Our Day of Shame
A Liverpool fan recalls how events spiralled out of control. By Tony Evans at the Sunday Times.
NEVER forgive, never forget. Never understand. On Merseyside, the feelings about the Heysel disaster are as deep as they are confused. The chant above was sung at the derby match last month by Everton fans, many of whom feel that in some way they are the real victims of that dreadful day because their title-winning team could not play in the European Cup the next season. It taunted Liverpool supporters, some of whom still feel that they had nothing to do with the deaths of 39 people on that May night nearly 20 years ago.
“A wall collapsed, that was all.”
I have said it and heard it countless times. Except it is a lie.
There was a moment that day that, more than anything that would happen over the ensuing 24 hours, has haunted me. Our train had just arrived at Jette station and a long column of Liverpool supporters set off downhill towards the centre of Brussels. I lingered and watched them, chequered flags flying, and thought it looked like a medieval army on the move. Above the narrow street, the locals hung out of open windows and watched, half-grinning but nervous. As I set off for the Grand Place, I thought: “We can do what we like today. No one can stop us.”
IT WAS warm and sunny, but there was a dark side to the general mood. It did not need the chequered flags, bought in Rome, to remind anyone about the events in the Italian capital a year before. Then, playing AS Roma in the European Cup final in their own stadium, Liverpool had won the cup but it was not a day remembered with affection. Before the match, scooter gangs has stalked the travelling fans. After the game, Rome erupted in rage, and the bloody events around the Olympic Stadium left everyone who was there — and those who had only heard talk of what happened — determined not to suffer again at the hands of Italian ultras.
“The Italians won’t do that to us again,” was a refrain repeated in the weeks since the semi-final. It was not a matter of revenge. It was a wariness, a fear that built itself up to an enormous rage that would spill out at the slightest perceived provocation.
The anger was palpable, and not just toward Italians. The British media, we felt, had barely reported one of the worst outbreaks of violence in the game’s history. Had it happened to supporters from any other city, there would have been outrage. But Liverpool was out of step with the mood of the country, marginalised and despised. Well, we could fight our own battles.
Turning into a narrow street in the centre of town, my brother and I saw about six Juventus fans in their twenties, lounging outside a café, trying to look cool and hard at the same time. When one looked me straight in the eye, I snarled: “Go on gobshite, say something.” They did not take up the offer. But the tone was set. And the drinking had not even started.
WE WERE used to confrontation, though not necessarily at football matches. The first half of the 1980s was perhaps the city’s lowest point, philosophically and economically. Scousers were labelled as thieves in the press, the city’s working class moved ever leftwards as Margaret Thatcher was fêted and the culture gap between Liverpool and the rest of England was stretched to breaking point.
Many of Liverpool’s travelling fans were politicised, even if only in a loose way. Quite a few of us had battled with police outside at Eddie Shah’s printing plant in Warrington and gravitated towards Militant Tendency. On the ordinary trains the tales were as likely to be about picket lines and Troops Out marches as incidents at football grounds. This was not hooligan culture as popularly imagined.
Where other clubs’ supporters gave themselves butch names and built a myth of organisation and generals, Liverpool and Everton fans mocked the hooligan ethos relentlessly. Read copies of The End, the seminal fanzine of the period, and the picture is clear. Service Crews, Headhunters and their ilk were laughable. The Inter City Firm drew guffaws and was seen not as a force to be admired and feared but as something from a Thatcherite Ealing Comedy. None of those people were present in Brussels, no matter what was said at the time. Hooligans from the far right would not have been welcome.
Of course, this did not mean there was no trouble at our games, just that it evolved in a different manner. When groups of young, aggressive, predominantly working-class men are put in confrontational situations, then there will be confrontation. There was.
THE GRAND PLACE was less tense than might have been expected. Liverpool fans were here in numbers and small groups who had travelled independently met up, felt safe and relaxed into an afternoon of drinking. Clustered around the bars, we sang, bare-chested in the sun. It was almost idyllic. Then the atmosphere started to turn as the drink kicked in.
The common belief was that Belgian beer was weaker than the booze at home. In the heat, young men used to drinking a gallon of weak mild were quaffing strong lagers as if they were lemonade. Small incidents started to mushroom and suddenly the mood changed and the bars began to shut down.By now, there were four of us in our little group. We were reluctant to leave the square because other friends may still be heading for the rendezvous. I went to find some beer, taking a red and white cap to give some protection from the sun. Walking down a narrow street, I saw a group of boys laughing almost hysterically. Seeing my quizzical look, they pointed at a shop. It was a jewellers with no protective grating over the window. All you could do was laugh.
Farther on, I saw a group of Juventus supporters, and one was wearing a black and white sun hat. It would give me more cover in the heat, so I swapped with him. Only he clearly did not want to part with his hat. He had no choice. Sensing danger, he let me have it and looked in disgust at the flimsy thing I’d given him. This was not cultural exchange: this was bullying, an assertion of dominance. I remember strutting away, slowly, the body language letting them know how I felt.
There was a supermarket by the bourse and, at the entrance, there was a Liverpool fan. “You’re Scouse?” he said. There was no need for an answer and he knew what I was there for. “It’s free to us today,” he said, handing me a tray of beer. Things were spinning out of control.
On the way back to the square, the group of Liverpool fans by the jewellers had been replaced by riot police. Glass was scattered all over the street. There was hysteria — and pride — in my laughter. This was turning into an excellent day.
We set off for the ground and there seemed to be more and more small confrontations. On other days the little cultural misunderstandings would end in hugs. Here, with the hair-trigger tempers, it was tears, and we were determined they would not be ours.
AT THE ground there was madness. People were staggering, collapsing, throwing up. A large proportion of Liverpool fans seemed to have lost control. We met a group of mates who had come by coach. A fellow passenger we all knew had leapt off as soon as they arrived and attacked two people, one an Italian, with an iron bar.
Even in a drunk and deranged state, the stadium appalled us. The outer wall was breeze block, and some of the ticketless were kicking holes in its base and attempting to crawl through. Most were getting savage beatings from the riot police, finally making their presence felt. It was easier to walk into the ground and ignore the ticket collector, some of whom were seated at tables — I went home with a complete ticket. Four years later, on another dreadful day, I would enter another ground without needing to show my ticket. It is not just the Belgians whose inefficiency had deadly consequences. Section Y grew more and more crowded and, in front of us, a crush barrier buckled and collapsed.
The rough treatment by the police drew a response and they disappeared from the back of the section after skirmishes. Seeing a policeman beating a young lad who was attempting to climb over the wall and was caught in the barbed wire, I pushed the Belgian away. He turned to hit me and I punched him — not hard — through his open visor. He ran away.
With the police gone, groups of youths swarmed over a snack stand and looted it. I climbed onto the roof, and was passed up cans of soft drinks. It felt like being on top of the world up there.
Back on the terraces there was an exchange of missiles — nothing serious by the standards of the day. We looked enviously at the space in section Z, though. There were too many people in our section. I went to the toilet and, by the time I came back, the fence was down and people were climbing over. Unable to locate my group, I joined the swarm. In section Z I wandered around for a while. There seemed to be very little trouble. People backed away but there were no charges, just a minor scuffle or two.
I climbed back into section Y, oblivious that 39 people were in the process of dying. It was clear that a huge commotion was going on at the front, and we began to get tetchy about the delayed kick-off.
Then there seemed to be a long tirade in Italian over the public address system — someone suggested it was a list of names — and all hell broke loose. Juventus fans came out of their end and came around the pitch and attacked the corner where the Liverpool supporters were standing. My mother, brother and sister were in there. Everyone went crazy. Men tore at the fences to get at the Italians and, at last, the police did an effective job of holding Liverpool fans back. The brother with me said: “If those fences go, football will be finished. There’ll be hundreds dead. It will be over.” Finally, the police drove the Italians back.
The game? I remember nothing. Afterwards? A deep disappointment, a nervousness about Italian knives, and a Belgian policeman whose parting shot at the stadium was to open the doors of a bus, throw in a canister of tear gas, and shut everyone in.
At Ostend it was a passive, depressive struggle through overcrowded departure rooms. No one mentioned deaths and shock ran through the ferry when we heard the news.
AND SO WE limped home, quickly throwing off any shame, repeating the mantra that it was a construction problem, just a wall collapsing, hiding from the scale of what had happened. The disaster has a long causal chain — stabbings and beatings in Rome, hair-trigger tempers, aggression on both sides, excessive drinking, poor policing and a stadium ripe for disaster. Remove any one link and the game may have passed off peacefully. But it didn’t.
So, Evertonians sing, with pathetic self-pity, “Thirty-nine Italians can’t be wrong.” Well they weren’t. We were. I was.
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