As May 29th approaches and thoughts turn to the 39 football supporters who died as a result of crowd disturbances prior to the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, I recalled this exclusive interview with Ian Rush that I did for the Liverpool Echo to mark the tragedy’s 25th anniversary. Now, 32 years on, the words of the former Liverpool and Juventus striker are as poignant as ever. Lest we forget those who lost their lives.
FORGIVE but never forget. Sometimes it’s much easier said than done.
When an uncanny quirk of fate paired Fabio Capello’s Juventus and Liverpool in a Champions League quarter-final five years ago, memories of the previous meeting between the two clubs inevitably dominated.
Two decades on, this was the first time the European giants were to share a stadium since the Heysel Stadium disaster.
As expected, emotions were still running high among some Juventus supporters who arrived at Anfield for the first leg.
Meanwhile Liverpool, the football club and city, had pulled out all the stops.
While the Lord Mayor headed to John Lennon Airport to personally welcome the Juve players and fans alike, the ECHO splashed with an acceptance of blame for the tragic events of 20 years earlier that led to the inexcusable deaths of 39 people.
At Anfield, the olive branch – or ‘hand of friendship’ as it was phrased – was extended to the visitors with the appearance of 1985 Reds captain, Phil Neal, and scorer of the winning penalty at Heysel, Michel Platini.
The pair were joined by former Liverpool and Juventus striker, Ian Rush, while a banner emblazoned with the words ‘In Memoria e Amicizia’ – ‘in Memory and Friendship’ – was carried from the Kop to the away enclosure in the Anfield Road end.
Each Juventus supporter was handed a wristband in red, white and black, plus a four page brochure in which Rush’s affinity for both clubs was translated to Italian.
It was a grand display of goodwill from a club and people ashamed of what happened on the terraces of a decrepit and crumbling stadium all those years ago.
When the Kop raised a card-based mural to display the word ‘Amicizia’ – ‘friendship’- to the sound of You’ll Never Walk Alone, the message from Liverpool couldn’t be clearer.
Neither could the response from a large section of the away support who turned their backs and raised a middle finger in defiance.
They clearly hadn’t forgotten. But forgive?
While much of the Italian media praised Liverpool’s efforts and condemned the dissenters, Rush was saddened but not entirely surprised by the reaction.
“It was a great gesture by Michel Platini to come over and help us try to bring the two sets of supporters together,” Rush told the ECHO.
“We went on the pitch at Anfield with a plaque featuring the club badges. Even then, a few Juventus supporters were still angry and turned their backs.
“There will always be an element among Juventus supporters who will feel that way. Many of them will not have been at Heysel 25 years ago. But if they’ve been brought up to think that way then you’re never going to change that. You just have to accept it.
“While we must never forget those people who died, it helps if you can try to look forward. You have to try and move on.”
As Liverpool fans can testify, that is sometimes easier said than done.
It is dangerous to utter Heysel and Hillsborough in the same breath.
While the two disasters were poles apart in terms of fan behaviour they threw up some startling similarities in terms of organisational incompetence and an appalling disregard for public safety.
“I can understand why some people hold Liverpool fans solely responsible for Heysel,” said Rush.
“While those involved have to live with what happened it’s my opinion that the ground wasn’t fit enough to hold a European Cup final. The segregation wasn’t appropriate. That just wouldn’t happen today.
“If a ground like that was put up for a Champions League final today it would be laughed at.
“Maybe that’s one lesson that’s been learned from Heysel.
“Due to the loss of life, we can never forget, though. Certainly in Italy and at Juventus they will never forget, just as we remember Hillsborough in Liverpool.
“Though the circumstances were different, the two disasters are the same in that we must never forget but try to move on.”
In an era of public disorder, when hooliganism was rife in British football, Heysel proved the final straw.
With the instant approval of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, English clubs were slapped with a five year blanket ban from European competition. Liverpool were handed an extra year.
Despite concerns raised by, among others, Liverpool chief executive Peter Robinson that the ageing Heysel Stadium wasn’t fit for purpose let alone to stage a game of such magnitude – plus fears raised by clashes with Italian fans in Rome at the previous year’s European Cup final – nobody other than Liverpool was held accountable.
If anything, wholly innocent clubs were punished indiscriminately.
While domestic cup winners such as Coventry, Oxford, Norwich and Wimbledon were all denied forays into Europe during this period, 1985 league champions Everton were denied a place in the following season’s European Cup.
“I thought the ban was wrong,” insists Rush.
“You had to look at the ground and the facilities that were put up for a European Cup final. They were shocking.
“There was just a thin fence separating the Liverpool fans and Juventus supporters. The policing wasn’t right either.
“Bearing in mind it was Liverpool versus Juventus, the game should never have been played at the Heysel Stadium. With so many supporters expected to attend from both clubs, it should have been played at a bigger ground.
“UEFA took the stance the problems at Heysel were all to do with Liverpool so banned us and all English teams from Europe. At that time Liverpool and Everton were most probably the best teams in Europe, not just England.
“Both clubs and English football in general suffered because of the decision to ban us. It was the wrong decision to make.”
When Rush joined Juventus three years after the Heysel disaster there were those who suggested his move from Anfield was for both political and football reasons.
“There was talk about building relationships and that Juventus just wanted Liverpool’s best player at that time to go over there,” said Rush.
“I didn’t really think anything of it in that sense but certainly felt the relationship between the two clubs was very good after I’d been there.
“Personally I went to Italy to try and better myself and, if I’m honest, secure the financial future of my family. That’s where the money was in those days.
“But my going to Juventus also seemed to be a major part in building up the relationship between the two clubs.”
While Rush will spare a thought this week for the families of those who perished 25 years ago, he still speaks highly of the Juve fans whose support for him never wavered during his solitary season in Serie A.
Heysel, he says, was never an issue.
“I never had any trouble at Juventus,” he recalls.
“If anything, the supporters were over-enthusiastic with me. They sang my name every week and were great with me. It’s often been said I had a bad time of it at Juventus. It wasn’t half as bad as people make out. But if one thing kept me going it was the supporters.
“Every time I met them, around the city or wherever, they were fantastic with me. Heysel was never mentioned.”
* This article was first published by the Liverpool Echo in May 2010.