For this interview, I look back at the atmosphere of English Football at the Post-Heysel era.
The Interviewee is:
Mr. Paul Whittle
Mr. Whittle is my podcast partner for the ‘Soccernostalgia Talk Podcast’. He is also a blogger https://the1888letter.com/ and Author of ‘Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League's Last Decades’
Mr. Whittle’s contact info:
Link to Mr. Paul Whittle’s book (Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League's Last Decades):
Soccernostalgia Question: Before we get into the immediate post-Heysel era, can you describe the atmosphere in Football matches in general in the preceding years?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: My biggest early impressions were the size of the stadiums (Elland Road, Old Trafford, the City Ground in Nottingham) and that there was a lot of noise and singing at First Division matches. It could be difficult to see the full pitch, but it was an exciting atmosphere to be part of, standing on the big terraces. That said, even as a child, you knew there were hooligans and it could potentially be dangerous to be in the wrong place, in or around the ground.
Soccernostalgia Question: What were generally the most dangerous grounds to visit?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: For me, that would have been Leeds – I went to my first games at Elland Road but my dad, who wasn’t a fan of theirs, wasn’t very keen on me going. Some of the London clubs were also notorious (Millwall, West Ham) but I never went there.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 58, October 1980
Photo From: Onze, Issue 58, October 1980
Soccernostalgia Question: Was there apprehension from your parents to go to Football matches in this period?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: My dad had been going to games at Old Trafford and Boundary Park, Oldham, since the 1950s but he could see there was more trouble at matches during the 70s and 80s. We started going to Oldham after that, in the early-mid 1980s, where the crowds were only a few thousand.
Soccernostalgia Question: As young as you were, were there any indications that such a tragedy might occur?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: There had been incidents when people had been killed before and after matches, there could be an undercurrent of violence and the stadiums weren’t in great condition. At bigger grounds, the crush barriers on the terraces and perimeter fences in particular were a bit scary. In retrospect, I think there was always going to be some kind of tragic event involving English football.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 70, October 1981
Soccernostalgia Question: The Bradford Stadium fire had occurred shortly before, I presume that was not categorized under the rubric of Football violence but as an accident?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: That was definitely in the category of neglected stadiums and under-investment in crowd safety. I remember going to a charity match for the Bradford fire, replaying the 1966 World Cup final at Elland Road that summer, it was a very sad atmosphere.
Soccernostalgia Question: What was the atmosphere in the grounds in the first season post-Heysel (1985-86)?
Soccernostalgia Question: What were the noticeable changes for the match-going public, in terms, police presence, security, seating, etc?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: [to answer both] At that time I would have gone to a couple of games at Nottingham Forest as well as Oldham, I’m not sure I noticed any immediate change. There were always a lot of police at matches, maybe that increased a little more after Heysel. There were no fundamental changes in the grounds themselves at that point.
Photo From: France Football, Issue 2047, July 2, 1985
Soccernostalgia Question: What were noticeable changes in terms of television coverage in the post-Heysel era?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: There was actually a television ‘blackout’ for a chunk of the following season, no football was shown at all until early 1986. It was just a coincidence after Heysel though and of course it was about money. After that coverage was back to normal, then improved and gradually expanded over the next few years.
Soccernostalgia Question: The Post-Heysel verdict by UEFA, forbade English teams from participating in European club matches? Do you think most English clubs’ fans took notice or only those of the top teams that regularly qualified in Europe?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: I would say it affected all of English football – at the time of only the League Champions representing the country in the European Cup, and English clubs doing so well, it was a really big thing. Everyone would watch the European ties and finals, especially as otherwise there was very little coverage of football outside England.
Photo From: Onze, Issue 117, September 1985
Soccernostalgia Question: I remember Phil Neal stated that Liverpool reduced the number of lightbulbs at Anfield to save on electricity because of lost revenue in Europe? Were there other such examples?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: Crowds were falling anyway, and the 1985-86 season actually proved to be the worst for attendances in Football League history. Sponsorship and TV deals were a fraction of what they are now, and football’s image was at an all-time low. Money was short at all levels but obviously the top clubs who missed out on European competition were affected most by Heysel specifically. The attempts to replace it were fairly disastrous – no-one was interested in the Screen Sport Super Cup and then there was an attempt to revive the Anglo-Scottish Cup between Coventry and St Mirren in 1987, which was abandoned after a single leg.
Soccernostalgia Question: What was the atmosphere in the grounds in the final season post-Heysel (1989-90)?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: Definitely improved from what it had been at the start of the decade, in my experience. Most clubs had family stands and hooliganism had more or less gone from the grounds themselves. Especially when the perimeter fences were removed after Hillsborough, it felt different, and safer, going to games – less menacing.
Soccernostalgia Question: What were the positives and negatives in those five years?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: The only positive might have been a focus on finally dealing with hooligans and violence around grounds, but unfortunately it took another tragedy (Hillsborough) to fundamentally change the experience of going to an English football ground. The negatives were in the missed opportunities for clubs and players to develop in European competition; the English game remained essentially the same while in Italy, for example, Sacchi and Milan were playing a different style and Serie A was attracting the world’s best players (although it was already more attractive than England, before Heysel).
Photo From: Onze, Issue 136, April 1987
Soccernostalgia Question: Was there a particular season in those five years that you felt, the atmosphere was safe enough for the ban to be lifted?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: Certainly, by the end of them, 1989-90 as mentioned, there was a general feeling that changes had been made, the worst days of hooliganism were over, and the ban had gone on long enough.
Soccernostalgia Question: It has often been said that those five years away from Europe, impeded the progress of English teams and players. What is your opinion?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: In some ways it did, but then you had England reaching the semi-final of Italia ‘90 after five years banned from Europe (it was always strange that the national team was never excluded as there had been a lot of trouble when England travelled). It was a real shame for clubs which might never get the opportunity to play in Europe again – Oxford, Coventry, Wimbledon, Luton – and probably held back some players too. The number of internationals moving to Rangers, and also abroad, like Lineker, Rush, Hughes, Hoddle and Waddle, was obviously influenced by not being able to play in European competition.
Soccernostalgia Question: Do you feel the ban was necessary and helpful or was it ultimately unnecessary and why?
Mr. Paul Whittle Response: Unfortunately, I think there had to be some action taken, it wasn’t just an isolated incident at Heysel but years of trouble at football grounds domestically and when England played abroad. It wasn’t every club by any means, but violence just seemed accepted in the football culture, it took a high-profile tragedy on that scale to address it. Maybe it was harsh to have a blanket ban for that length of time, it’s hard to say but some changes would have taken place anyway, especially due to Hillsborough. That was what finally forced an overhaul of the stadiums, and the fan culture to some extent, by moving toward all-seating.
The country was different by the early 90s, attendances had risen every season since 1985-86 and there was a new audience after Italia ‘90. English football would have moved on as money was coming in, but at the very least the ban gave it a push in that direction and an incentive to change.