English football’s “American Pie moment”

Photo: PA

LET’S make this clear, this is not an article about judging who was guilty and who should have been punished for the events of May 1985 when 39 Juventus fans died at a dilapidated football stadium in Brussels. This is about the consequences of the Heysel Stadium disaster, what it did to English football and how it has helped shape English football today.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that England, as a football nation, was among the top eight in 1985. Indeed, in 1986, England produced a credible World Cup performance to reach the last eight and certainly suffered from the sharp practice of one Diego Maradona. But it is equally relevant to claim that 1986 saw the first signs of decline in the English national team, a decline that was slow burning, certainly, but one that set a trend of under-performance that was invariably turned around at the 11th hour. Consider that in the first two group games, England lost to an average Portugal and drew with Morocco before Gary Lineker’s hat-trick sent them through Group F in second place behind Morocco. 1974 and 1978 aside, this was an indication that England’s place in world football was changing.

How much of that change was due to Heysel and England’s expulsion from European competition? It was probably too early for those events to be blamed for a lack-lustre performance in the group, but in the following years, it is possible to align isolation with diminishing returns on the international stage. In 1990, England may have reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, but look at the facts – two draws (Ireland and the Dutch) and a scruffy 1-0 win against Egypt in the group; a last gasp win against Belgium (not the Belgium of today) and a lucky win against Cameroon, thanks to two penalties. Jingoism to the fore, it felt better than it should have. Nevertheless, the two World Cups bookended the ban on English clubs and, regardless of the quality in 1990, the relative success of Bobby Robson’s team provided a signpost for the future.


In between, what happened to English football? Is it wrong to assume that the current state of domestic football can draw some influence from Heysel? It may well have been the catalyst to rethink the game.

After Heysel and before Hillsborough, English football was in turmoil. The European ban from 1985 to 1990 looked to be the final straw, but Hillsborough happened and it really did seem like the death knell for English football. What it turned out to be was the game bottoming out, realising that the old model was finished, that to survive and flourish it had to learn from European counterparts. I would take time, but in keeping with newspaper reports at the time that claimed “the day the football died”, Heysel was possibly the sport’s American Pie moment.

In 1985-86, the English public felt they were watching ‘second best’

Consider that the European ban period was effectively half a career for most players. There would be a group of promising players who might never benefit from European competition, hence there was something of a gradual exodus of players from English clubs – players like Gary Lineker, the Everton duo of Gary Stevens and Trevor Steven, Spurs men Chris Waddle and Glenn Hoddle, and forwards like Mark Hateley and Mark Hughes. Not for some time had so many players eager to try their luck outside the English league, although admittedly, Steven and Stevens ended up at Glasgow Rangers, who were attempting to create a “European” team in Scotland under Graeme Souness. Ian Rush, a Liverpool icon, also went abroad to, of all places, Juventus, but was unable to settle.

Lineker’s story really encapsulates the rather limited outlook for outstanding players at a certain point in their career. He left Leicester in 1985, spent one year at Everton before the Merseyside club accepted a £2.8m offer from Barcelona. At 25, he was in his peak years and with the length of the European ban uncertain, he might lose the chance of playing in UEFA competitions. If things had been different, the England striker might have stayed with Everton and won more prizes, although a character like Lineker has always appeared to seek an interesting rather than conventional career. Lineker did not return to English football until 1989 when he was approaching 30.

The England team performed abysmally in the 1988 European Championship, suggesting that English players may have fallen behind their cousins across the channel. Another player who, in his prime, was largely deprived of European football was John Barnes. He had enjoyed brief exposure to it when he was with Watford, but in the Liverpool team of 1987-88, arguably one of the most eloquent and expressive teams seen in England, he would not experience it until the ban was over.  Like the two Everton teams of 1985 and 1987 and the Arsenal team of 1988-89, Liverpool’s last three title winners were all denied the chance of pitting their wits against Europe’s best.

It’s been said before, but Heysel and Hillsborough destroyed some of the myths that existed about Liverpool. It also killed the club’s air of invincibility, knocked the heart out of the people’s republic of the Kop. Not many people would have anticipated that after 1990, Liverpool would go almost 30 years without a league title, the longest spell the club has ever endured without a league championship victory.

Nuclear winter

Liverpool and other clubs could not benchmark themselves against Europe’s finest and it is not inconceivable that the public also felt they were now watching a product that was decidedly second best – although to be fair, the British audience were hardly connosieurs  of European football as they were only exposed to it very spasmodically, having to rely on BBC TV’s Sportsnight to see midweek games involving English clubs.

Gates continued to fall, though, with the 1984-85 average of 21,080 declining to as low as 19,273 in 1987-88. Crowds at clubs chasing honours, such as Liverpool and Everton, held up, but in that hangover season of 1985-86, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham drew their lowest top-flight attendances since before the first world war. By 1990, they had started to recover.

Naturally, punishment inflicted upon English clubs impacted the balance sheets of those expecting European football. In a forlorn attempt to fill the income gap, the Football League went overboard in conjuring up new, meaningless competitions to generate more income. The Full Members Cup was one such folly, giving its advocate, Ken Bates, a day-out at Wembley for his club, Chelsea who were desperate to regain re-entry to the elite band after more than a decade in the wilderness. Ironically, Chelsea were one of the clubs that felt the absence of Europe more than most as they had seemingly conjured up a team that was UEFA Cup material.

Meanwhile, Super Cup, a hat-tipper to TV as much as anything else, was a one-season venture that nobody really wanted, most of all team managers like Everton’s Howard Kendall, who was so frustrated by the ban that he left the club in 1987 to manage Athletic Bilbao, claiming that “the challenge had been taken away” to continue at Everton where he had won two league titles in three years. He wasn’t the only manager to be lured abroad at the time. Terry Venables had been hired by Barcelona in 1984 and taken Barca to the European Cup final in 1986. Venables signed Lineker and Mark Hughes, arguably two of the best strikers in the English game.

Steaua, Porto and PSV – these clubs were not successors to the Liverpool team of 1977-1984

The absence of European qualification also meant the prospect of an additional “trophy” outside of the league, FA Cup and League Cup was also restrictive. Since the late 1960s, the goal of “qualifying for Europe” had added spice to overlong league campaigns and also increased the body of teams who could come out of a campaign with some form of achievement. It also gave an added bonus to teams winning domestic silverware, making European football a reward for rising to the top of run-of-the-mill league competition. From 1985-86 to 1988-89, the loss of this certainly cast a shadow over the English game.

By the time English clubs returned, the hierarchy had changed. Between 1976-77 and 1981-82, England won every European Cup and in 1983-84, Liverpool won it for the fourth time. They went to Heysel as holders. Between 1985-86 and 1988-89, the winners were: Steaua Bucharest, Porto, PSV Eindhoven and AC Milan. It was not until the last of those seasons that a true successor to Liverpool 1977-1984 was found, so it is reasonable to have expected Everton, Liverpool and Arsenal to have continued the English dominance.

Lost ground

However, the English champions would take their time to adjust to the new paradigm when they did return. It was not until 1996-97 that Manchester United reached the last four and then in 1999, lift the cup once more. Liverpool’s time had passed and Manchester United became the dominant force in England, although there was an unlikely triumph in 2005 when Liverpool came back from 0-3 down to beat AC Milan on penalties.

But back in 1990, the sands were shifting elsewhere. English football, realising that it had fallen behind, was given a boost by the creation of the Premier, a competition that was initially only different in that it channelled money to the few rather than the many. It also became more urgently needed because English football’s pipeline of talent appeared to be drying up. The national team’s decline became more apparent in the early 1990s – 1992’s lamentable European Championship (which ended the Lineker era) was followed by failure to qualify for USA 1994. Then came another influx of overseas talent, championed by clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea. The Premier became a cosmopolitan cocktail of hired guns that gave the growing, self-confident competition a “sexy” image that could rival Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga.

There was an assumption, somewhat misguided, that a cash-rich Premier would create a new “golden generation” of players that could revive England. However, the misconception was based on the fact that high-earning players meant high-achieving players. Unfortunately, the reality was serial under-achievement from a group of players who appointed themselves as “world class”, but were no more than products of an over-hyped era.

At club level, there was no doubt that the Premier’s riches gave English clubs an advantage, so much so that success in the European arena was largely attributable to the ability to sign whoever they wish from a huge talent pool. In both 2007-08 and 2008-09, four English clubs reached the quarter-final stage of the Champions League. Three of the four semi-finalists in these seasons were English, but the demography of the teams makes interesting reading: in the 2008 final, Chelsea v Manchester United, 10 of the 28 players involved were English. Liverpool, who went out in the semi-final, used just three English players in the last four game with Chelsea. A year later, United were in the final again, but used just four English players, surely a reflection on the decline in the quality of resources available?

Not that English clubs have relied solely on English talent to win the competition. When Manchester United won the competition for the first time in 1968, eight of their starting line-up was English and the standard team composition between then and 1982 when Aston Villa lifted the cup, was generally eight Englishmen and three Scots. By 1984, Liverpool had become a genuine Great British and Irish team and only four English won the cup in Rome that year. In 2005, this figure was down to two and the last English team to emerge triumphant, Chelsea in 2012, drew on seven nationalities, with four being Englishmen.

Nature taking its course?

Is the current trend of multi-culturalism in big-time football down to the long-term effects of English isolation? Or is it merely the kind of evolution that has seen Britain’s corporates become part of global conglomerates – a la Cadbury and Kraft – and the multi-national workforces that you find in the City of London? Was the Premier a driver of change or the outcome of a need to transform a product that had been mortally damaged by Heysel? Do we have a better product today and does the rise of polyglot teams spell the beginning of the end of international football as we once knew it?

The answer to all of those questions is undoubtedly – and, in some cases, uncomfortably – yes. Whether or not you like the idea of inflated investment, obscene wages, TV saturation, short-termism and desire to create good footballers (but not necessarily better people), the Premier saved English football and, sadly, Heysel was at the root of that seismic change.

Footnote: On the positive side, English football seems to have woken up to the negative effects of short-termism and talent neglect. The England squad has a body of players that could just represent a brighter future. English clubs are, once more, contending at the highest level and at youth level, there has been success on the international stage. Let’s hope they don’t think the job is done, though, for it has taken many years to get to this point.

2 thoughts on “English football’s “American Pie moment”

  1. What a terrific historical review. There’s probably some truth in it. Big setbacks often do invoke some kind of top down review. You wonder if Italy are able to achieve a similar feat after recent World Cup elimination and tailing off in quality of the league.

    Great site. Delighted I found it and now following.

  2. Great article…..without european ban of english clubs I think that the dominance in Europe would be continued and also Sacchi’s Milan wouldn’t be existed!!!!


    P.S. news about Mittel book?


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