The Heysel Stadium Disaster on 30 May 1985 was a terrible event that will never be forgotten. To simply label it a ‘tragedy’ would not be either fitting or accurate, because it was caused solely by human behaviour and error and was avoidable in its entirety. The events of that shameful night have been well documented over the years and many millions of words produced on the bleakest of nights for football.

It is not my proposal to revisit that awful day or to apportion blame – others have done that with far more aplomb than I could ever hope to achieve – but it is instead my intention to look at some of the consequences – both far-reaching and short-term – of Heysel, and to examine in which areas football may have changed.

39 people tragically lost their lives on that balmy spring evening almost three and a half decades ago now, and amongst the initial grief and shock, almost immediately football-based decisions were taken.

Liverpool FC immediately declared they would be pulling out of European competition the next season, and then the British government, led by Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, announced that all English sides would be withdrawn from Europe. As well as Liverpool, this meant that Everton, Manchester United, Tottenham, Southampton and Norwich would be deprived of European football for the 1985-86 season.

UEFA then stepped in and banned all English sides for an indefinite period with the extra provision that Liverpool would serve a further three years in exile whenever the generic ban on English sides was lifted. The five sides affected immediately appealed both this decision and the government’s edict, but to no avail and so the new season kicked off with no English representation in Europe.

This was a big blow to English football. Prior to Heysel, English teams had made appearances in the final of the European Cup in 8 out of the previous 10 competitions, winning on 7 occasions. In addition, the UEFA Cup had also been secured 3 times in the past decade by England’s elite.

With the Heysel ban therefore came a huge loss of prestige and honour with sides and players being unable to pit themselves against the very cream of world football. There also came another cost, and one that the clubs were equally, if not more, concerned about: that of finance.

While some clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United actively budgeted for European football each season, the majority of sides in the top flight at least aimed for it one way or another. The fact that smaller clubs regularly qualified for Europe is indicative of the fact that it was a carrot and dream for so many. For example, Norwich City had won the League Cup and so qualified for Europe for the first time via the 1985-86 UEFA Cup.

Once it became clear the expelled clubs were not going to be reinstated, the Football League began looking at other ways to make up for the shortfall in income that the ban would induce.

The solution they came up with was a new national competition to sit alongside the existing league programme and domestic FA and League Cups. Christened the Football League Super Cup, the tournament was designed to act as both financial and sporting compensation for the six clubs denied a place in Europe.

The six clubs were divided into two groups. In one group sat the 1984-85 winners of the three domestic trophies: Everton as league champions, Manchester United (FA Cup winners), and Norwich City (League Cup winners). The other group consisted of the sides which would have qualified for a place in UEFA Cup via league position: Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton.

Sides were to play each other home and away, with the top two sides of each group progressing to two-legged semi-finals. A one-off final at Wembley for the finalists was mooted before it was decided that the final would also be a two-legged affair.

It was scant consolation for missing out on a place in the European Cup for Everton and their supporters. To this day they believe, with some justification, that they would have stood an excellent chance of following their 1985 European Cup Winners’ Cup success with further European glory had they been allowed to take their place in the premier club competition for the first time since 1970.

Support for the competition was lukewarm at best from the start. The 1985-86 season kicked off amidst a total TV blackout of matches as the Football League and the TV companies were unable to reach an agreement concerning the screening of games. In addition, despite a sponsor for the embryonic competition being sought, none could be found by the time the first games kicked off in September 1985.

Manchester United started the league season like a train with ten straight wins in the league, but when Everton came to Old Trafford in the midweek after United’s eighth win of that sequence, they were stopped in their tracks by a brilliant performance by Howard Kendall’s men. Running out 4-2 winners in front of a decent but not spectacular attendance of 33,859, Everton got their campaign off and running.

Two weeks later Everton played their first home game of the competition and prevailed by the only goal of the game against Norwich with just 10,329 hardy souls deciding to make up the attendance. Before the game, Howard Kendall is said to have motivated his players with the words: “What a waste of time this is – out you go”.

Two wins out of two put Everton in the driving seat of the group despite their manager’s apathy, and they looked well on course for the semi-final. However, a surprise 1-0 reverse at Carrow Road three weeks later opened up the group somewhat.

Manchester United were next up for Norwich City, and in a fine performance against an injury-hit United side the Canaries came away from Old Trafford with a creditable 1-1 draw.

By the time Manchester United met Everton in the return game on 4 December 1985, their early season form had deserted them and what had been a ten-point lead was now down to just two. With more injuries plaguing the side, it is not surprising that manager Ron Atkinson chose to field practically a reserve side. With Howard Kendall and his men seemingly not particularly bothered either, the game fizzled out to a 1-0 home victory.

This meant that Everton qualified from the group as winners and Norwich City merely needed to avoid a two-goal defeat at home to United in their last game to join the Toffees in the semi-final. A 1-1 draw was duly achieved and so Manchester United finished bottom of the group and were eliminated.

In the other half of the draw, Liverpool emerged as group winners courtesy of home victories over Southampton (2-1) and Tottenham (2-0) with the return game against the Saints ending in a 1-1 draw. Liverpool’s final group game came against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on 14 January 1986. In front of a crowd that limped over the 10,000 mark, Liverpool prevailed by a 3-0 scoreline.

A little known fact is that this match saw the final competitive club match of Pat Jennings’ career. Having been released by Arsenal, Jennings was still the number one choice for the Northern Ireland side and so had returned to his previous club, Spurs, earlier in the season in order to try and keep fit.

Tottenham finished second in the group courtesy of two victories over Southampton (2-1 at home, and 3-1 away).

The two-legged semi-finals were due to be played in February 1986 with the final scheduled for the end of the season. However, due to a combination of bad weather and Liverpool and Everton’s continued involvement in the FA Cup, the semi-finals were not completed until just four days before the FA Cup Final clash between the Merseyside rivals.

The first-legs of the semi-finals were played on the same February evening, and while just 7, 548 people rolled into White Hart Lane to see Spurs and Everton play out a goalless draw, the paying public of Norwich was at least beginning to get a little interested in the competition. A healthy crowd of 15,313 watching Norwich’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool was at least comparable to their league average that season.

Back home, 12,008 die-hard supporters saw Everton complete a 3-1 on the night and aggregate victory over Spurs on March 19. Howard Kendall’s thoughts at the prospect of leading Everton to yet another cup final are not recorded.

Three days after winning the league at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool lined up at home against Norwich with the chance to win through to a second cup final of the season against neighbours Everton. Presented with the Canon League trophy before the game, Liverpool seemed out of sorts in the first half and trailed by a goal at half-time.

Playing for their cup final places, Liverpool’s players pulled their socks up in the second half and scored an unanswered three goals to progress to the final.

The problem for the Football League was that now the season was practically at an end and there was no time to fit in a two-legged final. The FA Cup Final would be held the following Saturday and directly after that preparations would begin for the 1986 World Cup with players from both clubs going off to training camps with their national sides.

The decision was thus taken to hold the final over until the following season. All in all, the competition had been pretty much a disaster. There had been almost no interest in the games shown by either the clubs involved or, more importantly, the public, and so not surprisingly it was decided to discontinue the competition after just one season.

Liverpool and Everton duly had their long-anticipated Wembley match-up in the FA Cup Final, with Liverpool prevailing by a 3-1 scoreline. This was the second cup final coming together of the two Merseyside clubs following the 1984 League Cup Final that Liverpool also ultimately won following a replay.

The third time the great rivals met in a domestic cup final is no doubt the least remembered of all. In autumn 1986 Liverpool and Everton met first at Anfield and then at Goodison with Liverpool running out 7-2 winners on aggregate. 20,660 saw Ian Rush score twice in a 3-1 home win, and then go one better with a hat-trick as Liverpool triumphed 4-1 in the second-leg before a supposed crowd of 26,068. By now the highlights were being shown on terrestrial television, and the attendance that day certainly looked higher.

Legend has it that at the end of the game Liverpool were presented with two trophies. One came from the Football League, and one was from the sponsors, Screensport, who had come on board after the competition started. Supposedly, Liverpool were showing the trophies to their fans at Goodison when a few supporters ran on the pitch and Rushie let go of one of the baubles for a second. The fan who got his hands on the trophy then disappeared back into the throng and it was never seen again.

To this day memories seem cloudy as to what exactly happened, but nevertheless, the incident seems synonymous with the competition in general.

In the next article, we will look at other consequences of the Heysel ban and how football went on to recover from its darkest days.

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David Nesbit

Living and working in SE Asia
David Nesbit
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