Last week we looked briefly at the immediate effects of the Heysel Stadium Disaster of May 29th, 1985. As English clubs were excluded from all European competition, the powers-that-be came up with what they hoped would be a suitable substitute in the way of the short-lived Football League Super Cup.

Not proving to be anything like the success either hoped for or anticipated, the competition was not surprisingly discontinued after a single season.

The lack of European football, however, was but one consequence of Heysel. In this week’s article, we shall attempt to look at some others.

A poor state of affairs

In the mid-1980s, English football was in many ways in poor shape. Attendances were ever-decreasing, football hooliganism was a constant threat, stadiums were poorly-maintained and uncomfortable, and all-in-all there was an unhealthy stigma about the game.

Not only Heysel contributed to this stigma, of course, but 1985 itself was a bad year. In March of that year, a large-scale riot perpetrated by followers of Millwall took place at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road home during an FA Cup match. In May pitched fighting between supporters of Leeds United and Birmingham at St. Andrew’s resulted in the tragic death of one supporter, crushed beneath a falling wall.

The fighting at Birmingham took place on the very same day that 56 poor souls perished in the Bradford City fire at Valley Parade.

Football was, or at least seemed to be, in the gutter. It was seen by some as not just ‘the working man’s game’ anymore, but as ‘the thugs’ game’. Football supporters were shunned in some areas and sectors of society and the game was on its knees. More and more ‘normal’ people were turning away from the game and the country’s national sport was facing a watershed moment.

Margaret Thatcher and David Evans

Something had to give, clearly. Football could not go on in this manner and the Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, felt she had the answer. Working together with a succession of Ministers for Sport, including, later on, Colin Moynihan, a plan was mooted to introduce compulsory identity cards for anyone daring to want to watch a football match live in the flesh.

As unbelievable as it seems now there were actually a large number of people who not only thought this was a good idea but actually went about trying to implement it. The Luton Town chairman, David Evans, was once such advocate. Unsurprisingly miffed at seeing his club’s spiritual home being torn asunder by the thugs and neanderthals sporting Millwall’s colours, he determined to bring in a scheme whereby not only would away supporters be totally banned from the premises, but also home supporters would need to register with the club and prove place of residence before being issued with a membership card that would allow them to buy tickets for home games.

Needless to say, this scheme did not go down well with the majority of other clubs or their supporters. Luton Town home matches were, at a stroke, devoid of any real atmosphere, and added to the fact that by 1986 Luton had also decided to install an artificial playing surface, it’s fair to say that they were few people’s ‘second club’.

The ban on away supporters, although immensely unpopular, proved to be impossible to totally enforce anyway. People simply used Bedfordshire addresses to apply for membership cards, and so after a short while of wising up, most sides had fan representation in matches at Kennilworth Road.

It is perhaps interesting to note that around this time Luton Town became a very good cup side, winning the League Cup and reaching the final in successive seasons, as well as reaching the FA Cup semi-final and the Full Members Cup final. However, by 1991 both the plastic pitch and the ban on away supporters had gone and a decade later Luton were plying their trade in the fourth tier of English football.

The effect on Scottish football

A side effect of there being no European football for English sides was a shift in energies in the Scottish domestic game. In decades gone by, transfer traffic between English and Scottish sides and players had been of an almost constant one-direction variety. Scottish finest had long ploughed a familiar route out of the domestic game and into English football, with nothing but the barest of trickles of English players heading in the opposite direction.

In 1986 that started to change with the appointment of Graeme Souness as player-manager of Glasgow Rangers. Charged with returning the Ibrox club to the pinnacle of the Scottish game, and with a bulging cheque book burning a hole in his pocket, Souness set about raiding English clubs for their talent, and thus a steady stream of English players denied the chance to showcase their talents in Europe started heading north.

Bailing out of an Ipswich Town side that had just been relegated, Terry Butcher opted to join Souness and Rangers in preference to Tottenham or Manchester United who both attempted to sign him. At the same time, Norwich City who had been denied a place in the 1985-86 UEFA Cup due to the Heysel ban were unable to keep hold of their goalkeeper, Chris Woods, who also went to Ibrox. Finally, a few months later Souness once again sortied south and signed a third England international when he prised Graham Roberts out of Tottenham Hotspur.

Although Souness undoubtedly made Rangers stronger, and in doing so helped raise the profile of the Scottish league, much of its competitive nature was reduced. In the seven seasons prior to the ‘English Invasion’ of players, the Scottish title was taken three times by Aberdeen, three times by Celtic, and one time by Dundee United. In 33 years since it has only ever been won by Celtic or Rangers. Perhaps it is stretching a point to say that Heysel had an ultimately adverse effect on Scottish football, but then again, maybe it is a point worth discussing.

The end of the ‘friendly’ rivalry

As a Liverpool fan, it would be remiss of me not to mention another unfortunate by-product of Heysel – that of the ultimate decline and near-extinguishment of the so-called ‘friendly’ derby and relationship with Everton and their supporters.

Always rather over-hyped as one big ‘love-in’ in the first place, the Merseyside derby was never a particularly friendly affair back in the past, but for a time in the mid-1980s football did seem to unite the city in many ways. With unemployment rife and a Thatcher-led government literally threatening to cast the city off altogether, football proved to be the glue that kept communities together. With all else going wrong in their lives and their city, Liverpudlians were not about to make matters worse by fighting with each other over football.

In 1985, when the Heysel ban took effect, Everton (along with the other clubs that had qualified for Europe) were unfairly cast out of Europe. It was a gross injustice, but it had been on the cards for some time due to English supporters regularly running amok in Europe. Fans of Aston Villa, Tottenham, Manchester United, Leeds, and West Ham had all been involved in pitch battles in Europe in the past ten seasons, and Heysel was the final straw – hence the decision taken by UEFA to issue a blanket ban rather than merely a ban on Liverpool.

In the immediate aftermath of Heysel, Everton and the other sides appealed the ban, and when the appeal was rejected they very reluctantly had no option but to simply get on with things and accept them for what they were. Liverpool and Everton were at the time the top two sides in England and would go onto finish first and second in the league for 3 consecutive seasons, and although clearly disappointed not to be able to contest the European Cup, there was no great animosity from Goodison Park aimed at their Anfield neighbours.

On the contrary, there was if anything a circling of the wagons: A feeling that once more the city of Liverpool was under attack due to the reprehensible behaviour of the few.

Gradually, though, this feeling of togetherness eroded. It took a long time and it was the best part of a decade or so later that certain sections of the Everton support decided that their team’s current woes could be traced back to the Heysel ban. In 1994 Everton survived relegation on the last day of the season and rather than blame the incumbent managers of that particular blue vintage, Mike Walker and Howard Kendall, a collective decision was seemingly taken to place the fault at the feet of Liverpool.

Had Everton been permitted to enter the 1985-86 European Cup, the train of thought from those of a blue persuasion went, they surely would have won it and the future would have remained bright and rosy. Being deprived of their place in Europe brought about the exodus in players that ultimately led to their decline from being a major force in the English game.

Relations between the two clubs and their supporters have never recovered and although the derby is not exactly rancid these days, nor is it very pleasant at times.

Hillsborough

So, what happened next? Well, tragically what happened next was Hillsborough, an even worse tragedy in terms of fatalities. The deaths in Sheffield that sunny spring day were due in part to the legacy of hooliganism, which of course included Heysel. Had there been no fences at the Lepping Lane terraces, it is highly likely there would have been no fatalities.

Had there been no hooliganism in the game, there would have been no fences.

Following Hillsborough, Thatcher and Moynihan dropped their absurd plan for nation-wide membership cards, and, following the Taylor Report in 1990 being published, clubs were finally forced to spend money in bringing grounds up to scratch in terms of safety and comfort.

The relative success of England in the 1990 World Cup revived interest in the national game, and together with better amenities, supporters started returning to the game. The advent of the FA Premier League in 1992 and the money generated from Sky went further in changing the landscape of English football and led to it becoming the behemoth it has become today.

English Football today is unrecognisable today in almost every way to the condition it lay in the dark days of May 1985, and for that, we should be thankful.

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David Nesbit

Living and working in SE Asia
David Nesbit
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