Sunday, February 10, 2013

Television and the Heysel Stadium Disaster

On Wednesday 29 May 1985, at just before 7pm, I switched on the television (NB: ‘switched’ – no remote controls then, you had to walk over to the TV to press a button) and settled back into my armchair. It was the night of the European Cup Final between Liverpool, holders and, by now, the team we were used to seeing win it, and Juventus.

The programme was introduced … by Terry Wogan! In the 1980s, barely a day went by without the Wogan face appearing somewhere on our screens – he was, and still is, an enormously popular personality and was a major asset to the BBC. Wednesday at 7pm was the usual time for one of Wogan’s thrice-weekly chat shows – these shows were famous for Terry Wogan talking and various guests listening.

On this occasion, in a scenario now very familiar to fans of Coronation Street, the Wogan show had been pushed aside to make way for the footy. So Terry was only on for five minutes, barely time to introduce his sole guest, Bruce Forsyth. With a table of beer cans and glasses, it was clear that the plan was for them to watch the game and then return afterwards to, presumably, toast a Liverpool victory.

Bruce opened a can and began drinking from it.
Wogan: ‘Don’t drink from the can, what do you think the glasses are for?’
Bruce: ‘This is football!’
It was then over to Jimmy Hill in the football studio.
‘How’s the chin, Jim?’ says Bruce. ‘Fine’ says Jimmy, ‘and you’. Cue both parties jocularly respectively stroking their famously oversized chins.
And then as we leave Wogan, Jimmy Hill assumed a sombre expression to tell us there had been some trouble.


The reason this all sticks in my mind so clearly is the completely surreal atmosphere when we consider what must have been known then, and what we all knew afterwards. By this stage there had been hundreds of injuries at the game we were about to watch (although I don’t recall if we knew about any deaths). The wall causing most of the injuries had by now already collapsed and so the first pictures we saw were trouble from the Juventus end in retaliation – I recall one fan with a Juventus scarf around his mouth, throwing fireworks into the Liverpool end.

With confusion and chaos going on, the news of deaths amongst the Juventus fans, and both captains (Phil Neal, in Liverpool’s case) pleading for calm over the public address system, it was naturally assumed the game would be called off. Jimmy and his guests (Terry Venables and Graeme Souness) chatted aimlessly while Barry Davies tried to keep us in touch with what was happening.

Although English clubs had been involved in crowd violence for over a decade – for example, Leeds at the European Cup Final 1975, Manchester United being kicked out (but reinstated) of the Cup Winners Cup in 1977, West Ham United having to play a game behind closed doors, this was the first time that Liverpool fans had caused trouble – indeed, they had always received much praise – which made this all the more surprising.

Crowd trouble had also long been a problem in the domestic game since the early 1970s. Just the previous few weeks of 1985 had already seen famous and violent scenes as Millwall fans rioted at Luton, while Leeds fans did the same at Birmingham City.

Surprisingly, the European Cup Final went ahead! It was felt that was necessary to prevent further crowd trouble but I am sure that, because people had died, today the decision would have been different. The match kicked off an hour late. It was hard to work up any enthusiasm. I recall it was a dull game, Juventus won 1-0 with a penalty where the foul was clearly outside the box, and Liverpool was denied a clear penalty at the other end. Conspiracy theorists accused the referee of ensuring that Liverpool did not win the cup as punishment for their fans’ behaviour.

The subsequent events with the ban of English teams from Europe are well known and chronicled. As a Norwich fan, I had been at Wembley to see my team win the League Cup in March 1985 and looking forward to our first UEFA Cup campaign, so naturally I did not agree with the ban. My view, perhaps matched by Everton fans looking forward to a European Cup campaign after winning the League title, was that Liverpool, and only Liverpool, should have been banned.

One further TV memory. Later that week, the main topic of ‘Points of View’, then presented by Barry Took, was hundreds of complaints at the BBC for showing the game. Here I have sympathies with the BBC – which of us as producer would have taken the sole decision to cancel the programme despite the match still going on?

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