Continuing the series that looks at those thankfully rare times in football history when fans went to a football match but never made it home afterwards.
On 11th May 1985, 56 fans had died and hundreds more were injured when a wooden stand caught fire during a match between Bradford City and Lincoln City. If that tragedy involving English football fans was the result of a hopelessly outdated infrastructure and inadequate safety conditions, the second that occurred less than three weeks later was entirely man-made.
At the end of the 1984 -1 985 season, arguably the two best teams in the world at the time, Liverpool and Juventus, were set to meet in the European Cup final.
UEFA decided that the match should be staged at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels despite the fact that it was ageing and poor maintenance had compromised its structural integrity. It later transpired officials signed-off on it as a choice of venue after just a 30-minute inspection visit.
Both clubs had a substantial hooligan element at the time, and there had been warnings that there could be trouble between the two sets of fans. Yet, despite this, there was no significantly increased presence.
The original intention was to allow fans from each club one end of the ground, with the rest of the stands reserved for neutrals. However, at the Liverpool end, their fans were given only two stands, with neutrals taking the other. UEFA, though, in a major ticketing blunder, allowed various Italian travel agencies to sell tickets to this neutral stand, and they were naturally snapped up by Juventus supporters.
It meant that the two sets of fans were separated only by a weak barrier, with just eight local policemen tasked with maintaining order. Flares and bottles were exchanged and then stones, which were in plentiful supply because of the crumbling nature of the stands.
Then an hour before kick-off, large numbers of Liverpool fans, many of them armed with knives and batons, broke through the barrier and stormed the Juventus supporters. The Italian fans, which included women and children, panicked and tried to flee via the perimeter wall at the end of their stand. The wall was not made to withstand such pressure and gave way under the crush.
People were trampled underfoot and a several were buried under the stones.
39 Juventus fans lost their lives and 600 more were injured.
Incredibly, the game was allowed to go on, even though it was clear there had been a tragedy. For the record, Juventus won the match through a penalty, although that was largely incidental in the wider scheme of things.
In the aftermath, English clubs were banned from European football for five years – a decision that was to prove seriously detrimental to the standard of the game in the county for years – and Liverpool were given an extra year’s ban.
14 Liverpool fans were jailed on a variety of charges, including manslaughter and it forced the Football Association to finally address the issue of hooliganism.
Sadly, within four years, Liverpool fans would find themselves caught up in an even bigger disaster.
Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.