We took a Wednesday afternoon off work to be at Anfield to queue early, to get in for the European Cup Semi-Final. Our opponents were Panathinaikos, the Greek champions. Imagine that these days, paying on the gate for a Euro Semi!! What time would you need to get there? Of course, it wouldn’t happen and thankfully many other events around this time wouldn’t happen as well.
We were one of the early ones onto the Kop, around 5.30pm-ish if my memory serves me right and a short wait whilst the ground filled up to capacity around us. We couldn’t risk leaving it any later was our thinking; we had to be in that ground that night.
Not a Greek tragedy
The Reds of course progressed into another European Cup Final after an easy win over the Greek side (who had a noisy following), winning 3-0 at home and then 1-0 in the 2nd leg over in Greek capital of Athens. Juventus awaited us in the 1985 final, which was scheduled to take place in the Belgium capital of Brussels a few weeks later.
We decided to take the official trip by train from Lime Street and ferry from Dover to Ostend, followed by a further train into Brussels itself. I can’t remember how much it was (or if any loyalty was needed for final tickets) but I’m sure I scrapped the money together because I was only a year out of school and on first year apprentice’s wages. It was also likely that the old Grandad dropped me a quid or two to help me on the way.
A passport was also needed. I wasn’t exactly Michael Palin in those days, so a one year one was adequate and it didn’t eat further into my Belgian beer budget.
Belgium here we come
Five of us went together. There was me, my mate and his girlfriend, and another mate and his Dad. We got the train into Lime Street armed with my big ‘Liverpool Are Magic’ banner (which incidentally ended up in the Kemlyn Road Stand after Hillsborough and the flowers on the pitch) and some hidden alcohol for the long journey south.
We boarded the special and my friend’s girlfriend got royally ruined by loads on board because she had a blue top on. Not a football top or anything, just a royal blue top, as in Everton blue. Now, who goes to a European Cup Final dressed in blue.
Sayers, the local baking company (think Gregg’s) had kindly donated a little picnic box for each passenger. I say donated but it was probably in the price. It would at least be a start and help to keep away starvation, on what seemed a marathon trip ahead of us and probably a case of sleep deprivation.
Along with the food box on the 17.25pm Lime Street to Dover train was a printed letter signed by both the then manager Joe Fagan and captain Phil Neal. It wished us good luck on the journey, thanked us for our support and had the spine chilling line stating ‘We don’t have to remind you that any serious outbreaks of hooliganism could cost the Club a place in Europe’. Little did they know what lied ahead.
We arrived in Dover for the night ferry to Ostend, which was of course full of reds and numerous banners hanging around the boat (or is it a ship?). I say night ferry because it was at night and very dark but it was only about 4 hours and I only had an outside bench for my bed of sorts and my banner for warmth. I could also get away from the two love birds for a couple of hours as well, who had been touchy feely all the way down, even though a chill wind was blowing across the channel.
I must have had a dodgy Sayers or my sea legs were all at sea but a mad dash to the toilet was necessary. I won’t go into detail but my fellow Red passengers were far from pleased. Maybe it just the excitement of a European Cup Final in the offering.
Off the boat at Ostend and we got herded onto a train to Brussels. It was that sort of trains that had their own compartments but the train was heaving full of tired reds. It was like a flashback to the train specials the club used to put on years before.
What strikes me straight away is that Belgium is flat. For miles you can see fields after fields and pretty much nothing all else. No wonder it’s called the lowlands. We past the time trying to catch a power snooze (where they invented then?) or sing a song or two, mainly about winning the European Cup again or about how shit Man United were.
Into Brussels and the sun is shining in the bright blue sky. We spend the afternoon drinking beer in the Grand Place, with a quick look round the surrounding area. The Manneken Pis, the famous landmark of a little boy having a pee with nothing on (strange these Belgium people or are they Flemish or German) had numerous red scarves round him and a nice bobble hat on top.
The square rapidly fills up but (and I comment to my mate) even that early in the day, things are not quite right and the square is filled with numerous accents (strange in those days) and St George flags and England shirts. It wasn’t everyone but just enough to question about a different mix of fans being onboard the reds bandwagon.
Late afternoon and we hop onto a tram to take us the Heysel district and near to the Atomium (that construction that looks like some silver balls, with walkways between. I told you they were strange) and the ground.
The tram we got was heavily in favour of Juventus in numbers but plenty of good banter is had and I exchange a Liverpool scarf for a Juve hat (which I still have somewhere in the house). The Italians were quite boisterous on the short journey out of the city centre and singing songs (in Italian of course), one of which the tune remains with me until this day.
My mate (and his girlfriend) wanted to go for a trip round the Atomium, so a half hour or so is wasted in that sweat box that seems to serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Not sure if it was because I was younger then but it just didn’t appeal to me – put it this way I’ve never been back after numerous visits to Brussels.
The ground is not sound
Off to round the ground and the first thing that strikes me is how out of date the outside looks. A programme is purchased from the shop and we make our way round to our entrance area, with very little security/police in attendance. The sun is shining so we relax and await gates opening, with the sound of horns in the air, which I’m sure they all ran out before the ground even opened.
A mate of mine (who lived near me but didn’t travel with me) comes staggering round the corner absolutely blind drunk, in just shorts and trainers and he mumbles something about losing his passport and money. I hook him back up with the gang he travelled with and he must have made it home because I saw him a few weeks later, a little less pissed.
Gates open and flags are put up around the perimeter fence. I say perimeter fence but to the left of us, in the now notorious block Z, it was almost like chicken wire. I’m sure anyone without a ticket that night had no trouble getting into the ground. Concrete slabs that made up the surrounding wall were easily removed and anyone who wanted to get in, did.
The terracing was also a joke for a match of this stature, it was crumbling for god sake. The atmosphere was tense but nobody could have predicted the events that happened next. What started as a bit of banter between the sets of fans grew and grew from verbal, to missile throwing, to finally charges at the chicken wire, which didn’t take long to come down.
The immense pressure in the so called neutral zone (full of Juventus fans it looked) with the small but vicious band of so called Liverpool fans (I say so called) charging them repeatedly. The police did next to nothing to stop it all. We also had the Italian’s coming from the other end to further antagonise the volatile situation, with one Juventus fan with what looked like a pistol or starting gun of some sort.
The fans in block Z had nowhere to go and with the mighty pressures involved, the wall at that side of the ground collapsed. There were rumours of some casualties but nothing confirmed (in the days before mobile phones) and we were mainly kept in the dark. Rumours of the game being cancelled went around our end but after appeals from Phil Neal, etc.
The game went ahead with Juventus winning from a highly dubious penalty but who cared. That penalty, converted by Michel Platini, was celebrated by Platini in what now looks like a badly timed action on his part.
A muted journey home
The idea we had was to get back to the trains as quick as possible because if the rumours turned out to be true, further serious trouble was inevitable and we didn’t want to be around to witness it.
The journey home was very quiet and seemed to take twice as long than it actually did in reality. Herded on to a train from Brussels to Ostend, ferry to Dover and then train back to Lime Street for the connection home. A pretty uneventful journey but the full news of the dreadful night in Brussels had started to filter through.
It was only when we arrived back home that the full story hit us and the full impact hit the English games for many years to come. I actually promised my girlfriend (future wife) that I wouldn’t go again. Not sure if I meant abroad watching the Reds or even ever watching them again anywhere but that promise was soon to be broken. Even now I’m preparing for a trip to Kiev and the Champions League Final.
The bright sunshine had really turned into a dark, dark night for English football and Liverpool FC in particular.
I felt a number of emotions over the years, from guilt to sadness. Guilt because I was a Liverpool fan that night. Sadness because nobody should go to a football and not come home, back to their loved ones. There is also a lingering feeling of blaming UEFA for selecting such a wreck of a ground to host such a highly prestigious cup final. However, you can’t turn the clock back. My uppermost thoughts are with the families and friends of the deceased. Lessons were learned but yet again, they were learned the hard way.