The 29th of May is a date that symbolizes the best and worst of what it means to be a football supporter. On the one hand, it’s the anniversary of one of European football’s most infamous disasters, but on the other it’s the anniversary of the fermentation of a revolt which would lead to one of one of the game’s great stories of rebirth – one which shows the potential of football supporters to reclaim their game from the people that want to take it away from them.
There was something almost inevitable about the Heysel Stadium disaster, which occurred before the European Cup Final in 1985. Violence at matches involving English clubs had been increasingly exponentially for over a decade, and just two and a half weeks before the match, the Bradford Fire had shown up what could happen in a patently unsafe stadium, whilst the death of an innocent boy at a match between Birmingham City & Leeds United had demonstrated that hooliganism could be fatal.
There are plenty enough articles about Heysel on the internet, so I’ll spare you all too much detail on that subject. The causes and aftermath, however, as well as the long term effects, warrant some closer inspection. Much has been made of events in Rome the year before, when Roma supporters attacked Liverpool supporters after the 1984 European Cup Final, and some elements in the media propagated the rumour that hooligan firms from all over England had set aside their difference to congregate and settle some scores, but this has largely been discredited. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Liverpool’s supporters had probably the best reputation of any English club in Europe – not that this was saying much, though. Also, the atmosphere in Brussels that day had been largely good humoured. There is no definitive explanation for how it started – who threw what, first – and it isn’t something that is even important. What we do know, though, is that Liverpool supporters charged, supporters in Section Z (where tickets had been sold primarily to neutrals), and the largely neutral and Italian supporters retreated into a corner. Forced against a wall, the wall collapsed, and thirty-nine people were killed.
The issue of whether the match should have been played or not is one that is a moot one. Of course the obvious decision would have been to announce over the tannoy that nearly forty people are dead, none of the players want to play, and the best thing for everybody to do would be to piss off home and think very long and very hard about what has happened tonight. That said, though, the authorities were fully aware of how little the police had been able to exert any sort of control in one corner of the stadium, and would have been rightly concerned about things spiralling completely out of control had the match been cancelled. The match itself was played in a strange, catatonic state. There is no question that the foul in Zbigniew Boniek that led to the winning penalty scored by Michel Platini not a penalty, but that is not the issue. More questionable was the decision of the Juventus players to celebrate. I’ve been watching the post-match celebrations this evening, trying to detect hints of sadness over the events that they must have been aware of. The best that I can muster on this subject is that there can be no accounting for people’s reaction to tragedy.
So, the causes, then. Looking back with as dispassionate an eye as is possible, it seems to be a combination of, well, everything. It’s impossible, watching film footage of it, to exonerate Liverpool’s supporters in any way. That they charged into Section Z is not in any question. There is more at play to it than merely this, though. The Heysel Stadium itself was in an advanced state of disrepair. The crush barriers on the terrace had crumbled away to the internal reinforced steel rods, and were utterly incapable of withstanding any sort of pressure. The wall that collapsed itself was incorrectly built – the peers that supported it were built the wrong way around, so the wall was thus also unable to cope with any sort of pressure. The supporters were separated by nothing more than chicken wire, which again was hopelessly ill-equipped for what it was required to do. The terraces were strewn with lumps of rock and concrete, which were perfect to be used as missiles. It is not an exoneration of those that rioted to say that the match should never have been played at Heysel. Also, the Brussels police investigation into the tragedy established that there were relatively few police inside the stadium because of police intelligence from England stating that a large police presence inside the stadium would make problems even worse. When it became apparent that this was largely an irrelevance, though, the two-way radios required to get more police into the stadium weren’t working. Also, complaints from the local emergency services regarding how ill-prepared they were to cope if anything went wrong had been ignored. The only conclusion that one can rationally arrive at is that more everybody concerned with the whole sorry spectacle some degree of culpability for what happened. Even those charged with manslaughter were released, having served their sentences whilst awaiting trial.
It took Hillsborough for the changes that needed to be made to the game to come to pass. The football authorities, to their eternal shame, tried a policy of containment that ended in the deaths of a further 96 people in 1989. The effects on the pitch were long term, but largely irrelevant. English clubs had this sort of ban coming, and the national team were lucky to escape a similar punishment after incidents abroad throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t much care for the fact that it took the clubs so long to catch up in European competitions. In 1985, would simply not have been appropriate for English teams to be playing in Europe the following season.
On the 29th of May 2002, the future looked pretty bleak for the supporters of Wimbledon FC. The FA’s three man committee had been sold by Charles Koppel and Peter Winkleman’s extraordinary argument that uprooting a football club that was over 100 years old from its home to a new town sixty miles away was the way that the game should be run. The committee, in its summing up, famously said that: “resurrecting the Club from its ashes as, say, “Wimbledon Town” is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to the position the Club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football”. The following evening, at Wimbledon Community Centre, the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association held their annual general meeting – the minutes of which can be seen here. Five years on, AFC Wimbledon are still playing in front of average crowds of over 2,000 people, have a new manager, and have recently taken on Marcus Gayle, their former striker, to lead their attack for next season. The bitter memory of their recent defeat in the Ryman League play-offs will be short in the memory. Onwards and upwards, and happy birthday to all of them.