20100530

Heysel study seeks truth


When an accident at a public gathering results in mass casualties, inevitably the moment at which all the causal factors arrive at their fatal collision sparks chaos and confusion.  

When the dust settles, explanations are put forward and culprits sought but often there is no definitive truth, only individual accounts of what appeared to happen.

After Hillsborough and the Bradford fire, in terms of magnitude rather than chronology, the third football disaster of the 1980s was Heysel, where 39 people died, for the most part Italians and supporters of Juventus, at a European Cup final played in a decrepit stadium in Belgium, 25 years ago this week.

Blame at the time and since attached to Liverpool supporters, and in so far as it was Juventus fans being pursued by a Liverpool group who were crushed by a collapsing wall there is no argument with that basic hypothesis.

But there were undoubtedly other elements that contributed to the tragedy.  The stadium, due for demolition and staging its last fixture, was literally falling apart; segregation was flimsy, ticketing badly organised and policing, despite the potential for conflict between rival fans, was poorly planned and badly executed.

Even though the Belgian policeman responsible for the event was subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter, the timing of the disaster, coinciding with serious hooligan problems in England and a Government, under Margaret Thatcher, that was not well disposed towards football, made it almost inevitable that Liverpool fans would be held responsible.

There have been some valid attempts to uncover more of the story.  The Observer journalist Jamie Jackson, for example, spoke to many witnesses, English and Italian, players ands supporters, whose sometimes harrowing memories formed part of a fine piece published in Observer Sport Monthly five years ago. (The piece, incidentally, was also notable for Jackson’s exposure of a grubby demand to be paid for his recollections by Phil Neal, the former Liverpool captain).

The only book-length account written in English was published in paperback last October.  From Where I Was Standing: A Liverpool Supporter's View of the Heysel Stadium Tragedy, published by GPRF Publishing, is written from the perspective of Chris Rowland, a Liverpool supporter, but does not attempt to exonerate those whose actions were the immediate cause of what happened.

Rowland, a seasoned traveller to football in Europe, accepts that had those Liverpool fans not engaged in increasingly violent exchanges with their Italian counterparts then the fatal charge in Sector Z would not have taken place.

But, taking a broader view supported by extensive research, he argues strongly that, had the final taken place in a modern stadium with only basic practises of crowd control and segregation applied, the disaster would not, indeed could not, have happened.

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