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Day of Tragedy, Decades of Denial

By Peter Fearon :  27/12/2007 :  Comments (9) :

Normally, the Heysel stadium disaster and its tragic aftermath would have no place on these pages, devoted as they are to all things Everton. The issue was raised recently in an apparently offensive manner, however, and there was an appropriately vocal response.

But the lessons of Heysel are very important today — primarily because Liverpool and its fans have never learned them. Before we all get misty-eyed about lovable kopites and the ‘good old days’ of ‘friendly rivalry,’ it’s as well to remember a few things about the Heysel stadium disaster, unpalatable though some of them are.

The first is, of course, that other than the victims themselves, and for a variety of reasons, Everton and Everton fans paid the greatest price for what happened at Heysel and that could happen again. Secondly, neither Liverpool FC, nor Liverpool’s fans as a group, nor any individual Liverpool fans have ever accepted responsibility for what happened. Histories of the RSFC portray Liverpool and its fans as victims, not perpetrators at Heysel. There was even an attempt — rightly ridiculed — to claim maverick fans from other British clubs with even worse reputations for hooliganism were actually responsible.

Some 14 Liverpool fans were eventually brought to trial in Belgium for manslaughter and after a protracted and farcical legal circus, given wrist slap sentences and freed pending appeal. When those appeals failed, most were never re-extradited. Nobody served the serious prison time you would expect for actions leading to the deaths of 39 people, including, incidentally, an 11 year-old boy. If the dead at Heysel had been English and the perpetrators Italian we would have been rightly outraged by the eventual outcome and it would remain a source if anger today. Instead, few people I know even remember there was a trial.

Unless you believe hundreds of Juventus fans ran headlong to their deaths from 14 aled-up kopites, you have to accept that there are other people out there who call themselves Liverpool fans who are responsible for the deaths of the Heysel victims and who have never been brought to justice. Liverpool FC fought a successful campaign to spread the blame for Heysel as thinly as possible — among hooligans in general, Juventus fans, the victims, UEFA for choosing a dilapidated stadium, the authorities at the stadium, the Belgian police for not knowing how to deal with thousands of drunken RS fans etc. etc. anybody but Liverpool FC and its followers. On the 20th anniversary, Liverpool even ran a successful PR effort focusing on friendship and closure. Not redemption, naturally, because responsibility has never been accepted so redemption isn’t necessary.

Heysel was soon eclipsed in the public consciousness by Hillsborough and Bradford.

So why is this tragic chapter in football’s and Merseyside’s history of interest more than 20 years later? The fact is that another Heysel could happen at any time. Just last May Liverpool fans showed their usual colours at the European Cup Final at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, buying forged tickets, storming gates and turnstiles and so on. This appeared in The Times after the final:

“Police in riot gear had to use teargas and batons to repel a group of fans who had tried to storm a gate. At about the same time, closer to the stadium, a group of 500 fans also tried to charge their way through a gate. The police there responded by simply shutting the gates, although they were forced to let a few fans through when the crush became dangerous.

Many of them did clearly succeed in getting in illegally because the Liverpool end last night was packed to the point where many feared it was becoming dangerous. The police were aware of a vast excess of bodies in the lower tier."

Certainly Liverpool fans are not the only supporters prone to violence and misbehavior. Far from it. The point is it is not a stretch to say that another disaster could happen again. Papering over the causes of previous disasters is a good way of ensuring history repeats itself.

Everton — whose Cup Winners Cup Final appearance in Rotterdam days before Heysel went flawlessly — are currently making a European comeback. Quite apart from the human tragedy implicit in another disaster of the scale of Heysel or Hillsborough, I would hate to see Everton’s future in Europe jeopardized a second time because the lessons of earlier tragedies have to be relearned by another generation of Liverpool fans.

Reader Comments

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Ed Fitzgerald
1   Posted 29/12/2007 at 05:09:11

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Your first line says it all it really does have no place on an Everton website. But I will take the chance of being labelled a Kopite apologist and at least try to counter some of your argument. You say that after the victims who died and their families it was Everton fans who suffered most? Our aspirations certainly did suffer and it was very unfair to Evertonians who did behave well in Rotterdam (I remember I was there, well sort of remember) and this did put our club back and yes this makes me angry. You claim that we must not get misty eyed and misled about our relationship with Liverpool supporters so please do not look through Azure ?tinted glasses over the behaviour of Evertonians both at home and abroad. We are far from perfect as I am sure you are aware, this was confirmed to me when the first phone call home after the AZ game began with ?were you caught up in the trouble? so I take some Evertonians were involved in a fracas of some sort. The fact is that the vast majority of Blues would not get involved in trouble as do the vast majority of supporters of all football clubs.
Liverpool Football Club got off lightly I agree and their shabby approach to the whole affair does them no credit. Yes those who were directly involved should have received greater punishment and the protracted trial was a joke. Lets be honest however not all the Juventus fans were exactly innocent (I seem to remember seeing some prick waving a gun about at the match?). However the vast majority of football supporters that day simply went to watch their team regardless of nationality and were caught up by the mindless behaviour of a significant minority. When we chant murderers at Liverpool fans I assume we do this to wind them up, or to release the bitterness that we feel at missing out on having a crack at the European Cup. Whatever the reason it does us (Evertonians) no favours as the vast majority of the Kopites had no part of what happened at Heysel. It does not paint a particularly gratifying picture of Evertonians does it? Would you swap their success since 1985 for the shame of Heysel and the tragedy of Hillsborough (I would not)
You concede that
Certainly Liverpool fans are not the only supporters prone to violence and misbehaviour. Far from it.
Yes their some of their supporters behaved poorly in Athens, but the behaviour of knobhead fans from any of the British clubs could jeopardize further European adventures. Both Man U and Spurs fans have been involved in trouble and as for followers of certain Italian clubs their behaviour has been disgraceful. That?s the point isn?t it does no matter where you are from, it?s were you?re at. To label and taunt all Liverpool fans as murderers does us no favours as to the outside world we are all from the same place. I love taking the piss out of the reds and laughing at their misfortunes but it makes me uncomfortable to call people who are friends, family and colleagues murderers. It?s a chant that lacks class, humour and intelligence (like the Munich Chant) and demeans those who sing it more than those it is being aimed at.
You say that Heysel was eclipsed in the public consciousness by Bradford this would be difficult as Bradford fire occurred on the 11th of May and Heysel was on the 29th of the same month. It is not surprising that this was foremost in the UK consciousness as 56 people died and it happened on British soil (this always makes a difference, doesn?t it?) A famous manager once inferred that football is more important than life and death, but we all know that?s not true.
A quick trawl through statistics about major incidents at football matches world wide reveals that over 1250 people have lost their life watching football since 1946 ? not more important to them or their families I suspect
So please let?s have some perspective I am sure Everton?s adventure in Europe can continue as long as we maintain our sparkling football. I am confident our well behaved fans can continue to support our club wherever with good humour, passion and respect for the places we may visit. We do have an opportunity to do a good PR job for our club and our city both of which need all the help they can get to counter the negative stereotyping I encounter on my travels around the UK. Let?s forget about the other lot from over the park and concentrate on supporting the best team we have had in years!

Greg Murphy
2   Posted 29/12/2007 at 09:28:03

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Notwithstanding the erroneous reference to the Valley Parade fire eclipsing Heysel (we stood impeccably with the Mancs for the Bradford minute’s silence ahead of the Whiteside final) it’s a fair piece Peter, although I dispute that talking about the events in Brussels has no place on an Everton website. That only aids revisionism in my book.

Ed Fitz - your reference to the "murderers" chants. Spot-on. I’m 41 and I truly cringe when I hear 20-year-olds spit this one out (to the likes of Diouf and Anelka on Boxing Day ffs!). It’s obvious that they’ve been handed down a skewed version of Heysel (which is exactly why it should not be a taboo subject for either Blues or Reds to discuss) and the bile that emerges from their ill-informed gobs is totally out-of-synch with how Evertonians who were around at the time actually responding to Heysel. It really angers me.

Here’s why (shorter link follows to "The Red Shirt Diaries", blog of Liverpool Echo LFC reporter, Tony Barrett; archived in August 2007 following Rhys Jones’ death with the precise context being the playing of Z Cars at Anfield, a gesture which Barrett was solely responsible for).

Ed Fitzgerald
3   Posted 29/12/2007 at 09:57:52

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Thats a fair point it is a viable topic for discussion and peters post is mostly reasonable. Sadly the last article that touched on this topic Mancs Vs Kopites (I think) did not attract the most lucid of posts from Blues who seemed so bitter that their hatred of Liverpool seemed to have clouded thier mind to any reason.
Nick Toye
4   Posted 29/12/2007 at 11:15:27

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I was there on Boxing Day and I heard the chants of Murderers. I couldn’t say if it was from 20 year olds or 50 year olds. But even if the tale was handed down from an older member, is that any different than people who born in the 60’s being taught about the atrocities of the war?

I’m not saying they are right, I mean they are accusing ex-Liverpool players of being murderers, that’s not really on as we know. But that’s the mentality of the football fan.

I hate what Liverpool fans did, not the players, the fans. It was terrible and is a disgrace that nothing was brought to task over it. But we have to remember that back then, there was trouble in many grounds, Chelsea v Millwall, Leeds v Birmingham?

Its also worth noting that Liverpool fans and Everton are from the same seed, grew up on the same streets. The difference is that Liverpool are the media darlings and seem to literally get away with murder. That isn’t Liverpool’s fault, its not the players or the club, its the media and how they portray Liverpool.

Perhaps if Hillsborough never happened - Liverpool would not have got as much media sympathy and Heysel may not have been forgotten so easily. Seems the rest of the media are behaving the exact opposite to the Sun paper.
Steve Williams
5   Posted 29/12/2007 at 12:52:01

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Everton lost much more than the opportunity of representing the Country in Europe’s premier competition for the few years after Rotterdam; we lost our opportuinity for global recognition. The RS had already established an international reputation and following, giving them the opportunity of increased revenue streams (we have really only seen the importance of this in the SKY dominated era as the rich have got richer and the others feed on scraps). We were just starting on this path after 15 years of stagnation. If we have been allowed to develop, particularly in Europe, then it is absolutely certain that we would be in a much healthier state now. Remember, Bobby Charlton has always been vocal that Everton were the ones that suffered (in football terms) for the terrible actions of a sizable minority that night in Belgium, and he is a very well respected independent observer.

I can therefore well understand those who chant ’Murderers’ - it is their way of pouring out the hurt and inate sense of injustice resulting from us being punished for someone else’s crime! Perhaps if the RS had done the honourable thing and held theirs hands up, accepted the blame and apologised then we wouldn’t even be having this debate now - but, and this is the point, they haven’t and have never shown any inclination to do so. But there you go - NO HONOUR at ANFIELD!

Incidentally, I have a totally different view of Munich. Those scum (not fans) who chant those vile insults to the air crash victims should be routed out and banned from our support we really don’t want them.
Ed Fitzgerald
6   Posted 29/12/2007 at 15:04:49

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You are very harsh indeed not all football fans have the same mentality are you saying that all Liverpool fans are the same and are therefore culpable for the actions of a relatively small number of dickheads. Yes there was trouble at lots of grounds including saintly evertonians who never courted any violence but conducted themselves with a cheery demeanour (HO, HO, HO it is Xmas after all so lets spin some more myths)
Read the link the Greg Murphy supplied for an accurate, honest account of the relationship between the two clubs. A brilliant post Greg by the way, thanks for the link. It should be on this site as well!
Peter Fearon
7   Posted 29/12/2007 at 19:22:09

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Ed Fitzgerald, there’s nothing in what you say I wouldn’t agree with. I have never subscribed to chanting ’murderers’ and did not defend it in my post. As for the Bradford reference, that was clumsily worded. I meant that people generally set aside Heysel more quickly and tended more to remember Hillsborough and Bradford. I also agree that not every Evertonian is impeccably behaved away from home. However, my overall point is that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Liverpool fans have not learned from the shameful aspects of their history.
Peter Fearon
8   Posted 29/12/2007 at 19:22:09

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Ed Fitzgerald, there’s nothing in what you say I wouldn’t agree with. I have never subscribed to chanting ’murderers’ and did not defend it in my post. As for the Bradford reference, that was clumsily worded. I meant that people generally set aside Heysel more quickly and tended more to remember Hillsborough and Bradford. I also agree that not every Evertonian is impeccably behaved away from home. However, my overall point is that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Liverpool fans have not learned from the shameful aspects of their history.
Glen Strachan
9   Posted 30/12/2007 at 05:29:42

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My sadness in this whole episode surrounds the fact that I have never been aware of any remorse from Liverpool Football Club nor have their supporters made any significant apology for these killings.

It is tripe to label comment about Heysel in the same bracket as Bradford and Ibrox and Munich and the Turin air disaster .

The others were tragic accidents but Heysel was a cold gratuitous attack on fans who were simply there to watch a game of football and nobody should try to re-write history to paint Heysel as a fight between opposing hooligans which was somehow ?won? by the Liverpool thugs.

A friend of mine lost his father that day and nobody , to this day , has ever offered him an apology.

To his great credit he shrugs that off as human nature at its worst and just as many parents and partners of murder victims somehow find a way to forgive the murderer , he has done this and moves on with his life although he has never gone to a football ground anywhere since the worst day in his life.

Please don?t betray this fine man by suggesting that his father?s death was some kind of accident .

That would truly twist the knife.

As another year begins , instead of adjudicating criticisms of the damned maybe all of the Christians among us could consider lighting candles on New Year?s Eve to remember the victims of a terrible crime who never made it home.

RIP.................The Heysel 39.

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