track, who scattered to ironic jeers as the bin crashed to earth and bounced amongst them like a loose firework.
Most of the police continued to ignore the entertainment from a distance of no more than twenty yards away, but eventually one or two began to take a mild interest, tilting their heads ever so slightly away from us and towards the skirmish behind them on the running track. A detachment finally broke away and another half-hearted cartoon-style chase ensued, to get the errant Italians back down the running track to their allotted territory, accompanied by jeers of derision. The Olympic 4 x 100 Police Chasing Fans event. Lane discipline was poor.
By now, large sections of the perimeter fence at the Juventus end of the ground were under assault. No longer able to ignore the growing disorder, a large contingent of police was despatched towards it from somewhere within the bowels of the stadium. Dressed in curious blue overalls and helmets, they looked more like armed plumbers than crime fighters as they marched purposefully towards the Italians, to more ironic cheers from Liverpool’s supporters. They were immediately bombarded with debris –– there was now plenty of it lying around –– by the Italian fans and, seriously undermanned, they mounted a swift and decisive retreat.
The apparent timidity of the Dyno-Rod police seemed to further encourage the Italian fans, who this time mounted a major pitch incursion; with many hundreds now on the pitch behind the goal and around the penalty area. More reinforcements arrived, with what seemed like divisions of militia marching formally and grandly into the stadium, only to be stricken by the same lethargy and indecision that afflicted their colleagues. The battle waged on as the rest of us watched on, totally bemused yet bizarrely entertained by this degeneration through anarchy towards farce. There was still no sign of the football, and we still didn’t know what had happened or why there was this interminable delay in getting the game started. It was clear something major had gone wrong, but we still had no idea what.
© Chris Rowland and Paul Tomkins