Peter Robinson on Heysel
IN 1985 Liverpool Football Club’s chief executive Peter Robinson was one of the most respected officials in the game.
Here, in a rare interview, he gives an exhaustive account of events before and after Heysel.
And he reveals how Liverpool repeatedly warned the game in Belgium was a recipe for disaster – but how the warnings were totally ignored.
IN February that year UEFA chose Heysel as the venue for the final. When we were playing the semi-final in Greece against Panathinaikos the Belgian Football Association rang Anfield and spoke to my secretary and called for an urgent meeting.
“I asked for a joint meeting between the police and two clubs.
“Close to the day of the final I went to Belgium to pick up tickets for the game, when we saw the allocations for each team and made a brief visit to the stadium.
“UEFA rules were such that both clubs should have 50% and we – Liverpool and Juventus – were given 14,500 each.
“I was immediately concerned that the neutral area was in the middle of the Liverpool tickets and expressed concern that if those tickets fell into the hands of Juventus supporters it was a recipe for problems.
“I asked why we couldn’t have a complete end. But they were adamant the outlined system was the only way they could comply with UEFA regulations.
“Anyway the tickets were already in their boxes. There was no way they were going to change things.
“The previous year, for the final in Rome, the clubs, Liverpool and Roma, had an input about ticketing.
“We had experience about European finals as we’d been in four of them.
“Then we were taken to the ground. It was a terribly wet, blowy afternoon. We were shown the dressing rooms and executive areas.
“I asked to go out onto the ground and we looked at the fan divisions – which were little more than a chicken fence.
“They said they were well used to handling large crowds and said ticket sales had been totally controlled in Belgium.
“Zone M was also supposed to be neutral. But it was largely made up of Italian fans. I asked to switch ends with the Italian fans to have the complete end.
“I went back to Merseyside with great reservations, particularly concerned about the neutral section.
“We met with the General Secretary and Assistant General Secretary of the Belgian FA and expressed concern about the sale of alcohol. We were told its sale would be stopped around the ground on the day. On May 29th, that didn’t happen.
“During the build-up we started to get concerned about stories in the English press about counterfeit tickets in Italy.
“And there appeared to be a serious black market.
“In fact Liverpool FC was offered tickets from agents who appeared to have a large number of black market tickets to give to the club.
“The Friday before the game I went to Brussels to pick up the VIP tickets and bring the European Cup back. While I was there the hotel seemed to be full of Italians. There was not a spread of fans.
“I arranged all our tickets to be stamped with the LFC stamp. So if someone had one without it, it was known it wasn’t genuine.
“The Belgian FA didn’t take notice of that. When I got back to Merseyside I contacted John Smith, LFC chairman, and expressed my grave concerns. And John, who was also chairman of the Sports Council, spoke to government Sports Minister Neil McDonald who arranged for a Telex (it was a time before emails) to be sent to the Belgian and English FAs and his counterpart in Belgium.
“It expressed our concerns about reports about counterfeit tickets and asked would they ensure UEFA rules and regulations?
“That was sent two days before the game.
“Nobody ever replied.
“I went to Heysel on the evening of the game. I stood along with John Smith on the running track and it was immediately obvious the so-called neutral zone was filling up regularly with Italians.
“All you could see was Italians. Along came the General Secretary of UEFA and I voiced my concerns in a very loud manner.
“We were assured that zone should be neutral and that lots of Italians live in Brussels and had bought tickets.
“It seemed a totally unsatisfactory reply.
“It was 6.45pm by this stage. I stayed out there and along came Gunther Schneider, UEFA’s official observer.
“I knew him as he’d been the observer at Anfield on a couple of occasions. By this time the stadium was very noisy.
“I drew his attention to the two sets of supporters and the lack of any police on the dividing line.
“Something needed to be done – and done quickly. He couldn’t do anything and then he went on his way.
“It was out of hand, out of control.
“Then we heard a crack when the wall came down. We were just 50 yards away and you could see people were very badly injured. At that time, we didn’t know there had been deaths. We were moved on by the stewards.
“It must be said people didn’t lose their lives because of the wall, but rather the crush barriers collapsed and people were trampled.
“It was very similar to what happened at the Ibrox disaster in 1971 when 66 people were killed
“When the wall fell the fans fled and headed for the corner as it appeared to be the only way out and there was a great crush.
“The crash barriers went and people were tumbling on top of each other.
“I was in the stand that night, not the official area. At 9pm I made my way to the area where the disaster occurred.
“I tried to speak to a group of Liverpool fans. Some explained the problems – the total lack of control...people had tickets which hadn’t been torn in half.
“Then a group of men descended on me and said their tickets were from the black market. But they wouldn’t show me them.
“They had strong southern accents and they suddenly turned aggressive and started chanting ‘Shankly’.
“That was strange as Bill Shankly hadn’t been our manager for 12 years.
“It was well documented at that time that members of the National Front went to matches. And it was very odd to me this group should be here.
“They were quite vicious and we had to move on. It was not a good experience.”
“I wasn’t happy about the match being played. But at a meeting it was decided it was the only way of getting the security forces they needed.
“After the game I went back on the terraces to take another look.
“I spent 45 minutes with John Smith and the club solicitor Tony Ensor.
“We looked at the lack of turnstiles, the slate and pieces of concrete torn off and thrown.
“It was a sorry sight.
“We went back to the ground the following morning and gave a short press conference on the terraces.
“We expressed our regret and condolence to the Italians.
“The stadium wasn’t right to stage a game of that size. It was 50 years old, built in the 1930s.
“It would not have got a ground licence in England at that time.”
Amid the tragedy, with the world spotlight on Liverpool, the work for officials at Anfield was only just beginning.
Peter said: “We, LFC, were a relatively small organisation. There were no press officers and we had foreign journalists coming over to visit Liverpool.
“We actually had a close friendship with Juventus as we’d played them in the Supercup in the previous January.
“UEFA imposed a sentence that Liverpool would be suspended from European competitions for three years after English clubs had been allowed back in.
“Juventus were told to play two games behind closed doors and Belgium was banned from staging a final of a European competition for 10 years.
“We didn’t think that our three year ban after English clubs were let in was fair, particularly when all the evidence came to light.
“An independent inquiry in Belgium found that Liverpool was in no way to blame. The main blame lay with the Belgian FA and security.
“In the end English clubs were banned from Europe for six years and we one year longer. We didn’t serve that extra three years.
“We thought what happened might have an effect on the club. But we didn’t know the consequences with regard to the loss of season ticket sales.
“We decided we had to maintain a top team. We’d made a lot savings and we looked to increase those where we could.
“We’d just joined Adidas on a much improved contract so we didn’t need to sell any players and were able to maintain the team and experience success in domestic football.
“I still have my connections with Juventus.
“In the summer of 1987 and 1989 I arranged for three daughters of one senior Juventus official to come to Liverpool and they went on training courses here.
“For the investigation we offered our cooperation with police as we had a record of where every one of our 14,5000 tickets went.
“But nobody came and wanted that information from us.
“Liverpool had taken part in high profile finals in Italy and London and we’d taken large numbers of fans to all those venues.
“If that final had happened at any other ground, other than Heysel, the tragedy would not have occurred.”
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