The lost weekend that lasted five years

Leeds 1968
Leeds United in 1968

IN 1985, the Heysel Stadium disaster brought to an end a period of English dominance in European club football. English clubs, following the unacceptable behaviour of Liverpool fans in Brussels, were banned until the 1990-91 season. European football breathed a sigh of relief. There were two reasons why our neighbours across the Channel might have been pleased. Firstly, English fans had been consistently causing problems in Europe. We were not the only European country with a hooliganism problem, but it always seemed to get amplified by the media. Moreover, the British government at the time – all Thatcherite policies and steeped in the ideology of a “class war”, was more than happy to punish the sport of the working man. Secondly, European club competition had been dominated by England since the late 1960s, much to the frustration of the UEFA establishment. Just consider the period from 1968:

1968: European Cup winners – Manchester United; Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winners – Leeds United
1969: Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winners – Newcastle United
1970: European Cup-Winners Cup winners – Manchester City; Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winners – Arsenal
1971: European Cup-Winners Cup winners – Chelsea; Inter-Cities Fairs Cup winners – Leeds United
1972: UEFA Cup winners – Tottenham Hotspur 1
973: UEFA Cup winners – Liverpool
1974: Nil
1975: Nil
1976: UEFA Cup winners – Liverpool
1977: European Cup winners – Liverpool
1978: European Cup winners – Liverpool
1979: European Cup winners – Nottingham Forest
1980: European Cup winners – Nottingham Forest
1981: European Cup winners – Liverpool; UEFA Cup winners – Ipswich Town
1982: European Cup winners – Aston Villa
1983: Nil
1984: European Cup winners – Liverpool; UEFA Cup winners – Tottenham Hotspur
1985: European Cup-Winners Cup winners – Everton

In 18 seasons, England won 20 European competitions, far more than any other major European country. During this period, West Germany secured eight, Italy seven, Holland six, Spain four. Never again would England be as successful on the European stage.

The ban on English clubs certainly had a lasting impact. In 1984-85, Everton had won the Football League and the Cup-Winners Cup. They also lost the FA Cup final. There was every reason to suspect that Howard Kendall’s young side could make a splash in the European Cup in 1985-86, especially as they had also signed Gary Lineker from Leicester City. The Everton team that defended attempted to defend the title in that season was arguably better equipped than the one that won it. When you consider that the 1985-86 European Cup was lifted by Steaua Bucharest of Romania, Everton’s case does get stronger. Lineker spent just one year at Goodison Park, signing for Barcelona after a successful 1986 World Cup. The question is, would Lineker have left Everton if they had been allowed to enter the European Cup?

Similarly, Ian Rush, the prolific Liverpool striker, also went abroad in 1987 to join Juventus. Would he have been more inclined to have stayed at Anfield if the Reds had been playing in Europe? Who knows how these players’ career might have developed. Some, like Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens of Everton went north of the border to Glasgow Rangers in search of European exposure.

Some clubs were denied the chance of European football after creating their own piece of history. Norwich City, Oxford United, Coventry City, Luton Town and Wimbledon all won silverware during the five years’ of exile. Coventry had flirted briefly with European football in the past, and Norwich had a continental foray in the 1990s, but Oxford, Luton and Wimbledon have never had the chance, apart from the Dons’ foray into the Inter-Toto Cup in 1990.

The teams that missed out and the seasons they should have played were:

1985-86: Everton, Manchester United, Norwich, Tottenham, Southampton, Liverpool;  1986-87: Liverpool, Everton, Oxford, West Ham, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday;  1987-88: Everton, Coventry, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Norwich;  1988-89: Liverpool, Wimbledon, Luton, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Everton; 1989-90: Arsenal, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Norwich, Derby County, Tottenham

As for Liverpool, their 1987-88 team, possibly the finest English footballing team of the era, was deprived of the opportunity to test its mettle against the European elite. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Liverpool would have added to the four European Cups they picked up between 1977 and 1984.

When English clubs returned, the world had moved on. It was 1990-91 when UEFA welcomed England back, with Liverpool returning a year later, and Manchester United showed Europe what they had been missing when they won the European Cup-Winners Cup that season. Since then, English clubs have only won a further eight competitions.

1990-91: Manchester United (ECWC) 1993-94: Arsenal (ECWC) 1997-98: Chelsea (ECWC) 1998-99: Manchester United (UCL) 2000-01: Liverpool (UEFA) 2004-05: Liverpool (UCL) 2007-08: Manchester United (UCL) 2011-12: Chelsea (UCL) 2012-13: Chelsea (Europa)

For Liverpool, by the time they returned to Europe, their golden age had gone. Europe’s top football club from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s had started to wane. Liverpool had to also contend with another disaster in 1989 at Hillsborough. Heysel and Hillsborough, in all probability, contributed to this decline. The club has never recovered from the emotional turmoil that accompanied both tragedies.

When you look at the teams that won the three European competitions during England’s exile, it is clear that clubs like Liverpool and Everton had a very good chance of continuing the momentum that started in 1968 with Don Revie’s Leeds and Sir Matt Busby’s United.

1985-86: Steaua Bucharest (EC), Dinamo Kiev (ECWC), Real Madrid (UEFA); 1986-87: Porto (EC), Ajax (ECWC), Goteborg (UEFA); 1987-88: PSV (EC) , Mechelen (ECWC), Bayer Leverkusen (UEFA); 1988-89: AC Milan (EC), Barcelona (ECWC), Napoli (UEFA); 1989-80: AC Milan (EC),  Sampdoria (ECWC), Juventus (UEFA).

By 1988-89, however, Italian football, buoyed by an influx of talent from Holland, Germany and Latin America, won five of six titles over a two-year period. There was a glamour, excitement and new dynamism in Italy that overtook English football and was the envy of the rest of Europe. The thought of Liverpool’s 1987-88 league title winning team locking horns with Ruud Gullit’s AC Milan was very appetising, but it could never have taken place.

In that first post-ban campaign, the best that the Football Association could come up with was the ridiculously-named Football League Super Cup. This was meant to act as a consolation for the European ban and in 1985-86, comprised the six teams that might have entered European competition. The competition, sponsored by Screen Sport, failed to capture the imagination of the public, and the two-legged final, between Everton and Liverpool, attracted attendances of 26,000 and 20,000. The Super Cup never resurfaced.

The blanket ban on English clubs, in hindsight, should have been restricted to Liverpool, but given the ongoing problems with hooliganism, something radical had to be done. The ban changed the course of some clubs’ histories and players’ careers. But it did not necessarily stop football hooligans abroad – as we saw in subsequent World Cups and European Championships. It may, though, have been the starting point of a better, more comfortable and safer matchday routine, because despite some of the modern game’s shortcomings and penchant for conspicuous consumerism, it must be said that going to a match today is a more pleasant user-experience than it was in the 1980s.

2 thoughts on “The lost weekend that lasted five years

  1. The lost weekend that lasted five years

    Sounds like a John Lennon article!

    On Sun, Feb 14, 2016 at 12:27 AM, Game of the People wrote:

    > Neil Fredrik Jensen posted: ” IN 1985, the Heysel Stadium disaster brought > to an end a period of English dominance in European club football. English > clubs, following the behaviour of Liverpool fans in Brussels, were banned > until the 1990-91 season. European football breathed a sigh” >

  2. Can’t agree with your comment that only Liverpool should have been banned from European competition in 1985. At the time of the Heysel disaster, Liverpool fans didn’t have a particular reputation for hooliganism, and they had been travelling widely across Europe for over a decade by then.

    Heysel was the culmination of years of trouble involving English holigans abroad generally, not least an element who attached themselves to the national team.

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